How many times have you needed a quality recommendation and found that the people working at the liquor/wine store are not savy about their product line? Sadly the side effect of large scale wine dealers who floor stack wines is that they hire people not totally aware of their full inventory. Costco is a great example. At Costco you get excellent prices but you have no one on the floor to explain their inventory. Costco works well for people who know what they want or have a set line of wines they drink and do not venture out. Although Costco does at times have winery reps there to sell you their product.
How can you increase your odds of getting a different bottle of quality wine and get an explanation of what it is like? Your first objective is to let the retailer know what type of wine you drink and enjoy. Give the name of the producer, vineyard, style of wine and price. With this information you stand a good chance of getting a positive new experience. Remeber one vineyard can produce a single varietal but in the hands of different winemakers the end product is different and unique.
A good rule of thumb is to look for smaller shops which attempt to either import or be the sole retailer of a specific winery. Also look for a location which is not in a high rent area as they are under the gun to make enough to pay the rent (unless they own the building). That being said these retailers most often do not carry the standard line of wines you see in Safeway, Costco, World Market, Bev Mo etc. They stake their claim to finding quality small producers who produce less than 1,000 cases. This allows them to personally sell either the line or individual varietal bottlings.
Wine columns often review varietals from lesser known producers and often give the name of either the retailer or importer. This is a great chance to explore the styles and terrior of a grape grown in different areas or countries. As a savy shopper you will find some great deals in wines from countries which grow unique varietals. Always read about and get as much information as possible before you purchase a bottle, this will increase your odds of getting something worthwhile. Jon Bonne of the Chronicle offers up quality suggestions and gives detailed descriptions. Good Cheap Vino is an excellent local site for weekly suggestions of wines and where to obtain them.
Wine is a journey and it is so rewarding when you discover a wine which opens up your palate to a new range of flavors and complexity.