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Bottles to try before you buy, presented with fun & flair

Posted by Ellen Bhang  March 23, 2014 09:01 AM

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Walk into any wine shop on a weekend afternoon or evening, and chances are good that there will be several open bottles to taste. Naturally, they hope you'll purchase a bottle or two, but these pours are complementary. The order of business is a familiar one: You're provided a glass, a friendly pourer offers a measured splash, and tells you about the red, white, or sparkler you are sipping. But each shop crafts its tastings differently.

At many shops, wines rotate with the seasons. That means you won't see rose or a chilled vinho verde in January, or a hearty ripasso in the dog days of August. "We try to keep things stylistically consistent," says Jay Tally, assistant wine manager at Busa Wine & Spirits in Burlington. Seasonality applies to bottles poured by shop staff, as well as those dispensed in half-ounce samples from the self-serve station.

At smaller boutique shops, shop owners can tailor what they pour for regulars. "It's all about customers and their palates," says Michelle Penney, owner of Sea Glass Wine and Beer in Swampscott. Penney had a particular customer in mind when she included a special bottle of Bordeaux in a line-up of French reds. It was a hit with that customer and prompted lively conversation among a group Penney calls her "Saturday night crew."

And while some wine shops might use tastings to promote wines that are not selling well, Phil Minervino, co-owner of Lower Falls Wine Co. in Newton Lower Falls, says this is not the case at his shop. His long experience as a retailer informs what to buy and in what quantity. Because he and his colleagues know the inventory well, and taste every bottle they bring in, there is less likelihood that much will languish on shelves. "The point of opening wine is to entice the customer. We want to expose people to wines off the beaten path, and we get valuable feedback," says Minervino.

Many owners delight in choosing pours with a theme in mind. Daniel O'Connor, proprietor of Boston Bottle in the North End, recently conducted a tasting inspired by the Judgment of Paris, the 1976 tasting in which California wines won top honors over prestigious French bottles. O'Connor lined up French and Golden State reds in paper bags, invited customers to score and rank them, and later revealed bottle identities in a follow-up email. "I'm constantly trying to create a fun atmosphere with wines that tell a story," he says.

Thematic tastings are also a specialty of Wine ConneXtion, explains Tina Messina, business manager of the North Andover shop. At an annual tasting dubbed "Battle of the Big Cabs: Rise of the Underdogs," Messina and her staff put lesser-known bottles of cabernet sauvignon up against popular high-end brands. The advertisement is slickly produced, featuring a graphic of two fighters in a boxing ring.

"I tell people I'm in the entertainment business," says Messina, "but I sell wine."

Ellen Bhang

About By the Glass

Ellen Bhang writes about food and wine and reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe. Wine is the focus of her degree in the Gastronomy master's program at Boston University. She can be reached at


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