I was raised in a family where asking someone about finances - or their buying power - might be considered a little too forward. But one of the most helpful questions I've learned to ask a customer searching for the "perfect" bottle is "how much do you want to spend?". I'm sure I've said it before: there is a ton of great juice on the market. Knowing how much someone wants to spend helps me narrow the playing field and help them find a great bottle to suit the occasion. Often I meet people who know they want to bring a bottle to dinner, but feel uncomfortable with wine and don't feel they know what is an appropriate amount for a "good" bottle of wine for X occasion. A good salesperson will be able to steer you in the right direction - without making you feel uncomfortable. But failing that ideal experience, here are a few things to consider when shopping (particularly given the economic climate and the upcoming holidays).
1. You don't have to spend a small fortune to select a solid offering. If you know what's being served for dinner, or if you don't, offer up that information to the salesperson, too. The right grape varietal/blend will more often "make or break" the gesture, not how much you spent.
2. Even as the Holidays approach and you are looking for a "nice" bottle of wine, remember a lot of great bottles can be found under $20. But whenever you are shopping, give your sales person a $5 price range to play with - e.g. $12 - $17, $15-20, $30 - $35. Whatever. Know how much you DON'T want to spend given your budget and be/get comfortable telling the salesperson that figure.
3. As the economy hits the crapper, I've met more and more people who are expanding their wine budgets and contracting their going out budgets. In the scheme of things, your entire evening is more cost-efficient. (Remember: you spend much more for an average bottle of wine when out at a restaurant than retail.) It can be just as fun (and perhaps more rewarding?) to explore a new bottle of wine at a slightly higher price as it is to go out on the town.
In the end, embrace your buying power. Explore wines on offer at a variety of price points as you see fit! You will likely find some "treats" at a higher price, but just as likely stumble on some good old fashioned comfort-sipping, too.
What's your wine buying rationale these days? Have your habits changed with the economy?