Lincoln Fine Wines sommelier Sarah Gordon on how to ask the right questions at a wine store
By Richard Foss (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Ordering wine to complement your meal is intimidating for some people, despite the fact that wine lists often include descriptions and are usually organized from lightest bodied to fullest.
Consider how much more challenging it is when you stroll into a grocery or liquor store looking for something to serve with a dinner you’re making at home. Nothing is organized in any way you’re likely to comprehend. And instead of a few choices, you are confronted with hundreds or even thousands. At a grocery store there may be nobody who has tasted anything in stock, and at a wine store the salespeople may ask questions for which you have no ready answer. What is someone who wants to select the perfect wine to do?
Sarah Gordon, the wine buyer at Lincoln Fine Wines, has thought about how to communicate with customers who don’t know the technical language of wine. She grew up in New York near a wine shop that held tastings and seminars, and the exploration of flavors there inspired her to learn more.
Gordon became a certified sommelier and worked in a combination wine shop and restaurant before moving to her present job. I conducted our interview in the cooled and humidity-controlled room at
the back of the shop where the most precious and fragile bottles are stored.
If I come in and tell you I’m having a barbecue and want you to suggest a wine, what do you ask me?
I start out asking what kind of wines you prefer to drink, and I break it down into Old World or New World, Californian or earthier wines from Europe and elsewhere. Then I break it down further based on what the food pairing is. You mentioned barbecue, so if you like California wines I might go with a Zinfandel — something peppery and juicy that will hold up with barbecued meat. If you like Old World, I’d suggest a Primitivo or Aglianico. It’s called mirroring, where you match the profile and flavor of the food and wine. There are other pairings that are more about the contrast. … When you have a savory dish with a lot of spice, then a Riesling with some acid and residual sugar will pair very nicely.
Do some people always prefer mirroring and some always prefer contrasting?
That’s hard to say. Even if someone does have a consistent preference, it’s worth considering that their guests might prefer the opposite. If you have enough people at the table that you’re planning on opening more than one bottle with a course, you might get a bottle of each and have glasses available for both. You and your guests will all get something you like, and you’ll learn more about your own tastes and theirs too.
Do you try to steer people toward unusual but successful pairings?
We do have customers who come in and show me a menu and say, “Let’s have fun with it.” We walk around the store together and discuss possibilities, because they’ve invited me to help them explore new things. I had someone come to me who was preparing paella and a Spanish dinner, but who usually likes California Chardonnays. I found a wine from Mallorca made from an indigenous grape, but creamy and buttery with French oak like the ones they already knew. So there is definitely a lot of room to play around and expand their horizons.
What questions should we be asking when we buy wine?
It’s always helpful when people come in and have already thought out the structure of a wine. If they come in and say that they don’t like tannic wines, or that they like things that are fruit-forward or earthy, they use the wine terms that everyone in our industry understands. Look up some wines you enjoy on review sites and see what terms are used to describe them — the things they have in common will tell you about your own palate. There are all sorts of resources now so you can learn about what you like and how to communicate about it. WineFolly.com is a great place to start, but there are others. They talk about styles and pairings.
Why do you stock Uruguayan and Moroccan wines? Are there that many Uruguayans who want the taste of home, or are there unique characteristics that make those wines worth seeking out?
There’s an interest in exploring regions throughout the world, as people read about just how many places make good wine. There are some techniques that are unique, like the amphora-aged wines from the Republic of Georgia that are made the way they were in the Roman Empire. It’s interesting to wine lovers who want to experience that historic character. It’s a trend, as people want to find something to share with their friends that they haven’t had already.
So they’re novelties?
Some people do buy them primarily because they’re unusual, but others appreciate their heritage or want to experience emerging styles. That wine from Mallorca that I mentioned earlier — they make wine in a modern style using an ancient local grape. There are a lot of wines that are excellent and also great values because they come from regions that aren’t yet well known.
Once we get that perfect bottle home, do we need a whole cabinet of glassware to show it to its best advantage?
You need a standard Bordeaux glass, a Burgundy glass and a white wine glass. I don’t think Champagne flutes are necessary, and I like to drink that out of regular white wine glasses.
What mistakes do people usually make?
Glassware does make a huge difference, but there are other things that are important. Most people drink reds too warm, whites too cold and everything too fast. They don’t give it time to evolve in the glass. It can be delightful to savor it and see how it changes over the course of an hour or so.
Does the average consumer need to spend a bundle to get a great wine?
I would guess that most wine drinkers can find something to satisfy them while spending $15 to $40. There are quality wines with a level of complexity all across that price range. If you’re familiar with a producer and buying a single vineyard bottling, or if you are looking for a particular character in a wine, there are bottles that are more that will be a value to you, but most people don’t have to spend over $40 to get a bottle they will really enjoy.