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How to Buy Wine: A Beginner’s Guide

By Stacey LastoeMay 27 2021
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“Wine can be intimidating,” says Jeremy Noye, President & CEO of Morrell & Company, an upscale wine retailer in Rockefeller Center. But it doesn’t have to be. Morrell has been operating for 47 years, and Noye, an industry veteran, has been with the shop for about eight years, so he’s well-versed in explaining how to choose wine. “The biggest thing is: Ask questions, talk to the people,” he says.

Morrell’s focus is on European wine, but the store always has a smattering of bottles from California. “We get an opportunity to taste all sorts of things,” Noye says. So although the shop only ever has one pinot grigio on hand, you can bet it’s going to be one of the best pinot grigios you’ve ever tasted, because Noye and his staff of 10 stand by the bottle without reservation.

City Winery, another Rockefeller Center tenant that knows a thing or two about wine, is also well-versed in helping visitors find that perfect vino. “Think about what you like about wine—do you like a little sweeter or fully dry? Lighter or heavier?” says Ganna Fedorova, City Winery’s national beverage director. “Do you prefer mouthwatering, crisp acidity or value velvety, soft & ripe tasting wines? A combination of answers to these questions will help a trained wine professional to select a perfect glass for you.”

Regardless of whether you want to spend less than $20 on a glass or are searching for a special-occasion bottle to bring to a celebration this summer, here are some tips for buying and ordering wine.

If You Only Know Wine as “White” or “Red,” Go Drinkable
It’s perfectly acceptable—encouraged even—to wander into a place such as Morrell, throw your arms up and admit you’re not really sure what you’re looking for. “If someone says they like red and that’s it, we lay out some recs that we feel are classic and noteworthy,” Noye says. In this situation, the staff probably won’t choose a bottle better left for aging, but rather a “recognizable, high-quality wine” and something that’s “readily drinkable,” meaning it’ll be delicious if opened the same day of purchase.

Fedorova offered some flavor notes and regions to look for if you’re new to wine shopping. “I found that most people who didn’t drink a lot of wine previously find ripe and fruity wines most approachable,” Fedorova says. “It usually takes some time to develop an appreciation for steely and tart wines from Chablis or for robust and tannic reds from Barolo. My go-to for wine newbies are New World red or white blends. Made from several different grapes, these wines show the complexity of different grape varieties but are also easy-drinking, delicious, and approachable.”

Unless You’re a Seasoned Sipper, Avoid Old Wines
Most wine store shoppers are, in fact, looking for something to drink now, maybe even later that day. Readily drinkable wines are just what they sound like: Ready to drink now. No need to wait several years for the vintage (the year in which the grapes were harvested) to age. “Most wines are not meant for aging and should be drunk within a year after they were bottled,” Fedorova says. “If you are just browsing in a wine shop, always go for the youngest white wines. It will ensure they are at their freshest, best expression.”

That being said, she also offered some tips for standout years in the last decade. “If you want to drink older wines now, 2012 and 2014 were incredible years for California cabernet sauvignon, and the wines are tasting incredibly fresh, complex, and refined now,” Fedorova says. “For Bordeaux, 2010, 2012, or 2015 are fantastic vintages, worth both storing away and drinking particularly well now. And if you would like to put some wines away for further aging, look for 2016 Napa cabernets, 2013 and 2016 Barolo, [and] 2015, 2016, [and] 2018 Bordeaux.”

Consider Two Big Factors: Money and Food
This summer, Noye’s got his eye on the Loire Valley in France. He’s also pretty excited about the Chardonnays coming out of somewhat unexpected regions: Santa Cruz, California; Oregon; and New Zealand. Increased demand for white Burgundy has resulted in a higher price point for French Chardonnay, but these three other regions offer Chardonnays that are similar in style and taste and are significantly cheaper. These whites, as opposed to some of the richer white Burgundies, are great when you’re looking for something that’s easy to drink and that won’t break the bank.

And if you’re headed to a summer dinner party or barbecue, it helps when buying wine to know what you’ll be eating. “If you know what food would be served you can try to bring a pairing wine,” Fedorova says. “Big bold reds for grilled steaks, tart and crisp Sancerre or Chablis for fresh seafood, and my favorite is dry fruity rose for BBQ pork ribs.”

And Take Notes for Next Time
When you order wine from a sommelier at a restaurant or bar like City Winery’s Outdoor Wine Garden at Rockefeller Center, pay attention to what you’re drinking.

“[D]on’t be afraid to ask for tastes of wine,” Fedorova says. “Continue tasting, trust your judgment, trust your palate. The more you know about yourself and the way you taste, the more enjoyment you’ll discover in the world of wine.”

If you like it, write it down—it may come in handy the next time you’re stumped in a wine shop.

Morrell & Company is located at 1 Rockefeller Plaza. City Winery’s Outdoor Wine Garden is located on the North Plaza.

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