A final shady practice: Sometimes the people who come to assist you in the aisles are not store employees but work for a wine distributor, and are working the store for free at the request of the store management. One well-known Uptown liquor store is notorious for this practice, which is partly why they have such low prices. I'm of 10 minds about this: The penny-pinching part of me loves the low prices that result from uncompensated labor, but then the communist part of me rebels against unpaid work, and after that the suspicious part of my brain kicks in and wonders whether the wine such people recommend is really the best pick, or just the wine the distributor most wants moved—and do they want it moved because they love it or because it's getting old and they need space in the warehouse? On the eighth hand, if you ask a Spanish wine specialist for a Champagne recommendation, what are they going to do? They have to recommend a competitor's wine, and in such an instance you simply get a well-informed opinion. Anyway, distributors can often be found in store aisles, and when they are you must treat them like any other human being: full of unknowable motives, and good and bad because of that.

Dear Dara,

What happens to bad wine? Do they just dump it in a big Prohibition-style pit somewhere, and break it with sledgehammers, or what?

—Curious in St. Paul

Dear Curious,

Details

Winner, 2007 James Beard Award for Journalism

I had no idea at all on this one. So I called up Annette Peters, the import director at World Class Wines, a woman whose little finger knows more about wine than most whole sommeliers.

"I can think of a classic example that happened in Chicago," Peters told me. "A wine was tasted [from a barrel] at the winery, and it was great. But there was a mistake made in the actual bottling (the whole point of preparing wine is to prepare it for the bottle), and it was bottled without proper oxygenation. So, even though the fruit was sound, the wine was sound [initially], it had a problem called reduction, and was terrible. What followed were months of deliberation; finally the wine was destroyed."

Not by smashing with sledgehammers, but by unceremoniously being dumped down a sink, and the bottles recycled. In such a situation the winery absorbs the costs, which is in their best interests, because they don't want their bad wine out there stinking up their good name.

In the case of individual bottles that are corked, which means contaminated with a moldy-smelling compound called TCA that comes from some corks, those bottles can be returned by wine shops or restaurants to the distributor, who eats the cost as a part of doing business. (Never feel bad for returning a corked bottle at a restaurant for just this reason.)

Other bottles go bad with age. "Restaurants are the worst offenders," says Peters. "Fresh little whites are meant to be drunk young. It drives me crazy when you get an old, flat Albariño and then some guy shows up and tells me it's supposed to be this way and it's lovely. Another thing that drives me crazy is when you go into a restaurant and they have this thick tome of wines, wines you know they can't possibly turn, and it's full of fresh little whites. If you can't [sell] the wine, make a decision to put things on your list you can age. Tru, in Chicago, has multiple vintages that go back, but it's white Burgundy, which can age, not things that have a shorter shelf life like Ruedas, Albariños, and Picpoul de Pinet.

Peters's biggest pet peeve is vintage charts. "I want to take people's little vintage cards out of their hand and scrunch them up and put them in the garbage," she says. "I'll be at a table with someone considering which Albariño to get, and they get out their little vintage chart. Oh, not the '05, the '03 was a much better vintage. The key word? Was. At this point in the game it doesn't matter." Better, she says, is to get to know a producer: "A quality producer is more important than vintage."

Dear Dara,

Baffled here again. So where are my shortcuts? My Rosetta stone? All you've done is fill me with fear: about shady wine shop practices, old Albariños, and worse. A pox on your house!

—Baffled and Now Also Despairing in Minneapolis

Dear Baffled,

Actually, I do have a shortcut for you. Well, two shortcuts. One is to cultivate a relationship with a wine clerk in a good store. And by a good store I mean one staffed by people who have tasted the wines. There are tons here in the Twin Cities, and I hate to make a list for fear of leaving someone out, but even if you know nothing about wine, a good question to weed out bad stores might be, "Can you recommend something to go with Thai takeout?" Or pizza. If they can't find something under $15 to recommend for one of those, or if you can't find someone to speak with at all, find another store.

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