This is in response to MC's comment on my last post. . . . wondering what is the best option when one is trying to buy a bottle of wine along with groceries, after work, and so on.
First off, I have to come right out here and admit that I have little real-world experience off of which to base my advice. My first job after college (besides the restaurant jobs that saw me through college and the first summer after) was as a shop assistant in a branch of a national wine chain in London. Then I came back and worked in a wine bar, some stores, and as a restaurant buyer in Boston. Then I've been a wine salesperson in New York for the rest of the time. In short? I've NEVER HAD TO BUY ALL MY WINE RETAIL. While I spend most of my time thinking about wine, hanging around in wine stores, and selling people wine, buying wine retail is something I get to do for fun for my wine classes. So y'know, this is professional advice, but it should be taken with a grain of salt.
First off, I firmly believe that one should avoid having to select from the supermarket shelves' commercial offerings at all costs. This, however, requires premeditation, a modicum of storage (and if you get paid monthly, a credit card will help. Just think of all the airmiles you'll get!). Because, yes, the best way to NOT have to buy yellowtail at the supermarket is to figure out about how much wine you are likely to drink on a monthly basis (and this in itself can be humbling, but ADMIT that you are going to spend that money anyhow, and be honest).
Then what you should do is go to whatever decent local winemerchant you frequent (and if you drink wine regularly, you know where that is!). Buy a case, or (better still) a couple of cases, to get your stash started. This way? you get a discount (10-15%, which given the paltry markups most wine retailers can charge is not bad!) and you get to have a selection of wines on hand in your Very Own Basement. No more last-minute supermarket wine shopping! The ideal mixed case should contain 2-3 bottles each of 4-6 different wines. Red and White according to your preference or general seasonal drinking habits (about now I'd say more red than white, but not all red -- never that!). Mix in a few things you've had before, and liked, and ask the wine merchant to recommend new things based on those preferences, in your price range. A case of decent everyday wine should run around $110 with tax and discount -- actually maybe less if you don't live in heavily-priced-and-taxed NY.
As you try new and different things, you'll find you start liking some things more and some things less. So you'll start changing what you buy. But? because you're a bonafide case-buying regular customer, your wine merchant will start paying more attention to your likes and dislikes. If they're worth their salt, they'll start recommending new and different things. They'll start thinking of your (that may be a collective "your," if it's a big store, but still) regular-customer palate when they make buying decisions. Because when you work in a wine store, you appreciate the regular customers who are interested in wine. You work there because YOU are interested in learning about wine and because you get a great discount (the pay, not great, but the discount is usually good) and the other people who are interested about wine make the job fun.
So, that's my general recommendation. Buy by the case. If, however, you are out of wine and at the supermarket? Here, again, I am speaking out of turn. You see, we can't buy wine at supermarkets in New York State, so I don't know what the average supermarket has on offer. What I can say is this: stay away from Australia, California and Dubouef if possible. If there are offerings from Chile, Argentina, Southern Italy, or obscure French regions -- these (while still remaining cheap) often have a shot at being interesting. I've found that Los Vascos Cabernet (Chile) is remarkably good for the price. There are plenty of little Nero d'Avolas and Primitivos and Montepulcianos from Italy that have a rustic but characterful appeal.
And in a pinch, when you've had a bad day? Some wine is probably better than no wine at all.