How-To & Diy

Anatomy of a Wine Shop

June 13, 2013

We may have food down cold, but wine? This is where we'll conquer it. Join us; we don't want to drink alone. 

Today: To find the best bottles, get to know your wine store inside and out.

Shop the Story

There’s a wine store in Boston called Federal Wine & Spirits, smack in the middle of historic downtown. You open the door at street level, and your first sensation is that it’s crowded: the racks are crowded with all sorts of alcohol lined practically up to the ceiling, and the store is crowded -- only a few people can stand in the store at any one time. It’s that small.

There’s a second, subterranean level to Federal Wine & Spirits, filled with another world of beautiful bottles that many people miss, as they're too preoccupied with the grab-and-go convenience of the street level retail space. To get there you need to navigate your way down a very steep, very old, very narrow, and very worn set of stone steps; the downstairs level is definitely not handicap accessible, it’s potentially a fire hazard, and even when you’ve arrived you’re still disoriented. Wine cases and boxes are stacked chest-high. There aren’t aisles, exactly, just pathways, and for some you need to turn your shoulders 90 degrees in order to pass through.

Yet this is a wine store whose navigation is more than worth the exertion. It's a shop you really need to get to know to get the most of -- and yours could be, too. To help you find the best bottles, here are some guidelines to how many of them are arranged.

More: Have the store down but tripped up by the bottle? Cathy shares tips on how drink well, affordably. 

Grape by Grape
Riesling here, Cabernet Sauvignon over there. The sort-by-varietal structure is helpful when you know what you’re looking for, and especially when you know the kind of wine you like but may want to try a new label.

A wine store I visited in Naples, Italy organized their wines according to how near they were to the city. If a vineyard was, say, 5 kilometers outside of town, those wines were right near the front door. The further you moved into the store, the further away the wines originated. Which meant American and New Zealand wines were relegated to the farthest reaches, way off in the corner. Most stores in the States, however, who sort by geography simply place all wines from France in one area, all wines from the US in another, and so on. Often they are further sorted by region, so once you know where your wine is from, tracking down a bottle is easy. Burgundy? California? There's a spot for that.

Type of Wine
Some stores arrange their wines according to type or style. It’s like reading a book, except you’re looking at a line of wine, from left to right. On the left are lighter-bodied white wines such as Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. Next, further to the right, are fuller-bodied and fruitier whites, such as Chardonnay and Riesling. Gradually you move into lighter red wines such as Pinot Noir. And eventually, furthest to the right, you come to the heavier, fuller-bodied reds like Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Home cooks may relate most naturally to the third style of organization: if it’s a light meal, gravitate toward the left, to the lighter range of wines. If it’s a richer meal, head for the fuller-bodied wines. Soon you'll come to know your store like the back of your hand, but remember: no organization of wines can replace a conversation with a knowledgeable, friendly staff person.

Top photo by David L. Reamer, bottom by James Ransom 

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • dymnyno
  • ChefJune
  • Cathy Huyghe
    Cathy Huyghe
  • Kenzi Wilbur
    Kenzi Wilbur
Cathy Huyghe

Written by: Cathy Huyghe

Best advice I've ever heard regarding wine? "Just drink the stuff."


dymnyno June 13, 2013
I love Federal Wine and Spirits! The lower level is unbelievable. The staff is knowledgeable and helpful(and they love my wine). For anyone who wants to buy wine regularly it's important to find someone who can get to know your palate and recommend wines that you will enjoy. It's important that the wine shop have a substantial inventory. I love it when I hear the words "I have a wine I just got that I think you will like."
ChefJune June 13, 2013
Getting to know the store is a good idea. Getting to know the wine merchant is even better. The more often you consult the same sales person -- IF they are knowledgeable -- the more they will be able to help you figure out what you like and/or want to try next.
Cathy H. June 13, 2013
I agree completely, June! A knowledgable, friendly staff person in a shop you visit regularly is the holy grail of wine guides...
Kenzi W. June 13, 2013