There are simply hundreds of wines out there that over-deliver for the price. They may be products of a great vintage, or may represent an undervalued category, an unsung region, an unheralded variety, or may be closeouts or downturn deals, but they're out there, and you should stock them.
My idea is to define a dozen slots for can't-miss values, with a few options for each slot: six red, six white, all of them under $15, all of them reliable -- not overreaching, just satisfying and honest.
Let's start with the whites. It's springtime, so these selections are heavily weighted toward light, fresh, herbaceous wines, mostly devoid of oak and ready to complement a light spring meal.
GRÜNER BY THE LITER
Austria's signature white, Grüner Veltliner, is the ideal springtime wine to keep in your working case, with herbal white pepper scents and bracing acidity. Even though top bottlings of Grüner can cost up to $60, there is a smart selection of everyday wines in the vicinity of $10, usually for a liter -- a third more than a regular bottle. Look for the big bottles from Loimer, Huber, Ebner and my go-to liter, Pollerhof.
While the prices continue to rise on Oregon Pinot Noir and Washington state Bordeaux-style blends, the whites from these respective regions are still priced well. In Oregon that means Pinot Gris, and the state's largest producer, King Estate, is still one of its best; its Signature bottling can be had for about $14. Or pick the frisky Gris-based blend by Sokol Blosser, "Evolution No. 9," so named for the nine cool-climate varieties you'll find there (about $13).
In Washington the word is Riesling, and you can find juicy, well-balanced, food-friendly Rieslings from the likes of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Snoqualmie and Pacific Rim (all less than $10); for a couple of extra bucks kick yourself in the pants with "Kung Fu Girl," which winemaker Charles Smith tailors for Asian dishes.
THE INDIGENOUS ITALIANS
In a little more than a decade, Italy's indigenous whites have been transformed -- once thin and plonky, they're now fresh, vibrant and full of character. Some of the best-tasting values come from the middle reaches in Umbria and the Marches, like the Trebbiano d'Abruzzo from Farnese (about $10), or the marvelous 2007 Verdicchio di Matelica from ColleStefano -- it's won a slew of awards in the Italian wine press, and is still about $14.
THE LITTLE WINES OF FRANCE AND SPAIN
The country wines of France and Spain are my bread and butter whites. I always have a Muscadet on hand for a brisk aperitif or a meal with seafood -- the Domaine de la Pépière Clos des Briords (about $14), made from 80-year-old vines, is especially vibrant. Vins du Pays from the south are also a value, like the finely wrought Viognier that I found from the Languedoc (Guilhem Durand, about $11).
Many of Spain's fresh Ruedas and Albariños remain well-priced and delightful with spring fare. From the Rueda one of the most reliable is crisp and lemony Naia Blanco, made from 100% Verdejo (about $12). As for Albariños, the ever-reliable Burgans and Martin Codax, from Galicia, still come in under $14.