As with most things in life, it helps to have a plan when you go wine shopping or look at a wine list. You don't have to memorize dozens of vintages and labels--this isn't card counting in Vegas. You just need a few benchmarks, producers whose wines are widely available and reliably good. This sort of list will allow you to pick out decent, affordable bottles anywhere--from a neighborhood joint to a Madison Avenue wine shop.
NAMES TO KNOW The following producers offer a wide range of wines that are true to type and of uniformly high quality; they carry as close to a guarantee of satisfaction as one is likely to find. From France's Rhône Valley, I look for the Big Three--Guigal, Chapoutier and Jaboulet. From Alsace, the two major names are Trimbach and Hugel. From Australia, Penfolds, Lindemans and Rosemount Estate (all owned by the same megaconglomerate, Southcorp Wines) are remarkably reliable. In Chile, Casa Lapostolle turns out consistently stylish bottlings. In the United States, Beringer has a terrific line, from top ($100) to bottom ($10).
MOST RELIABLE GRAPE Cabernet Sauvignon: The grape's strong varietal character produces good, and very often great, wines from vineyards the world over.