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Need wine advice? Put down the app and ask your local shop.

Among trustworthy sources for wine advice, don't forget about your local retail wine shop. (iStock)

Who do you trust for wine advice? A friend or relative with whom you’ve shared a few bottles? The Internet? An app that claims to know the perfect wine for you based on whether you take milk in your coffee?

When I caught the wine bug a few decades ago, there were a few reliable guides. Robert Parker was entering his heyday with the Wine Advocate, his self-published magazine chock-full of copious, detailed reviews of wines. A Parker score could make or break a wine — he became so influential, winemakers allegedly changed their wine style to cater to his tastes. Big, bold wines became derided as “Parkerized” by wine fiends disapproving of the style. I always thought that was an unfair criticism. Parker’s tastes reflected the American palate, and he emerged onto the scene in the mid-1980s, just as Americans were discovering wine. The industry responded to the market.

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Parker is now retired. The Robert Parker Wine Advocate, now owned by Michelin, continues with a team of very capable reviewers. Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits magazines also continue to rate wines on an easy-to-understand (if controversial) 100-point scale. Some reviewers have successfully followed Parker’s model with their own online subscription publications aimed at dedicated wine collectors. Allen Meadows’s Burghound and John Gilman’s View From the Cellar are good examples. British writer Jancis Robinson offers lots of free content and reviews, as well as much more to subscribers on her website.

Newspaper wine reviewers, alas, are now few, reflecting the changes in the newspaper business over the past few decades. D.C.- area readers of a certain age (mine) will remember when The Washington Post had Ben Giliberti and Michael Franz on alternating weeks, while Paul Lukacs wrote for the Washington Times, and Ann Berta contributed monthly to Washingtonian magazine. That was a crowded field I tried to break into with Sidewalk.com, a short-lived website by Microsoft.

In this era of crowdsourcing, we have the Internet. Wine blogs had their fling, and they provided a way for some writers to break into mainstream publications. Podcasts are riding a wave now — more about them in a future column. Wine apps and websites fill a niche, allowing everyone to be a critic. CellarTracker is perhaps the best-known, used by collectors to manage their own inventories, share tasting notes and discuss wines through an online forum. The flashy Vivino app lets users photograph labels with their smartphones to enter a review and learn about the wine, as well as what other users thought of it.

We’ve been reading about and buying more wine online while staying home during the pandemic. The growth in direct-to-consumer wine sales is an exciting development, offering smaller wineries direct access to consumers, while allowing wine lovers to purchase wines unavailable through traditional distribution channels. But we mustn’t forget another trustworthy source of wine information: our local independent retailers.

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When I was in my wine infancy, I had the temerity to walk into a D.C. store with a copy of Parker’s annual issue on bargain wines under my arm. The manager chewed me out, pointing to a shelf displaying two wines he had selected for the store. One was depleted to just a few bottles, the other fully stocked. Parker gave the first a 90-point rating and it flew off the shelf. The distributor was sold out. The other wine scored in the high 80s, and now nobody would buy it. Why would consumers rely on a point score instead of trusting their own palates, the manager asked.

It was a striking example of the power a critic can wield. Some stores rely on that power. I recall visiting another D.C. establishment sometime in the same era and asking a manager to tell me about a wine that looked interesting. “It’s good — it got 90 points,” he said, barely looking up. That told me little about the wine and everything I needed to know about the store: It was a reliable source of highly rated vino at a competitive market price. Beyond that, I was on my own. The store is still thriving, by the way.

Next time you’re in a wine store, strike up a conversation with someone on staff. Gauge their knowledge of the wines: Have they tasted many of the wines on sale? Traveled to wine regions and met with winemakers? Remember that they are reading you, too, so point out a wine or two that you enjoyed or didn’t, and explain why. Describe the type of foods you like to eat. Drop in details about your buying habits: Do you collect wine, or do you just have a few bottles stashed in a closet for upcoming meals?

Your retailer just might recommend a wine the critics have not yet discovered. Then you can take it home and pour yourself a glass. Then fire up your app, snap a pic and write a review.

More Wine columns:

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