A good wine shop is worth more than a shelf full of wine guidebooks. At the best shops, the buyers taste everything they stock. If you tell them what you like, they can suggest bottles to fit in with what you've been drinking, or challenge you to expand your horizons.
There are at least a dozen shops in the city where you can get good advice and great vino. Here are a few favorites.
K&L WINE MERCHANTS
638 Fourth St. (at Brannan), 896-1734
When I know what I want, K&L is my first stop online. Not only does it have real-time inventory; if the company has a bottle I want in Redwood City or Hollywood, K&L will ship it up here for me to pick up. K&L is known for its French wines, particularly from Bordeaux, but it actually carries more wine from California than anywhere else. It's one of the best stores in town to just drop in and pick up something older, if you're in the mood. And if you ask the staff for a good $10 red, they'll take your question seriously.
Arlequin Wine Merchant
384-A Hayes (at Gough), 863-1104
Arlequin was one of the founders of the "natural wine" movement. Most of the wines it stocks reflect its philosophy of low-impact winemaking to reveal the terroir of different regions. The wines are not for all tastes: You won't find many big, simple reds here. The selection is international, but nobody in town has a more interesting collection of small-production, "natural" California wines.
3639 18th St. (at Guerrero), 241-9760
Worldwide, supermarkets are generally terrible places to buy wine, because they treat it like a commodity — just as they do everything else. In fact, when writing about wines that are cheap, mass-produced, competent, and boring, "supermarket wine" could be shorthand.
Food lover's dream store Bi-Rite takes wine just as seriously. You won't find bland corporate wine here: Instead, there's a constantly changing selection of wines with character, priced to enjoy with Tuesday night leftovers.
560 Hayes (at Laguna), 355-9555
Ringer! But True Sake is one of San Francisco's unappreciated gems: the only store in the U.S. to sell nothing but sake. Stop in, tell them what kinds of wine you like, and let them pick a sake for you to enjoy instead. Many sake shops in Tokyo would be jealous of their selection.