I do not drink wine (or other alcohol) and have almost no experience with wine other than when cooking. For me, it's hard to get past the alcohol burn when drinking wine to get to the flavors inside.
For cooking, most wines in the $10-15 range are fine. When it comes to reds, I find that there are lots of different effects one can get from different types of red wine.
Some Reds taste like burnt charcoal. I'm not kidding, burnt charcoal. "They" say it's an "oaky" flavor but it's burnt wood ash in alcohol no matter how you slice it. This is expecially prevalent in heavier reds like Shiraz' and Merlot's from less expensive vintners. Moving up the price chain, the flavor gets better but I have found that the charcoal flavor never really goes away. This lends an odd taste to my cooking in my opinion - some like it but I don't enjoy charcoal flavored food (BBQ is a different animal. Well crisped, sauced, and slightly charred).
So, I tend to stick with lighter reds. Beaujolais, Cabernet Savignons (pay $10-20 for better wines - the <$10 brands are HORRIBLE), and others of the same ilk are light to mildly dry.
Don't forget about Zinfindels either. Most people know white zin (which is a blended blush really) but don't realize that it's really a red.
Most experts tend to say (and I agree mostly) that you should cook with a wine you would be willing to drink. Since I don't drink alcohol, I'd modify that to say that you should cook with a wine which will enhance the flavors of the dish to get what you're looking for from the meal.
Almost all wines will add a depth of flavor to the dish you can't get otherwise. Keep the amt low to start with (under 1/2 cup) and see what effects you get. Then you can change and use a different type of wine in the same dish to see what happens. For example, spaghetti sauce is perfect for wine experimenting. Most people usually fix spaghetti often enough that they can add a cabernet this week and next week use a merlot and see which they prefer better. The following week, use something else. Eventually you start to see that heavier wines add a specific depth of flavor while lighter wines tend to bring out the high notes. One type gives earthyness while another emphasizes the herbs and spices or vegetables/tomatoes. Once you understand the difference and what does what you can start to tailor what you add (and how much) to certain types of dishes while reserving other types of wines for different dishes because those are the ones they work best in.
As for brands, taste is subjective to the individual. You may like a specific brand while others think it tastes like vinegar. What matters is how it interacts with the flavors of the food and whether it subtracts from, muddies up the flavors of, or adds to the dish.
BTW, you should ever serve a meal to guests that you haven't previously prepared and tested on your local family guinee pig/spouse/significant other. I fix "sit down" meals 2 times per week which mostly feature something I've not prepared before. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't but EVERYONE comes to the table and eats (no exceptions or else!) with some level of anticipation that it's supposed to be exceptional food.
Another tip: Go to a decent wine shop and read the labels on the bottles. Most vintners have some blurb on the bottle which will give you some insight as to what to expect from the contents. Do this several times so that you can remember the differences between different wines. Also, there will be a test at dinner time to determine if you passed or failed. :eek: So do your homework.
Egads, this got long! Sorry.