Bottom Line/Personal: When you need a bottle of wine, do you go to the local guy on the corner…or do you think that you’re going to get a better value if you go to one of those big chain retailers? What’s the difference, and how do you know the best place to buy a bottle of wine? Well, let’s find out.

I’m Sarah Hiner, president of Bottom Line Publications, and this is our Conversation With the Experts, where we get the answers to your tough questions from our leading experts.

Today I’m talking to Amy Dixon. Amy is the former buyer and fine wine expert at Stew Leonard’s wine stores, one of the top 10 retailers for wine in the country. She is currently managing a portfolio of fine wine collectors at Nicholas Roberts Fine Wines in Darien, Connecticut.

Amy lost 98% of her eyesight in 2007. Now, in addition to being a wine expert, she is a paratriathlete on Team USA, and she’s also on the watch list for their cycling team. You can learn more about Amy and all of her cycling and wine expertise at Welcome, Amy.

Amy Dixon: Thanks for having me.

Bottom Line: So confusing. There’s the small shops and the big shops. So let’s talk about the benefits of the different types of shops. So first and foremost, easy—the local liquor guy.

Dixon: Wonderful, wonderful option. I’m a big supporter of shopping local anyway, whether it’s buying wine, your groceries, the local flower shop, things like that. Always nice to support a family business.

One of the many advantages that you’re going to have with a small retailer is that you’re going to have a little more service. You’re going to have a much more hands-on approach to selling you wine, and they’re really going to take the time to get to know you.

And that for me is the number-one most important thing when choosing a wine shop and also when choosing wine in particular, because somebody that knows me, knows my palate, knows my husband, knows my kids, what have you, is going to say “Hey, I know it’s time for your annual ski trip, and I know you like to bring a case of inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc with you because your friends drink you out of house and home.” They’re going to hook you up with a really great wine. You’re not going to have that experience, obviously, at a big-box retailer, where you’re going to be a lot more anonymous.

Having a great relationship with a retailer who keeps track of your purchases and says “Hey Sarah, last week I sold you that bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile. What’d you think? Did you like it? Great!” Then they can sell you something else that not only broadens your palate, it broadens your horizons in the wine industry.

Bottom Line: Let’s talk about the chain, like BevMax and all that sort of stuff.

Dixon: The big-box retailers certainly have a place in the wine industry. I think they’re an important component of the wine industry. There’s a lot of value there for sure in that they do have a very large selection, because they can afford to have a vast inventory. So if you want to go and have 30 different kinds of Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, you’re going to have that option at a big retailer.

But it can be overwhelming depending upon your knowledge level. If you’re very, very knowledgeable and you pretty much stick to the same things, a big-box retailer is a good option for you. But if you like to explore and you want someone who has sort of curated their selection and toned it down a bit so that it makes it easier for you to select a wine, a small retailer’s going to have the advantage.

The big retailer, however, is going to have that big selection, and a lot of times their prices can be pretty aggressive as well.

Bottom Line: There’s a wine store by us that actually specializes in small, kind of limited-release brands.

Dixon: Which is exactly like the store that I work at in Darien, Nicholas Roberts Fine Wines. We specialize in small, family-owned wineries, and the nice thing about that, it’s local supporting local. It is supporting another family-owned business, and you know that every step in the quality process has been handled by that family.

So everything from growing the grapes, managing the vineyards, working with the soil, bottling the wine, making the wine—all those steps have been handled by a family. Whereas when you’re talking about a big winery, they’re very far removed from the process. So having a wine shop that caters to those small estates that do have an eye on quality, from grape to bottle, is really a great way to go.

Bottom Line: And also, it brings a little more diversity. Because you have to have a certain amount of size to be able to fill the shelves of all those large retailers, no?

Dixon: Exactly.

Bottom Line: All right, how about on the über extreme, like Costco? I understand they’re one of the largest retailers of wine.

Dixon: They are the largest wine retailer in the country. One of the good things I can say about Costco is that they did do it right. They did hire a Master of Wine, which is the highest level of credentials that you can have in the wine industry, to make their overall selections. So he is out there and he is traveling to vineyards and selecting wines specifically for Costco that they can buy in the volume that they need to work with. So I give them a lot of kudos for that.

However, they do put a hurt on the small local businesses, which is very challenging for me from a sentimental standpoint.

Bottom Line: If you want big volumes, as you said before, if I know what I want and I need cases and cases of it, off I go to Costco for my big party.

Dixon: If I’m having a fundraiser for 300 people and I need a good deal, that would probably be a great option. But if I’m having a dinner party or I’m having my kid’s birthday party where I’m going to have 20, 30 adults, I’m going to go to my local wine shop and ask them “Hey listen, I don’t want to break the bank. You know what I like. We have a relationship. What should I buy?”

Bottom Line: Let’s talk about prices for a second. Can I get a good price from my local guy?

Dixon: Absolutely. One of the many good things about price regulations in many, many states, Connecticut included, is that they set a minimum price that every wine can be sold for. So the big Costcos of the world can’t undersell a small local retailer by slashing the price and then closing it out. There’s a low price that they can set it at. That really helps keep an even playing field.

Bottom Line: Thank you, Amy—The Blind Sommelier, Amy Dixon. So the bottom line on picking a retailer for your wines? Where should you go shop? Well, if you want the best service and you want to find some unique products, go to your local retailer. If you want cases and cases if you have a big event or you definitely know what you want, there’s a specific wine that you like and you want to buy it in volume, then sure, go ahead to the bigger box stores and the big chain stores. This is Sarah Hiner with Bottom Line Publications.

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