Buying wine can be confusing for the average shopper. We dove into the top mistakes people are making and got the input of our Test Kitchen Manager & WSET certified sommelier, Breana Killeen, for her thoughts on how to avoid them.

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
November 12, 2019

To the average shopper, buying wine can be intimidating. There are so many bottles and styles from all over the globe. The array of options can make for fun pairings, but also can lead to mistakes you may not even know you are making as you shop. Lucky for us, we gained insight from our Test Kitchen Manager and WSET certified sommelier, Breana Killeen, for a few tell-tale signs on the label that can boost your wine IQ and help you get the most bang for your buck.

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Related: What You Should Know About Your Favorite Wine

Mistake #1: Falling for Flashy Labels

We cannot stress this enough: break up with flashy bottles. Though an enticing label does not mean the wine is inherently bad, it's not grounds for choosing a bottle. In fact, flashy labels can even be used as a means of marketing to catch shoppers attention and encourage their purchase. This is a big one, as pretty labels can help you make a quick decision when the wine aisle looks overwhelming. However, thinking about what is inside the bottle should always come before the artwork. Even if you have never tried a bottle, there are a few things to look for on the label that can help you make a more informed decision.

How to Avoid

1. Look for the Country and Region

The first thing to look for on a bottle of wine is what country it is from. This is one of the more basic, but consistent, differentiators between types of wine. Many wines from South America can have a spicy or earthy flavor, while many wines from California, particularly Chardonnays, are buttery and rich tasting. Knowing what country's wine you are drawn to is a great way to determine your wine preferences.

Killeen notes that, once you know what countries you typically prefer, trying different regions can be a good way to expand your palate and also get the best bang for your buck. For example, regions surrounding popular areas, such as Bordeaux, France, can have comparable wines for a fraction of the price. If you are a Bordeaux fan, check out wines from regions like Medoc and Fronsac to get a similar flavor profile for, likely, a better value.

2. Check the Grape Variety

Grape variety can also be interpreted as the type of wine you are buying. Many wines are named after the grape varietal that makes them, like Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. Different countries and regions specialize in different grape varieties—usually based on what grows well in their climate. For this tip, a little research goes a long way. Killeen mentions that while some differences are obvious, like a white wine versus a red wine, some are more subtle. "Pinot Noirs from Oregon tend to be more earthy, while their French counterparts tend to be softer and fruitier," says Killeen. Learning the basic differences to taste for (like sweetness, body, tannins [read: how dry it makes your mouth feel] and acidity) and trying different types of wine are great ways to determine which wines you like.

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Mistake #2: Always Going for the Same Price

Many people have their price range, and they don't deviate. Different occasions deserve different qualities of wine and price is a big predictor of that. "Picking a wine to enjoy by yourself while you a cooking a weeknight dinner different than, say, a wine you'll be serving company on the weekend," states Killeen. Depending on your budget, try to stay between $8 and $15 for weeknight bottles, but to splurge above $30 for special occasions. Though there are several exceptions, many wines between $15 and $30 may not have entirely notable differences. That being said, wine below $8 can be lower quality and be full of weird stuff, like added sulfites or preservatives to help the wine last longer. Additionally, there are several regions, such as South America, Australia and Austria, that are known for having good quality wines at lower prices. These are great candidates for the more frugal weeknight bottles. Save classic regions like France, Italy and Napa for the more splurge-worthy occasions.

How to Avoid

1. Pick Based on the Occasion

This is where food and wine pairings come in to play. Thinking about what you are having to eat (or if you are going to be eating) can help guide you to the right wine. For example, a wine that goes with a pot roast is different from a wine that goes with scallops. Though food pairings are good to consider, there is no need to be exhaustive about this. “Give people a red and a while option because most people drink what they like, whether or not it’s a good pairing with the food,” Killeen adds, “And that doesn’t bother me at all. I’d rather have people enjoy their wine than be forced into a fussy pairing.” 

The setting you are going to drink the wine in is also important to consider when buying a bottle. The average American spends around $14 a bottle on their wine. For a special occasion, it may make sense for you to splurge a little. On the other hand, it may not be cost effective to spend much more than that if you're serving 20 people at a dinner party. However, don't go too cheap when buying wine because the quality won’t be as good.

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Mistake #3: Not Asking for Help

Stop putting pressure on yourself to be the wine expert and start asking for help. This can be from family, friends or the people at the store. Employees at stores like Trader Joe's and Total Wine usually have been trained on the specifics of the wines they are carrying and can make good recommendations. They may suggest a bottle you may not have otherwise seen or have insights into the best value for your price range.

5 Wines to Try

Killeen suggests starting with these five wines for people looking to expand their wine palate.

  1. NV Broadbent Vinho Verde, Portugal $9

Light and refreshing Vinho Verde pairs perfectly with a charcuterie board or a porch on a hot summer day. Being a wine from Portugal, a county with a less extensive wine reputation, you will get the most bang for your buck.

  1. Kenwood Pinot Gris, $13

This wine is made from the same grape as Pinot Grigio, but is made differently to provide a richer, fuller taste than its Italian cousin. Try this with lighter meat dishes, like fish or poultry, or vegetarian mains.

  1. 2017 Planeta Rose, Sicily, Italy $15

Rose is crisp and dry from its short contact with the skin of the grape in production. Pair rose, like the 2017 Planeta, with a charcuterie board and cheese. This wine is a party starter!

  1. 2015 A to Z Pinot Noir, Oregon $22

Pinot Noir is a light-bodied, delicate red wine that is known for its finesse. Try this with mushrooms or goat cheese.

  1. 2016 Chateau Cantemerle Haut Medoc, Bordeaux, France $36

This wine is elegance in a glass. It has a full body and high tannins make it a great match for bold dishes like red meat or rich foods like lobster and creamy pasta.

Bottom Line

The more you learn about wine, the more specific you can be and you'll make better choices as a result. Reading books, wine store tastings and asking for help in the wine section are great places to start. The more you learn, the more demystified wine becomes. It doesn't have to take a lot of time or training, but talking about it and learning the basics will help you pick a better bottle. Focusing on differentiators like country, grape and occasion for drinking can help point you in the right direction. Pass on wines with very flashy labels if they don't meet what you are looking for, and don't be afraid to ask for help. Now that you are informed, have some friends over for a tasting (that counts as educational, right?). We'll cheers to that!

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