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Get to Know your Local Wine Retailer to Ensure the Best Buying Experience

Local retailers who have built relationships with consumers for more than 40 years want to get to know your tastes in wine.

News earlier this week that Rudy Kurniawan, a wine broker who had sold up to $1.3 million in bogus wine at prestigious wine auctions, was arrested by the FBI got me thinking about how local wine consumers can be assured that the wine they are buying is legitimate.

The simplest and most effective advice is to get to know your local boutique wine shop staff or wine steward at supermarkets. There are many specialty stores and supermarkets with extensive wine selections on the Eastside.

, and in Bellevue, on Mercer Island, and in Redmond, in Kirkland, in Woodinville and The Wine Alley in Renton are just a few of the boutique wine shops around the Eastside.

Supermarkets such as Whole Foods, Metropolitan Markets, QFC, Albertsons, PCC, Safeway, Costco, Trader Joe’s and My Local Market all have large wine selections and experienced staff to guide you through the wine shopping process.

Many wine stewards at supermarkets turn over more regularly than staff at boutique wine shops, which are generally staffed by their owners. That continuity makes it more likely that boutique shop owners will build long-term relationships with consumers.

Many wine retailers have been in the wine business for years, even decades. They have tried all or most of the wines that line their stores’ shelves. Further, they in turn have built relationships with distributors and importers who can guarantee the provenance of the wines they are hawking.

George Kingen, who owns Pete’s Wine Shop in Bellevue and Seattle, has been selling wine for 43 years. He bought his first store in 1969, the Lakeshore Minimart in Madison Park. A Tully’s Coffee now sits in that space. He has owned 23 stores altogether in his 43 years in the grocery business, 15 at one time. In other words, Kingen knows wine, and he knows customer service.

“I’ve had buyers come in for 30 or 40 years,” said Kingen, referring to loyal wine collectors. “They come back to us because we smile and talk to them. A lot of it is also wide selection and pricing. Plus being honest and not gouging people.”

Kingen begins with a candid conversation about budget. Don’t be shy about telling your friendly wine salesperson your budget. Most wine retailers are nonjudgmental about wine budgets. They will recommend the best wine for your money.

“When someone comes in you don’t sell them the most expensive wine or the cheapest wine,” Kingen explains. “I’ll ask them what their budget is, and I fit in that range. Just because it’s high priced it doesn’t mean it’s the best wine. Higher pricing doesn’t always mean it’s better. What’s important is that it’s a fair price for what it is.”

Like Kingen, Arnie Millan of Esquin Wine Merchants in Bellevue approaches the wine consumer relationship like a marathon, not a sprint.

“Our philosophy is not to make the fast buck but the long nickel,” Millan said. “It’s all about relationship building. That happens over time. You make recommendations and over time you build that trust.”

With time and trust, retailers like Kingen and Millan have learned to anticipate their customers' needs.

“Over the years, working with customers you get to know their tastes,” Kingen said. “I ask them what they like, what they want and make recommendations accordingly. Often, they’ll come back and tell you they love it.”

As retailers get to know consumers’ tastes they will often save specific wines for specific buyers. Some of the tightly allocated wines never hit their stores’ shelves. Instead, experienced retailers like Kingen and Millan will call their customers when collectible wines are released.

“Some I’ll call monthly, some weekly, some almost daily,” Kingen said. “You get to know their buying habits.”

Retailers also recommend trying wines when they are available at local retail stores and at tasting rooms. Many local retailers host wine tastings, complimentary or at a minimal cost. Esquin hosts wine tastings on Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons. Pete’s Wines in Bellevue hosts wine tastings on Saturday afternoons.

McCarthy & Schiering in Ravenna and Queen Anne, Wine World in Wallingford plus many of the aforementioned boutique retailers on the Eastside host weekly wine tastings. Check their websites or call the store for details.

“I would suggest go wine tasting. Go to Woodinville,” Kingen said. “Taste wine every weekend. That’s how you learn about wine, try them. Go to my store in Bellevue. You don’t have to make any comments and sound smart. Stand back. Listen to people talk about it. Then eventually you’ll understand wine.”  

Read what’s written about reds and whites

There’s plenty of wine buying information available on the Internet and in print. Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate, Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, CellarTracker, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, Decanter, Quarterly Review of Wines and Food & Wine Magazine are a few of the wine publications with reliable information.

Newspapers are a decreasing source of wine information. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and San Francisco Chronicle are some of the few newspapers left with consistent wine coverage and reviews.

When reading through the voluminous information online, find a voice that speaks to you but beware that many recommendations are advertisements disguised as independent reviews. Other wine recommendations are written by enthusiastic consumers that only write boosting comments, lacking the objectivity to be critical.

My recommendations are independent, often based on wines I enjoy dining out or at home. Some of my recommendations and tasting notes are based on wines I tried at tasting rooms and wine shops around the region and wine tastings for the wine trade.

Just last Monday, I tried more than 150 wines over seven hours at the Walla Walla Wine Alliance’s trade and consumer wine tastings at SoDo Park in Seattle. Some wines I tried for the first time. Others I had tried before. Trying the same wine multiple times helps confirm consistency in production or how wines have evolved over time. It’s all in a day’s work in the wine world. I try hundreds of wines during the week so you don’t have to.

Which leads me to this week’s…

Wine Pick of the Week: 2009 Buty Merlot-Cabernet Franc, Columbia Valley

This blend of about two-thirds Merlot and a third Cabernet Franc expresses the potential of Washington state Right Bank Bordeaux-style blends.

The winemaking team of Mercer Island native Nina Buty and her husband, Caleb Buty, strike balance in this seamless wine. Broad, plush and mouth-filling tannins are the foundation for this youthful and forward wine. With floral notes and spice on the nose, this wine is seductive at first whiff. Blackberry and cassis on the palate dance in unison with notes of spice, sweet pipe tobacco and cigar box courtesy of the Cabernet Franc. Stony minerality lingers on the finish.

A red wine with firm structure such as the 09 Buty Merlot-Cabernet Franc begs for a hunk of steak such as the steak au poivre ($32) at Le Grand Bistro Americain in Kirkland. The firm tannins hold up to the hearty steak. The peppercorn sauce in the steak blends seamlessly with the spice and tobacco qualities of the wine.

Look for the new 2010 vintage at local retailers or order directly from the winery online for $45.

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