In which I share my secret wine selection method

November 23 |
I could not find this wine on the shelf, but it was the hands-down winner in the shop tonight.

It's really quite simple:

  1. Set a budget for your wine buy
  2. Choose your favorite wine label
  3. Buy wine with said label

Clearly, I am not a wine person. I am a beer person, though — I love good beers and I certainly don't want my wine to taste blech. For this reason, I'd recommend you stick to a budget no lower than $12/bottle.

Come, let me show you exactly how I choose wines.

Want more than a label critique? Here's one review of Boom Boom!.
Want more than a label critique? Here's one review of Boom Boom!.

Boom Boom! Sryah

This is one of my friends' favorite wines — and it can be hard to come by. The $20ish 2007 vintage is sold out online — and often in our wine shops — but I've had it before and it is tasty.

Let me assure you I have not been biased toward this wine because of my previous experience with it. My wine tasting notes go about as deep as "tastes like bathtub wine"/"doesn't taste like bathtub wine," so all I remember about Boom Boom! is that I enjoyed it.

The label itself is easy to spot — high contrast and simple, with just a few pieces of information. I appreciate its direct opposition to most wine labels with their rolling landscapes at dusk or dawn, or objectified grapes, or silhouetted line drawings. The hand-drawn look is playful but clean and works really well with the name of the wine.

DMZ

DMZ chardonnay

This has a nice, scroll-y, very contemporary blue-and-beige label. The clean lines of the center badge mix well with the more ornate linework filling out the rest of the label. This style of design is so very popular right now, but it's much less common on the wine racks than on event posters and design blogs, so I'm cool with it. Plus, it's very nicely done — it's hard to hate on something for being too zeitgeisty when it nails the style of the moment so well.

The light blue pops off the shelf, and I particularly love the matching blue wrapping on the neck of the bottle.

I think this is a wine I'd choose to bring to dinner at a designer friend's house.

tarot

This is the wine I chose tonight: Tarot Grenache

It was the right price — right at $12 — and I'm kind of a sucker for anything with skulls on it. I didn't even know that grenache was a type of wine until I Googled it, so that's how clueless I am about this pick.

Again, I've found myself drawn to a label with a hand-drawn look. The colors on Tarot are also attractive: the four-color palette combined with the drawn quality gives the wine an aura of mystery. This looks like an illumination straight from the 16th century, and I like that. I can't not dig the mysterious symbols, too. I like a wine I can sip while pretending it might have magickal powers over me.

Runners-up in the design selection tonight included:

how i choose wine

I haven't popped the cork on my bottle of Tarot yet — okay, so this one is a twist top — but I'm sure my wine selection technique will serve me well once again. Every wine tastes better when I have something pretty to look at.

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  1. Once a friend and I threw ourselves a spooky-themed wine tasting. We had something called Black Cat Cabernet, a merlot from the vineyard Castillero de Diablo (Cellar of the Devil….oooOooooOOOOhhhh), and a couple more. Funny, but after drinking four bottles of wine with only one other person helping I can't remember what they are. Or what any of them tasted like. Except for the Diablo, which is a vineyard whose wines I like (and it all started because of the name.)

    1 agrees
  2. Once you get past the budgeting step, this is exactly the opposite of how I've always chosen wines. For some reason I have it in my head that the most boring labels (the ones not focusing on a gimmick or beautiful pastoral scenes) are likely housing the best wines. If the vinter isn't having to market hard, then the wine probably speaks for itself. Just my own $0.02. But hey, hard to go wrong at $12!

    4 agree
    • I've heard that animal labels are the worst, and the bigger and more elaborate the tail of the animal, the worse the wine. Pretty true in my experience.

      • Also, the more cutesy the wine label name, the worse the wine is. I've had $20 bottles of wine with cute names, but taste like bathtub wine. I've had $3 bottles of wine with pretty simple brand names, and thought they tasted lovely.

        1 agrees
  3. As the wife of a winemaker I'd say as well as admiring the label always check on it if the wine is bottled on the property by the winemaker himself, this way you can avoid wine that has been everywhere and mixed with anything before being bottled ! ^^

    3 agree
  4. I only buy wines with animals on the labels…because I like animals. Oh, it also must be less than $15 a bottle.

  5. That's how I do it too ^^
    It went horribly wrong in Rome once. But that one was really really cheap, so we only have ourselves to blame.

