New stores cater to wine novices, wine lovers

For the novice wine drinker, walking into a wine boutique can be a daunting experience. Fruity or mellow? Rich or crisp? Surrounded by bottles of red, white and sparkling, it can be hard to make up your mind - especially if you have no idea where to start.

Enter Ed Ukaonu. As owner of WineStyles in Snellville, Ukaonu delights in pairing people with the right wine.

"I just have such a passion for it," he said. "When I can help someone find a wine they love, it's such a thrill. It's exciting working with people to find that perfect fit and help them understand this world of wine."

Amateur wine drinkers are typically introduced into the wine world through friends, Ukaonu said, which often leads to a misperception of, and sometimes a distaste for, the drink.

"For most people, they learn about wine at a friend's party or dinner, and you try the wine a friend provides," he said. "But you're drinking that person's tastes. And everyone has a very different taste for wine. You need to find your own flavor."

Founded in 2002, WineStyles - where the philosophy is "wine is simple. Buying it should be, too" - strives to do just that.

Designed to resemble an old-world wine cellar, WineStyles is divided into eight classifying sections, each labeled by the flavors of the wine, rather than the growing region or the grape variety.

Crisp, silky, rich and bubbly are the white variety labels, and fruity, mellow, bold and nectar are the red. On signs above each category is a to-the-point description of the wine, including its characteristics, flavor and optimal food pairings. The fruity label, for example, states the wines in that section are fruit-forward and grapey, with hints of strawberry and blueberry, and they pair well with salads, pasta, pizza and chicken.

"The store is set up to be easy to navigate. It's divided into tastes," Ukaonu said, adding that he tends to be a mellow man, often drawn to the round, smooth flavors and the traces of herbs and berries found in the wines of that selection.

The store aims to provide both new and long-time wine drinkers with a range of selections at affordable prices.

Most bottles cost between $10 and $25, but don't be fooled: These aren't cheap wines, Ukaonu said. The bottles sold at WineStyles come from all around the world, and would fit in equally at a casual family gathering or posh cocktail party. There is also a premier wine selection "for the so-called wine snob," said Ukaonu, pointing out the corner rack labeled "if you insist ... ." This section of the store offers a more expensive, high-brow collection of wine.

With dozens of locations spread throughout the country, WineStyles is part of a growing trend in the wine industry. Many retailers are focusing their selling efforts on novice buyers, rather than the wine aficionados who have traditionally owned the market.

Shops like WineStyles and The Grape, which separates its selections into a 10-level classification system based on the wine's flavor and drinking occasion, attempt to educate consumers about what wines are the best fit for their tastes.

"We try to help de-mystify wine and wine drinking," said Eddie Valente, vice president of operations at The Grape. "I think you'll find, no matter where you buy, that wine stores are trying to take the snotty out of wine. We are trying to take the risk out of buying wine, so it can be fun and you are more free to experiment."

More and more Americans are starting to explore the world of wine, thanks to recent widespread claims about its health benefits, Ukaonu said.

In 2004, 668 million gallons of wine were consumed in the U.S., an increase of more than a million gallons from a decade before, according to the latest statistics from the Wine Institute.

"Wine has always been a popular drink. But when people started hearing that wine had a lot of good health elements, they got into it more and wanted to learn more about it," Ukaonu said. "That was really when the wine industry made it more accessible and more people started exploring. There is a greater reach now to dip into the market of the general public and get more people interested in the drink."

Where to sample wine

The wine industry is striving to simplify wine, using flavor characteristics rather than growing region or year to classify varieties. But novice buyers may still be timid to spend $10 or $20 on a bottle of wine when they don't know if they'll like it.

"It's happened to us all," said Eddie Valente, vice president of operations at The Grape. "You spend your money on a bottle because you like the label or it sounds like it will be good. Then you end up, literally, pouring the money down the drain because you just don't like how it tastes."

In an effort to inform patrons about what flavors they favor, many metro area restaurants offer wine-tasting sessions, with several varieties of wine to be sampled for one price. Check out these wine sampling opportunities to find your signature sipping style:

n Grapes and Hops Bar and Bistro: Every Sunday, every bottle of wine is 1⁄2 price on the Grapes and Hops Bar and Bistro wine list. The restaurant also offers monthly four-course dinner and wine pairings. Tickets for the dinner are $45 per person and reservations are required. Grapes and Hops is located at 4856 Hog Mountain Road, Flowery Branch. Call 770-965-9145 or visit www.grapesandhopsbarandbistro.com.

•Lake Lanier Islands and Emerald Pointe Resort: As part of a monthly wine-tasting series, a four-course gourmet dinner and wine-pairing event is held at Emerald Pointe Hotel at Lake Lanier Islands Resort. A complimentary cruise on one of the resort's excursion yachts is held prior to the dinner. Yacht cruises start at 5 p.m. and dinner is at 6 p.m. Tickets are $70 per person or $130 per couple. The resort is located at 7000 Holiday Road, Lake Lanier. Call 770-945-8787 or visit www.lakelanierislands.com.

•SoHo Wine Bar: Each Wednesday beginning at 5:30 p.m., SoHo presents Flight Night for both new and experienced wine drinkers. Tasting guide J.D. Doyle leads drinkers through three or four 3.5-ounce samples of SoHo's signature wines from around the world. Tastings range in price from $18 to $20 per person, and the price includes appetizers. SoHo is located at 4300 Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta. Call 770-801-0069 or visit www.sohoatlanta.com.

•Stone Mountain Village: On the third Saturday of each month through August, Stone Mountain Village features a Walk and Wine tour from 6 to 8 p.m. During the tour, village restaurants offer samples and participating galleries are open for tours. The event is free. Stone Mountain Village is located just outside the west gate of Stone Mountain Park. Call 770-498-7334 or visit www.stonemountainvillage.com.

•WineStyles: From 6 to 8 p.m. every Thursday, WineStyles offers appetizers and a wine tasting of eight different wines, one from each category, for $10. Every Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m., the store offers Ladies Night, with $5 glasses of wine and free massages from Origins. WineStyles is located at 1350 Scenic Highway, Snellville. Call 770-985-8356 or visit www.winesytles.net.