Sommelier, store clerk or shelf-talker: who makes the best wine picks?


The hipsters at NY mag asked for help. Their reporter, Emma Rosenblum, went to eight different wine shops and asked the clerks for their wine pick under $25 for a steak dinner. (Steak? Come on, in this day and age of extracted fruit bombs, that’s no impossible food-wine pairing!) Then she poured the eight wines for three of NYC’s top sommeliers who gave them raspberries–and were not just talking “hints” of raspberry, these were full-on, nasty and slobbery. It’s a fascinating story that raises lots of issues. Among them:

1. Lame clerks. The clerks in the story were lame. That can happen, particularly this time of year as stores add temporary help. If you’re not convinced you’re getting great service, talk to another clerk, possibly the wine buyer for that department since you’re sure that he or she will be there to throttle come January, if necessary.

2. Shelf-talkers. Could the reporter have gotten better wines by keeping mum and letting those flaps of paper do the talking? I have an ongoing discussion with a cranky friend who says that store clerks are more reliable than wine magazines because: (a) magazines have compromised their ethics and (b) wine stores have their skin in the game because they want you to come back. Judging by this line-up though, not many stores in NYC are likely to have repeat business!

3. Sommeliers. It was an interesting idea to have restaurant wine sales people (sommeliers) judging the picks of store wine sales people. Is the sommelier more likely to steer you right be cause he or she is around to fear your immediate wrath or bask in your lavish praise after you drink the wine? (Btw, I hope NY mag does an encore edition, pouring sommelier selections back for wine buyers at stores. And with seasonal food this time!)

4. Friends. NY mag didn’t talk about them. But let’s add them to our poll for laffs.

So have your say in the latest poll!
poll now closed

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25 Responses to “Sommelier, store clerk or shelf-talker: who makes the best wine picks?”

  1. I spent over twenty five years on the retail floor picking out wine for my customers. I would guess that restaurant folks would have often pooh-poohed my suggestions. I believe that retailers and restaurant folks have completely different approaches to matching wines to food. I have often noticed that the dude walking around with the ashtray around their neck suggests wine which complements the dishes, but also makes the food stand out. Retailers often take the opposite approach, they want the wine to stand out. Retailers have a great disadvantage in not knowing how a dish is going to be prepared and that makes matching wine to that dish problematic. Are you matching a wine to a steak broiled in an oven or grilled and heavily seasoned. Also remember that both the restaurant and the retail store want a repeat customer so each has a vested interest in making the customer remember what they are selling, the food or the wine.

  2. I worry about recommendations from store staff because of incentive programs within the store that pay the salesperson a bonus on each bottle sold of the target product. When a wine store salesperson takes me straight to a case stack of something, I know I’m being snowed.

  3. Don’t sommeliers have similar incentives to retail sales people? I guess the main difference is that sommeliers are there when you drink the wine! But I’ve had too many sommeliers try to push more expensive wines than I’m interested in so I’m a bit sour to leaving the choice up to them.

    I think what matters most is how much people know and how similar their palates are to yours (or how well they can determine what your knowledge/palate/needs are). You can have a salesman or sommelier who knows a ton but if they don’t understand what you want, then it’s pointless. And if you don’t know what you want, then you’re lost! In the end, I think friends with similar wine interests are the best bet – especially if they are going to drink it with you. If it stinks, you can rag on them!

  4. The concept of the article was okay, but it sure comes out pretty flat. An excellent wine store clerk is the way to go, followed by a sommelier. Note: There are few excellent wine store clerks.

    The Flaps of Paper seem to have no corellation with my own palate, and it would only be random if it would be in-sync another person(s) whom I’m sharing the bottle with. Shelf-talkers = Boo.

  5. I tend to rely on friends that have similar tastes or the wine person at my local store (he knows what I like). Too many times I have taken reccomendations from random store clerks or Sommeliers and was dissappointed.

  6. Who says what is best? Isn’t it too individual a choice?

  7. Shelf-talkers are crap. I hardly ever taste the same things that I’m supposed to according to those. Recommendations by friends who a)know their wines and b)have a similar affection for certain styles/regions/wineries are much more valuable than the other choices.

    We left out discussion about the local wine shop and the workers who come to know you by name (and therefore can’t have the cushion of lying to you or of guessing). In time you’ll know which ones know what they’re talking about and which ones are just punching the clock in between grad school classes.

  8. A really great concept for an article — wish I’d thought of it. But most of the comments on this blog so far have been right: Wines show differently at home and in restaurants; it’s an individual choice; etc.

    What’s most interesting about the article, I think, is that the clerks, sommeliers and the NYmag staff all had different reactions to the wines. The last wine, the Madigan 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, is especially noteworthy since (1) the clerk says something completely wrong, (2) the somms think the wine tastes like nail polish, which means it’s probably contaminated with VA (volatile acidity), and (3) the NYmag staff says it’s “grape-juicy”. Last I checked, grape juice and nail polish don’t taste like the same thing.

    Does that mean I trust somms more than clerks? Not really. Too tough to generalize, especially considering what wines taste like home and out, and with or without food. But I don’t trust either the somms or the clerks when they say something like, “It’s good, but I haven’t tried that one.” Happens all the time. The ones I really trust, though, are the somms and clerks who give you alternative picks that are cheaper than what you pointed out originally. I take that as a sign that they were listening to what I was saying about the kinds of wines I like or what sort of food we’re having.

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  10. Great comments here.

    To Gretchen, what about YOUR opinion?

