It's Friday after work, Saturday after gym, any day after too many things turned pear-shaped. You're at the wine store scanning aisles of bottles for something to take to a friend's fancy celebration dinner/your sister's vegan barbecue/the edge off this week's apocalyptic headlines.
Do you reach for the same label every time? Grab the one with the coolest artwork? Wish you had a better way of doing this? Buying wine feels like it should be fun but – like shopping for bathers or a secondhand car – it can be fraught with indecision and fear of looking like an idiot.
Give yourself a head start, if you can, by making an effort to get to an actual wine shop. In a supermarket or a drive-through the kid on the till might surprise you by knowing more about French domaines than Fortnite but don't count on it. Specialist wine stores, whether they're big-box liquor barns, indie corner shops or something in between, are staffed by people who like talking about wine nearly as much as they like drinking it.
When one of them asks if you'd like help, resist the reflex to say "just browsing". You both know that's code for "go away so I can grab whatever random thing looks acceptable". Say "hey, yes thanks", and start asking questions. Here are five fast ones to help you walk out with a bottle that nails the brief.
1. What can you recommend around the $25 mark?
Or the $15, or $50, or $100 mark? Whether you're looking for a weeknight quaffer or a birthday blowout, you probably have a price limit. Unless you are rich or thick-skinned you probably also worry about looking cheap. Worry not. Even if the people serving you swill Grange every night (they don't), they know what it's like to want a decent drink on a fixed budget. Get this elephant out of the room right away by stating a price limit or range at the outset. It saves time and potential awkwardness, and it clears the way for your new bottle-shop buddies to stop treading on price-related eggshells and ask you some useful questions such as whether you'd prefer red or white; if the wine is for you or for a gift; or if you need something that's already chilled?
2. I like Chateau Eau So Popular, what do you have that's similar?
Was it your imagination or did you just witness a wine-store worker wincing? Ditch the paranoia because even if they did, it doesn't matter. These people are here to sell you something to drink. By naming a well-known mainstream wine, or your favourite variety or region, you've provided some genuinely helpful pointers to the kinds of wines you might be ready to try next.
3. Sorry, what's that?
So you said you like New Zealand sauvignon blanc and the assistant suggested gruner veltliner. Or your go-to is Barossa shiraz and they're talking touriga nacional. You and your yoga pals love prosecco and now you're being asked if you'd consider a pet-nat. A pet-what? Go ahead and ask. They'll gladly explain it's a lightly sparkling style, often cloudy with a funky edge that might remind you of cider, and a keen following among wine's new-wave natural crowd. Or that gruner veltliner ("grew-nah felt-leen-ah") is a white with the fragrance and juiciness you enjoy in savvy blanc. Or that touriga nacional ("too-ree-gah nah-syoo-nahl") is a variety from Portugal that makes powerful, concentrated reds. Seriously, these people love explaining stuff like this – make them happy.
Don't be scared to ask which wine is going to be friends with tonight's dinner. Photo: Katrina Meynink
4. What's going to work with tonight's mac 'n' cheese?
Or massaman curry? Or Married at First Sight and a tub of mint-choc-chip self-loathing? If you're after a wine you know will be drunk with a particular food – maybe a red for Sunday's roast lamb, a white to match your girlfriend's home-made sushi or something bubbly that can stand up to Mum's pavlova – say so. Don't expect the kind of focused, nuanced wine match you'd find on a paired tasting menu at a top restaurant. Do expect a recommendation that should at least help you dodge disaster and play to the wine's strengths – and that at best might become your new favourite food-and-wine couple.
5. What are you drinking?
This could take you anywhere but there's reasonable odds the answer will be interesting. A lot of people who work with wine flirt with labels they can't really afford, so a bit of outrageous name-dropping may be coming your way – but hang in there. Few bottle shop staff are lottery winners or secret heiresses and they love a bargain as much as you do. Patience and probing should yield a pretty solid starter list of good-value varieties and labels, including some at accessible prices – some inside info to help you ask more questions next time.