Wine: Try it before you buy it |

Wine: Try it before you buy it

Many of us have had the experience of going into a wine shop and being overwhelmed by the scope of the choices: wineries we’ve never heard of, varieties we’ve never tasted, sometimes at prices that catch our breath.

It is not necessarily that we mind paying the money, but what if we don’t like the wine? We can be just as skeptical about buying an inexpensive wine. After all, aren’t they cheap for a reason? Most of us then retreat to the safety of what we already know. We buy something we have already tasted.

Citronée has a new wine bar

Let me introduce you to a new little wine shop where you can try before you buy. Robért and Marianna Perez, the owners of Citronée Restaurant in Nevada City, have just opened a wine shop and tasting bar. Their son, Richard, runs the wine shop.

It’s a cozy little spot packed with about 350 different wines from around the world. There is a small tasting bar with six stools snuggled in. The biggest thing in the room is the chalkboard announcing the wines available for tasting. “There will usually be five to seven wines on the board,” Richard said. “We plan to rotate the wines every two weeks.”

Last week was Spain; right now they are featuring wines from South Africa. You can buy a two-ounce pour for $2, a glass for about $5 or the bottle. “We’re focusing on different wine regions from around the world,” Robért explained. “There are unbelievable deals and values out there right now. We’re looking for wines that sell for $10 but taste like they cost $20.”

It’s been a long road getting here. Those of you who bought wine in the 1960s might remember the stalwart wineries of the day – Almaden, Wente, Krug and Louis Martini. At that time there were few wine shops. Wine was sold primarily through liquor stores. The 1970s brought the first wave of what would become an avalanche of trendy new wineries.

Widespread distribution through a grocery chain diminished a boutique winery’s appeal. Avant-garde liquor store retailers were always looking for undiscovered gems. “If Safeway’s got it, I don’t want it” was a common attitude.

In those days Fair Trade was the law of the land. Fair Trade mandated a fixed mark-up for everyone. If you bought one case as an independent retailer – or 1,000 cases as a major grocery chain – you still had to sell it for the same price. The mark-up was fixed. In 1980 a lawsuit challenged Fair Trade as the equivalent of price fixing and ultimately the system was declared illegal. That marked the birth of California wine discount stores, despite cries of the ruination of the independent retailer being strangled by the immense buying power of the chains.

It took a few years for the change to exact its entire toll but in time the effect was dramatic. Most liquor stores were no longer perceived as being either competitive or important wine outlets and often were reduced to selling booze, cigarettes and Lottery tickets. Boutique wineries were forced to retract their position of not selling to grocery stores and draw a new line in the sand of not selling to huge box stores.

This was a demolition derby with the pedal on the floor. Through the 1980s into the 1990s there were two major trends driving in opposite directions. On one hand there was a dramatic up-tick in the number of new wineries. On the other hand, access to the marketplace was shrinking. The chains were buying a lot of wine but they were buying it from fewer wineries. If you weren’t in you were out and almost everyone was out.

But this is entrepreneurial America. Holes in the marketplace are never left vacant for long. By the middle 1990s we were seeing the introduction of “wine shops,” stores dedicated to selling fabulous wines neglected by the big boys, which was at least 85 percent of all the wineries out there. In the 20 plus years since the repeal of Fair Trade we have seen an explosion of wineries worldwide, and their wines are all available for sale in California. Pick any wine producing country you like – Bulgaria, Uruguay, or India – and you can find them. Pick any varietal you fancy – Monastrell, Tinto Cao or Albarino – and you can have them.

“Our job is to find great wines and good values,” Perez said. “We taste 40 to 50 wines every week. We can’t carry them all. We have to pick the best.” One insider tip to remember is if you are planning to eat at Citronée Restaurant, shop the retail store first. They have only a $10 corkage fee for wine purchased from their shop, which will save you money over buying the same wine off the regular wine list.

Carrington’s Fine Wines

Citronée is not the only place in Nevada City to try before you buy. Cal Carrington at Carrington’s Fine Wines has been offering a unique wine tasting program since he opened eight years ago. Every week Cal selects a different variety and pours a flight of seven wines, usually for around $9. It’s a great way to get different views of a single variety. With over 600 labels in his store he has a lot of choices. He has a posted tasting schedule so if you call him he can tell you when he will be sampling your favorite variety. “I would not still be in the retail wine business today without a tasting bar.” Cal told me. “There is so much wine out there, people don’t know what to buy. They like to try it first to be sure they are going to like it.”

Gregory’s Wine Vault

Gregory’s Wine Vault in Grass Valley is another wine shop with a tasting program. Every week they offer three to five wines for about $3-$5. Greg Seghezzi, owner of the shop, has a remarkable selection of older California vintages available and every Friday evening he selects one special bottle to toss into the tasting mix. If you want to know what an 1980s or 1990’s California Cab tastes like now, this is the place to be.

Christopher’s Old World Deli has recently opened in Grass Valley. Owner Chris Lockhart currently offers incredible products from around the world. He is still waiting for his license but plans to offer wine tastings pairing specialty products and cheeses with wines.

As Robért Perez told me, “The best way to add new favorites into your mix is to taste a variety of wines.” I couldn’t agree more. Get out there and taste something.

One final note: Lastly, don’t forget to visit our local winery tasting rooms. They have great wines and you can always try before you buy.


Rod Byers is director of marketing at Nevada City Winery, is a CSW certified wine educator, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California State Certified Wine Judge. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 530-913-3703.

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