  6. I LOOOVE Charles Smith wines (the Boom Boom wine). He is my favourite "everyday wine" winemaker. He was actually at a wine festival up here (Edmonton) signing bottles. I bought a bottle of his limited vintage The Creator ($75), and he signed it "Fuck Yeah!" I'm looking forward to popping it open several years from now.

    My other favourites from him are Kung-Fu Girl (a Riesling) and Chateau Smith (Cab Sav). His wife, who's Italian, also started producing prosecco. I've tried both the rose and white, and they're fantastic.

    As far as buying wines via the label, I avoid anything with scenery, paintings, animals, or anything that tries too hard to be cool. Every time I have a wine with those on the front, it's almost guaranteed to be gross.

    I find wine labels you can trust are old-world style (wines from Tenuta, Italy are excellent examples), simple clean text (like Gray Monk, Ex Nihilo, Qunita do Castro, etc), or creative/cool looking (Charles Smith, The Show, Cupcake) tend to be great.

    I also am very picky about where my wine comes from. I prefer wines from the Okanagan (Canada), Washington, Portugal, Italy, Spain and France. Sometimes Argentina.

    I avoid wines from Napa Valley and Ontario. They're too sweet and/or not bold enough in their notes.

    • Lauren, I assure you that you are missing out on some fabulous Ontario wines due to archaic cross-province shipping regulations. There are some stellar Ontaio wines that are reasonably priced and awesome that you just can't get anywhere in the prairies. I just moved back after 10 years in Onario and am missing Southbrook, Good Earth, Rief and Melgomaniac wineries something fierce.

    • Kung Fu Girl is one of my absolute faves! Totally bought it because of the label. Ended up loving it. 😀

  7. I've selected a bottle of tequila this way! Had never bought any before, didn't really know which brand was The Good Stuff, so I grabbed the one with the cool cork and the awesome Dia de Los Muertos skeletons on the label. It was delicious.

    • I had the one with the sugar skull too! Tasty! Was it called "Dearly Beloved"? Oh man, best wine I ever had was two weeks ago near Paso Robles, Ca at Sort This Out Cellars. I thought the marketing was too custie to be taken seriously but I was floored! I nearly wept over their Vino Nostra.

  8. I work in the wine industry & even i often pick my wines based on the label! I figure if the winemakers can go to that much effort to have a really pretty/cool/artistic label, hopefully they've put equal effort into the wine. I've had a pretty good success rate choosing this way.

  9. I think the best thing a novice wine drinker can do is discover what varietals (pinot noir vs merlot vs malbec vs cabernet sauvignon, etc…) she likes best. Take advantage of free samples whenever you can! A wine/liquor specialty store or a generous restaurant will often let you try anything available by the glass.

    Certainly, there can be big differences between winemakers, but having the most basic understanding of your preferences can save you a disappointment at home!

    3 agree
  10. My best friend only buys wines whose names he likes. I'm a big "back of the bottle" wine drinker. Wine is usually my preferred drink, so I know what region(s) I typically like (currently anything from South America) which is another good way to narrow down your choices. When I've found a region and color I'm into, I start turning bottles over. Anything that's described as "juicy" or "sticky" usually goes in my basket. Bottles without descriptions are always put back. Sophisticated!

    • I'm with you there. The biggest thing I learned in a wine class I took (College–got credit for drinking wine before noon. Ohhh the days.) was to look at the back of the bottle. Specifically at the residual sugar. If you're trying a grape or a label you're not familiar with, it's nice to know that if you like super-sweet wines, look for RS 2% or higher, semi-sweet around 1.5% and dry below .5%. I rarely buy a bottle that doesn't list the residual sugar unless I've tried it before.

      1 agrees
  11. My dad taught me to choose wine in a similar way just with an extra couple of steps in the middle.
    1.Set a budget for your wine buy
    2.Walk up and down the aisle see what there isn't much of – people are drinking that stuff
    3.Check that it isn't dusty – people are not drinking that stuff
    4.Choose your favourite wine label
    5.Buy wine with said label
    🙂

    1 agrees
    • Just to let you know, I work in a wine & beer shop, and sometimes when the bottles come out of the boxes shipped by the supplier, they're dusty! We always clean them off before shelving (because we're classy like that) but just because a bottle is dusty doesn't mean that it's been sitting in the store for a year — more likely aging in the bottling facility.

      • And alternatively when I briefly worked in a wine shop we would dust everything once a day (twice a day at first, the place had just been re-fitted and there was a lot of dust about). So nothing was dusty, no matter how long it had been on the shelf. Or at least everything was equally dusty.

