Here's some sage advice for tough economic times:

Buy more wine.

No, not to wash away the memories of the last time you dared check your 401(k). I'm talking about another number: 12, as in how many bottles make up a case.

Buying wine by the case can save money two ways: on fuel, reducing the number of trips to your friendly neighborhood wine store, and usually on the juice as well. Virtually all retailers give a 10 percent discount on a case of the same wine, and an increasing number of them are offering the same deal on a mixed case. So ask your merchant if the store offers 10 percent off on a mixed case -- and if the answer is no, ask why not.

Preferably, you already know what your favorite stores offer, because you have developed a simpatico relationship with one or more merchant(s). Everyone, from novice to cork dork, should have at least one wine guy or gal who knows what you like (and dislike), how you consume it and how experimental you are.

And experimental you should be. A reader e-mailed me last week, asking how to learn about wine; I pointed him to a few classes and touted a book, Kevin Zraly's "Windows on the World Complete Wine Course." But mostly I urged him to go out and go home.

Get to a couple of stores, preferably not at their busiest times, and find the right person, someone who is passionate about wine and a good listener. Don't settle for someone who's not interested in you and interesting in the way he or she discusses wine. Tell that person where you're at with wine, and where you want to go.

Drink a lot of different wines, definitely with food and preferably with friends. Think and talk about the wine -- how it smells and tastes, how it evolves in the glass, what foods it might go with -- and make some notes, mostly about whether or why you liked it.

Sampling and experimenting provide far and away the best road to wine discovery, and mixed cases are a great vehicle, no matter your level of wine knowledge.

One option for a mixed case is to give that simpatico merchant a budget but otherwise a free hand to expand your horizons. But in this increasingly DIY age, it might be more fun to fearlessly throw it together yourself.

I'd recommend at least one sparkling and one pink wine, maybe one dessert wine, and the rest split between red and white. Get at least of couple of wines that are from unfamiliar places (Uruguay, New Mexico) or grapes (blaufränkish, arneis).

If you like sauvignon blanc from California, try one from New Zealand and/or France. If you like cabernet sauvignon, try it blended with merlot from California or shiraz from Australia. If you like bubbly, get a cava from Spain and a prosecco from Italy. If you like malbec, buy two of them at different price points.

The whole point is to boldly go where you have not gone before. That's the best way to learn -- and to live.

Bill Ward •