    Eric – yes, weren’t the WILDLY divergent interpretations of the wines fascinating? Quality is in the eye of the glassholder…

    I’m glad friends are coming out on top so far in the poll. I do like the synthesis that has emerged — make a friend of a clerk (or a sommelier) and reap the rewards in your wine glass! That’s a major drawback of internet vendors.

  11. Generally, I, and most anyone, will trust someone with benefit of the most knowledge. I voted for the somms, not in scraping deference to their assumed knowledge…well, ok, a little ;-)…but rather for the simple reason that I assume, when getting a rec. from a sommelier, that we have a specific, or fairly narrow, food pairing, with which he’s familiar. So, I’m more willing to give an unknown som the benefit of more trust than I would an unknown clerk.

    I happily take recommendations from friends, too.

  12. I think this just goes to show the importance of building a relationship with a store clerk. There are lousy sommeliers, lousy sales clerks, and even lousy “wine experts.” I think it’s all about finding a wine merchant who knows your tastes and can be trusted to pick out a great wine according to that taste. I would not praise/blast any of the clerks in the article for one good/bad choice.

  13. I make wine, so I should know a little more than the average about wine, wineries,etc., at least when it comes to my wine region. I also read a lot of pubblications about wine, so I’m probably quite aware of what’d going on. But my approach when I go to a restaurant or a wine shop where I know there are good wine people is always to ask for a reccomandation, something new that I have never tasted before or something that they have tasted and got excited with it. In my opinion that’s one of the best ways to discover new exciting wines, not asking them to try to interpretate what I would want but asking them to give me what they have liked. There are a few disappointments from time to time, but they hugely compensated by some fantastic discovery.
    Of course this approach can only work when you know that the people you are asking to are trustworthy and knowledgeable about their job, but hey, aren’t they the only places where one should go anyway?

  14. A true wine story:

    A friend of mine works in Famous Wine Shop in Big City (names have been changed to protect the guilty) along with an older gentleman who has a huge loyal following. People will wait quite a while for him if he’s out to lunch, on a break or busy with other customers and will accept none of the other clerks’ suggestions. The amazing thing is that this venerable sage doesn’t drink wine.

  15. “The amazing thing is that this venerable sage doesn’t drink wine.”

    I don’t find this very surprising. I believe the average wine drinker will trust an ‘expert’ or a magazine rating before they will ever trust their own palate.

  16. I happen to own (and work the retail floor at)one of those stores that appeared in the article and I can tell you that no one from NY Magazine ever came in here. They called 4 times over the course of the day and asked us if we had any of the wines that were on a list that they had compiled. When we had a match, they said “great. thanks.” So no one from my store ever had this supposed interaction with the NY Mag people.

    They had an agenda and went about fulfilling it in their own way (like Bush & Iraq).

    Furthermore, my sales people are paid a salary. They are not compensated by how much nor which wines they sell.

  17. I have to admit that I tend to use the flaps of paper or the opinions of friends to find wines that I might like. But generally no one ever waits on me in wine shops… I tend to be invisible that way…

  18. Hey Steve F,

    That’s an amazing rebuttal which makes a lot of sense after re-reading the article. The two groups that appear clueless in the article are the clerks and the journalists. I seriously rely on the knowledge of wine store staff and was baffled by the bad and lame picks.

    Which store are you? I can see if you don’t want the press against you and perhaps all the stores should speak up but it would be interesting to know.

    The full bodied German comment by the Crossroads person must have been misquoted or made up.

  19. Very interesting, indeed, SteveF. Have you alerted NY mag editors? Just what “agenda” do you suspect they had?

  20. Steve, Jack and bb are all correct – matching your palate to the wine is the most important thing. I have found tools like that people with a similar palate to mine to be pretty useful ways to select a wine.

  21. The store I own is September Wines on the Lower East Side. I have not yet taken up the issue with NY Mag editor’s but I intend to. The agenda I suspect they had was to extol the talents of sommeliers and bash those of the retail clerks. While most of the old school liquor stores in NYC offer either no service of misinformed information, there are scores of small new boutique shops like ours where we taste every wine before it comes into the store – and therefore we know the wines.

  22. I have been in the wine business on the restaurant side and the retail side. The article was unbelievably biased and disheartening. I also shop at many of the stores and have never come across any staff as “ignorant” as described in the article. I also have come into contact either at tastings or restaurants with the sommeliers. I also wonder what the agenda of the Ny mag was. I would hope that they wanted to educate, but it seems very mean spirited. Someone write this article for real and then let’s have a dialogue.

  23. What do Bush & Iraq have to do with wine shops & NY magazine?

  24. I say go with your GLUT!
    Great article! Unfortunately, sommeliers are very scant here in Colorado Springs, CO. But having lived in the wine country, visited Italy, and frequented New York over the last year, it seems to me there is no general rule of thumb, except to go with your glut I mean gut. I am always grateful for the shelf-talker’s because they stretch my imagination and remind me of tastes I should look for. Sommeliers usually intimidate me, which tends to make me distrust them. Wine shop staff are very hit and miss. Friends are more miss than hit for me. Having said all that, I have found that when I find someone or something that tends to give me good recommendations, I go back. For me what works are Dr. Vino’s words, a good friend in New York, a German friend in Dallas, a salesman in Boulder, and some occasional reading in the major wine rags, but nothing beats spending some money and time in just letting my own budget and mouth have the final say.

  25. Your survey is flawed… who wants to check “Flaps of paper with comments from critics” when it is described as such?


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