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Wine voyeur gets a taste for what's out there

Observations of the Cheapskate, the Sweet Tooth, the Sheep and others

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DISTANTLY RELATED TO THE PEEP SHOWS in the back of this alt-weekly, grabbing a furtive glimpse into ordinary people's lives can be titillating. Take wine selecting. You can almost see the wheels churning in buyers' minds as they peruse the endless aisles, but what makes the final decision?

With this burning question in mind, I donned my voyeur hat for some investigative work at a grocery store and a popular wine and liquor shop.

The sleuthing resulted in some loosely defined wine buyer stereotypes: the Cheapskate, the Sweet Tooth, the Stuck-in-a-Rut, the Researcher and the Explorer.

The Cheapskate shops only by price. If it gets 'em there, they'll buy it. Only reputation prevents them from buying Mad Dog 20/20. Squatty jug wines, especially those on sale, are a plus. Favorite brands: Hearty Burgundy from Gallo and the family-sized Glen Ellen Chardonnay.

The Sweet Tooth prefers the sweeter wines in life. This category features mostly women sticking with Rieslings and other German-style wines (which are getting drier year after year, so look out). Piesporters, especially those from venerated German winery Schmidt Sohne, hold their interest. When venturing out from their favorite brands, Sweet Tooths read labels.

The Sheep strictly follow friends' advice. One question: How do you know the friends have any taste? If Sheep are trusting some blowhard Joe Schmoe who spends his evenings with the remote in one hand, chips in the other and feet on the coffee table, then things could get ugly. Young bucks Brad and Scott struck me as perfect Sheep, stating they trust their friends to steer them to the right place. Uh ... whatever dude. If your friends are out there going to wine tastings or trying different stuff, then listen. Otherwise, run. Favorite Sheep brands: overpriced, over-rated Blackstone Merlot and Kendall Jackson Chardonnay.

Stuck-in-the-Rut drinks the same wine day-in and day-out. They're too intimidated or boring to explore other wines. We found a lot of these and, in the process, did a bit of marketing for Corkscrew. I met one gentleman who has bought the same exact wine and brand for almost 10 years (Schmidt Sohne Piesporter and Bolla Pinot Grigio), because, he said, "If I like it, why change?" Indeed. (Did all these Piesporter people go to the same parties?)

The Researcher subscribes to wine mags, examines shelf talkers and (gasp!) reads newspaper columns. There were a few Researchers at the wine and spirits shop. Words like "varietal" and "mouth-feel" echoed in the air. They are often trend followers, spending their cash on the latest Napa cult Cabernet or Chilean steal. Researchers are easy to spot; look for them skulking about in the high-end French section.

The Explorer will try anything. They haunt wine tastings, sampling anything remotely wine-like. In an effort to uncover the coolest wine for the best price, Explorers are frequently duped by the "Good Value" shelf tags -- ads motivated by the cheap distributor deal of the week. Quite a few people we interviewed ask waiters for help with their wine selections. When you're talking $30-plus for a bottle, that's a trusting Explorer. But it often earns a big tip if the waiter looks out for your wallet and delivers the goods.

But beware the liquor or wine shop recommendations. Some clerks earn distributor-based commission to peddle specific wines, anywhere from $1 to $5 per bottle. So if a sales clerk is trying to sell you a case of something you've never tried, tread carefully.

After spending the day analyzing wine buyers, here's my advice: Branch out! Attend more wine tastings! As one Explorer said, "It's really the only way I can get a real taste for what's out there."

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