This is a problem for many — how to buy wine for the host when you’re the invited guest. A good rule of thumb is to buy according to the reputation of the importer/broker. (The person who discovers a vineyard and brings the wine to this country.)
We’ll be telling you about importers we respect from time to time. To start, Faith says to ask the wine store if they carry anything from Michael Rosenthal, then seek a wine from the Rosenthal selection at your price point. Michael Rosenthal has been widely admired by wine professionals for years. Some of his wines are high-end, but others are in the affordable category. If there are no Rosenthal wines, go with a country of origin where the winemakers have an “old-school” reputation, meaning they don’t believe in adding a lot of junk to manipulate the wine. Argentina would be such a place. For instance, Catena wines from Argentina are quite reliable.
A couple of other wine-makers to follow are Merry Edwards and Jeff Runquist, both in California. Both specialize in reds, but Merry Edwards makes a terrific sauvingnon blanc, too.