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Originally published Saturday, April 30, 2011 at 7:05 PM

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Wine Adviser

Tips to finding a tasty wine from uncharted store shelves

If you want safety in your wine choice, look for a reliable brand that is likely to be available almost anywhere in the country. But once you wander off that trail, you are navigating uncharted territory. You need a compass.

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the week

Sebastiani Sonoma County Zinfandel; $13

SEBASTIANI IS one of the grand old names among Sonoma County vintners, though the winery is now part of the Foley group. But winemaker Mark Lyon is still on board and making a range of good wines from $12 to $18 — the sweet spot. Best of all is this succulent zin, a bowl of ripe cherries, lightly streaked with vanilla cream. (Young's-Columbia)

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REVIEWING WINES for a living means that I am rarely searching the supermarket aisles for a wine to drink with dinner that same evening. There are usually a dozen or so wines already open on my counter for review, and if they should all fail the "do I want to swallow this?" test, there is a cellar full of appealing choices.

But being a traveler changes all that. On two recent occasions I found myself visiting cities with which I was unfamiliar, having no particular business to conduct and staying in rented quarters whose chief amenities were working kitchens.

So I set off to the supermarket to buy some food to prepare, and to seek out a pleasing bottle to go with dinner. And though I am no stranger to the wine selections available in markets, wine shops and state liquor stores here in Washington, Southern California and southern Florida — where I happened to be — are quite different. Suddenly, I found myself wondering what to buy amid a sea of unknown (or in some cases all-too-well-known) labels.

When buying wine simply for my own pleasure, I don't really want to revisit something I've had many times before. I want to discover something new. Generally the bottle budget is $12 to $20, which won't get you very far in a restaurant, but can do quite well in a wine department. My recent travels got me to thinking about strategies for navigating a shelf full of unfamiliar choices in order to optimize the chances of success.

Be forewarned: these are not surefire tips. If you want safety, then look for a reliable brand that is likely to be available almost anywhere in the country. Columbia Crest, Hogue and some of the big-production California brands (such as Bogle) are tried and true. There are dozens of other high-volume, corporate brands that can get the basic job done. But once you wander off that trail, you are navigating uncharted territory. You need a compass.

Start with the food. What are you planning to cook? What type of wine do you usually drink with that type of meal? That should narrow down the varietal focus. Now, see what's available in that aisle. If there isn't much to choose from, find a related grape. If not zinfandel, then try syrah/shiraz or petite sirah. You get the idea.

Once you have a few bottles in view, look for a region you like. Take a minute to read the back labels. Find one that gives you some specific information about the wine — calling out vineyard sources, blend, etc. Beware of wine labels that blather on about wearing your little black dress or driving your happy camper, that sort of thing. You are looking for a beverage, not a lifestyle.

Another good tactic — find the nearly-empty row or bin. Wines that are case-stacked throughout the store are not likely to be real bell-ringers. But if there is just a bottle or two left of a particular wine that is surrounded by similar bottles at similar prices, it's reasonable to conclude that other consumers have done the homework for you. Grab that last bottle!

Feeling really adventurous? Then drink the local stuff. If you are in wine country — and these days, almost anywhere has at least a few nearby wineries — why not choose a bottle from some little boutique that you've never heard of and most likely never will. It's part of the adventure, no different from exploring unknown restaurants or beaches or museums.

The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt's "Washington Wines & Wineries" is now in print. His blog is E-mail:

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About Wine Adviser

My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.



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