Now is the time to stock up on value wine: You'll need bottles to cart to impromptu parties or to whip out for that person you didn't know was getting you something. Even though I see others caught in this pickle time and again (and even though I taste thousands of wines each year), I will still find myself in strange stores this holiday season grabbing wine at the last minute. Here's how I find blind: Look for love notes. Most grocery stores have an on-site wine buyer. His or her biggest crushes will have handwritten signs expounding the wine's merit. These wines are a value above value to have grabbed the buyer's attention—and they deserve yours. Mind your importer. The number-one question I get as a wino is "What's a good red?" Slim chance someone could find the one bottle I recommend, so I prefer to point people toward wine importers. Some companies just know how to pick 'em. Jorge Ordoñez is the name for reliable Spanish wines. In Washington, Grape Expectations direct-imports some unusually delicious stuff, keeping prices low by cutting out middlemen. Seattle-based Epicurean Wines have garnered international attention for their portfolio of Aussies, and Vineyards Brands finds great value around the world, old and new. When in doubt, go south. In the value-wine roulette, South America and South Africa give the odds on best juice. Packaging is generally superior, and prices are low because you're not paying a winery's California mortgage. The Argentinian labels Catena, Trapiche, and Doña Paula consistently hit under-$15 home runs with cabernet and spicy malbec. Chile's Santa Rita, Carmen, and Veramonte keep it tasty and under $10, especially the country's carmenère, which is like a macho merlot. If you like big chewy reds, look for South African pinotages and syrahs, both undeniably rich and almost meaty. Try wines from MAN, Guardian Peak, and Fairview. Ask! I hate asking for help or being talked at, so I understand shoppers who keep to themselves. But wine-shop employees know how their wines taste, so don't shy away from them. Be direct, and announce your boundaries, especially in terms of price: "I need a case of wine for parties and surprise gifts, with bottles that range between $8 and $12 but look more expensive." Then watch them work. When I'm 45 minutes late with not a second to spare on reading labels, I reach for one of my old faithfuls: Coppola's Diamond series and anything from Bonny Doon. The latter makes very cool wine with packaging that doubles as an icebreaker, and the Diamond series is full of balanced, fruit-rich wines that make fast friends. firstname.lastname@example.org Note: Roger Downey is currently on leave of absence.