        • Meh when you live in a small town and while it was in a wine growing region, the wine was is in the same store as the haberddashery and office supplies it works a treat. I should have clarified.

  12. I do the same thing — I often throw in the step of what grape varietals I want to try, or which region the wine is from to narrow the search — but then before buying, I use my smartphone to check how to wine is rated. A few good sites with reliable wine reviews:

    http://cheapwineratings.com/
    http://www.wineography.com
    http://www.thegoodwineguru.com/

    Trying new wine all the time is great, which is why the pretty-label method is actually a good one. Eventually, if you try enough new wine and pay attention to what you like, you can start making more informed wine decisions, e.g. "wow, the last few Argentian reds I've tried have been really great," or "I don't like California Zinfandel."

  13. my honey and I have a very similar practice, find names or brands that appeal in our price range. Our current faves are a pair of red blends called House Jam (super simple labeling, and ten bucks) and Sangue de Jude (Blood of Judas) (Awesome Pink Whorehouse label, and 20 bucks). The Judas blood is effing fantastic.

  14. I never thought much about it but there's definately an element of this in my wine choice.

    I tend to go for wines from Italy, Australia, South Africa and occasionally California because I've found I like many of them and then pick something with an interesting name and/or label that's not too expensive.

    I definately recommend taking the price into consideration as well though. There's a lot of really cheap, really nasty wine with cool lables. Guns N' Roses favourite Night Train comes to mind (if only because the song played while I was reading this). The dramatic train illustation looks impressive but, let's just say this is not a table wine. (Or alternatively a bunch of alcoholics wrote a song about it. Pretty much says it all really.)

  15. Hey that's my method too!
    I also award bonus points if I don't recognize the type of wine. A Pinot Rosio Syrah? Bring it on!

  16. 99 vines Pinot noir went over well here, and I love layer cake primitivo. Those have been my favorites of label shopping.

  17. When I did drink I always felt guilty for buying based on pretty labels. I live in Sonoma County, wine is what we DO, I should know better.

  18. When I first started buying wines I had no idea what all of the fancy terminology meant, so I really did buy based on the labels. Now I know I prefer red over white, and with medium sweetness, yada, yada. After awhile you get to figure out your favorites and move on from there.

    oh, and chocolate red wine is AMAZING! (although I wouldn't find it suiting to have with steak lol)

  19. I'm a sucker for labels too, but I've recently changed my method.

    1) Go to the wine type you like (Pinot Noir, Red Zin…)
    2) Look at the sale prices
    3) Buy the bottle on the deepest discount that isn't a screw-top.

    I recently got a $36 bottle of wine for $18 and it was quite yummy. I doubt I will ever pay full price for it (and $18 is way more than I would normally pay but it was half off and I couldn't resist), but it means I get to try fancy wines without breaking the bank!

  20. Want to know the funny thing? I often choose my wine this way, and so does a good friend of mine. What makes it funny? She's a sommelier.

    In addition, my partner and the sommelier's boyfriend are both chefs pursuing their cicerone certification (basicallly, a beer sommelier). We're all good with letting label influence our choices, for wine AND beer, for several reasons:

    1) The budget will guide you anyways
    2) You'll gravitate towards varietals and tasting notes that you like anyways
    3) If you want to try lots of new things, and don't necessarily want to check with Robert Parker every time you walk into a wine store, labels are as good a way as any to choose what to bring home

    Some labels I've loved lately (for the wine as well):
    – Cupcake
    – Moon Curser
    – Snapdragon
    – Blasted Church
    – Laughing Stock
    – Layer Cake (get your hands on the primitivo if you can)

  21. So, way late here, but you all need to check out Wines til Sold Out (wtso.com, I think). Insane discounts on wine. 😀

  22. Mmm same way I choose mine. Best finds so far —
    *Apothic (pref Red or Dark)
    *Menage Trois (a red blend)
    *Anything "Elephant Island" (mostly fruit wines. My fave is their "Stellaport")

  23. Sometimes when I'm feeling like trying a new wine I'll play the "color & shape" game. I pick a price range, whether I want red or white, then without looking at the selection I'll pick a color and a shape. Like I'll pick a red triangle, or a black circle, or a blue square. Then I'll try and find a wine with that shape and color on their label. Sometimes it's a bit of a stretch, sometimes I can't find anything, but sometimes I'll discover a new wine I love and never would have tried before.

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