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.
LEAST RELIABLE GRAPE Merlot: Perhaps the most overplanted, overproduced and overrated varietal wine around, thanks to the Merlot craze that swept the world recently.
10 Great Buys
1998 Trimbach Riesling ($14) Firm-textured and fruity yet dry--an entirely refreshing and harmonious wine that makes a virtue of simplicity.
2000 Martín Códax Albariño ($15) From Spain's Galician coast, this extremely dry white features palate-awakening levels of acidity and ripe flavors of grapefruit and melon.
1999 Ruffino Libaio ($9) Although this wine is only about 10 percent Pinot Grigio--it's predominantly Chardonnay--the Pinot gives cut and definition to the soft pear flavors of the Chardonnay.
2000 Dry Creek Sonoma County Fumé Blanc ($13) This is a winery that lets Sauvignon be Sauvignon--by polishing its edges with a little oak, while allowing its crisp, herby, lemony character to shine through.
1999 Meridian Santa Barbara County Chardonnay ($13) Rich, blossomy and fragrant, this barrel-fermented white has notes of fig, banana and citrus.
2000 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages ($8) From a great Beaujolais vintage, this wine all but billows out of the glass, with perfumelike aromas of strawberry and cherry.
1997 Marqués de Cáceres Rioja ($15) Spicy oak and tobacco flavors mingle with notes of cherries and strawberries in this restrained, Old World-style red.
1999 Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel ($10) A stylish wine on a bold, tooth-staining scale, with lots of spicy red cherry and blueberry flavors.
1998 Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon ($11) A strong overlay of oak complements the sappy, crushed-black-cherry flavors of this polished Washington State Cabernet.
1999 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz-Cabernet ($9) Penfolds has access to some of South Australia's best vineyards, assuring it a supply of first-rate grapes for this juicy wine, with its black plum and berry flavors and layered texture.