The first week of the new year is often a time to reflect on what you want to refine in your life, how to make better decisions and get more value for your money.Which got us to thinking ... about drinking.Visited a liquor store lately? Stood, bewildered, in the giant wine and beer section of your neighborhood grocery store?With the arrival of new liquor stores like Spec's and Total Wine & More in Tarrant County, we thought it was high time we asked experts how to decide what to buy.Here, some advice for becoming a more discriminating drinker. Warning: It might take a little taste-testing.Know what you likeIf you started your journey into wine with large-label brands like Sutter Home or Kendall Jackson but want to bring something new to the party, tell the wine expert at your local store.J.R. Clark, wine and beer manager at Central Market Fort Worth, says a salesperson will have a much easier time finding something you're sure to enjoy if he or she knows what you like."Tell them you like Yellow Tail Shiraz and that you'd like to branch out," he says.The same can be said for beer. Don't be afraid to tell an expert that you enjoy large-label light beers, and that you're looking for something that's not too far of a departure from that."If you ask for something in that profile, you might be pointed toward a simple lager or a pilsner," he says. "If you like that and get used to it, you can start jumping into American pale ales, to an IPA, maybe something more bitter, or you can try a bock, stout or porter."Take advantage of tastingsTarrant County is flush with excellent wine and beer bars that offer tastings."For a nominal fee, you can try a flight of styles, say stouts or IPAs, and see what you like," Clark says.Same goes for tasting wine -- you can try a sampling of glasses of a particular grape or of wines from a particular region. Make note of the ones you like, and next time you're in a wine store or are faced with a hefty wine list, you can call on your experience and know that you enjoy chardonnay from Napa, or cabernets from France.Some neighborhood shops, such as Bear Creek Spirits & Wine in Colleyville, send out regular emails about upcoming tastings.Local cooking schools, such as those inside both Central Market Fort Worth and Southlake (www.centralmarket.com) and Market Street in Colleyville (www.marketstreetdfw.com), regularly offer workshops about wine and classes that include wine and beer pairings.Even World Market stores and some better supermarkets, such as Kroger's "Signature" stores, offer complimentary wine tastings.And even if the tasting isn't organized, more and more, wine and liquor stores are keeping open bottles for customers to try. Find out if your go-to shop offers tastings or allows customers to try before they buy.As Jenny Kornblum, sommelier at Grace restaurant in Fort Worth, says, "Taste everything you can get your hands on."More expensive is not necessarily better ...It can be tempting to simplify and assume that pricier wines and liquors are better, but experts say this isn't always the case.Kornblum says you can get a great everyday wine for $10-$15. Clark says the $10-$20 range is the sweet spot."Really expensive wines may have a great reputation or come from a well-known region, but if you're going to spend $40 or $50 on a bottle, it better be really stellar," he says. Ditto that on liquor, though the price range for a good whiskey or vodka is likely higher than that of a bottle of wine, and therefore a bigger risk."There's no reason you should have to spend $60 to get a good bottle of vodka," says Brad Hensarling, head bartender and co-owner of The Usual and The Gold Standard bars in Fort Worth.To find better priced but higher quality liquors, Hensarling suggests looking at smaller, lesser-known labels.... Except when you're talking about cocktailsWhile the prices for cocktails can be high at bars and restaurants, in some cases, Hensarling says, they can be justified. Consider that there might be two to three ounces of more than one type of liquor, combined with fresh syrups or fruit mixers and, potentially, a garnish."That immediately bumps up the price, depending on the quality of the spirits and what the bar pays for them," he says.To avoid being ripped off, try to observe the bartender."If he's measuring ingredients, stirring and muddling, they'll likely have something unique to offer," Hensarling says.If the bartender is simply splashing liquor and topping it with a mixer, he warns, you might not be getting your money's worth.Get to know your bartender or retailerFrequenting one wine store can pay dividends, in that your expert can get to know you and your taste for wine, beer or liquor. Clark says he and his staff have regulars whose tastes they know and understand."The wine world is very relationship-oriented," he says. "Find someone who likes to drink and eat like you do, and stick with that person. You'll have a lot of success."Kornblum agreed."Developing a relationship with shop owners is huge," she says. "Have them put together a case for you, then make a list of which wines you liked to help you build your next case. Soon you will be building your own cases."As well, in most cases, experienced bartenders are great sources of information on cocktails and liquor labels. Go to your favorite watering hole at a slower hour and pick their brains. You may get some great tips on brands, blends and mixing techniques."Veer away from big labels and regionsWhile wines from Napa, Calif., France and Italy are often well-established and likely to be good, Clark says you can frequently find quality wines at amazing prices from less well-known regions, like Paso Robles, Calif., Chile and Spain.This can be especially important when you're ordering from a wine list at a restaurant, where prices are typically inflated for overhead. Kornblum agrees that it can be good to try new things, but she says there are great values to be found in every country and region.Consider alcohol contentWhile it's not a certainty, if you're without knowledgeable help, the alcohol content can be a guide to flavor. Clark says when it comes to wines, a higher alcohol content typically means you're getting a bigger, bolder flavor. Lower alcohol content often makes for a sweeter profile, as the sugars haven't been fermented completely away, Clark says.Study upWell-written books and reputable websites can help you up your alcohol IQ.Hensarling suggests Kindred Spirits by F. Paul Pacult. The liquor encyclopedia is an archive of reviews by Pacult that is always handy when shopping for a new brand.Clark suggests Great Wine Made Simple by Andrea Immer. The book provides a good jumping-off point for those looking to dive into the world of wine.We know guys who won't buy a beer without first checking its score on RateBeer.com. In addition to offering ratings of every imaginable beer, it has a comprehensive guide to beer styles, glasswear and more.
New year, new you
Jan. 1: 13 healthy habits to adopt in '13
Wednesday: Become a more discriminating drinker
Thursday: Apps to help you meet your goals
Monday: Workout wear for curvy women
Tuesday: Ways to improve your financial life