I NEED SOME ADVICE, PLEASE

RICHARD EHRLICH'S beverage REPORT
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The Independent Culture
In the good old days, matching wine with food was easy: you went to the off-licence while the mince was simmering and bought whatever you could afford. Now it's all become tragically complicated. Instead of mince you have polenta with wild mushrooms. And the local offie has been replaced by a supermarket selling mountains of wine you've never heard of.

In short, you need advice; and you may need it when you're actually standing at the bottle-mountain. To see whether retailers are up to the job, I shed my Royal College of Drinks Column-ists blazer, changed into civilian clothes, and sallied forth with menu-plan in hand. Starter: roasted red peppers with capers, garlic and anchovies. Main course: spaghetti a la carbon-ara, made with bacon, eggs and a little cream. Price limit: pounds 5, pounds 6 at a pinch, but I left it to the wine retailers to ask.

My inclination would be fruity white for the peppers and medium-bodied red for the pasta, but I'm latitudinarian (read: lazy) in these matters. To get a more rigorous view, I consulted Joanna Simon's Wine With Food (Mitchell Beazley pounds 17.99). For peppers, Simon suggests a spicy red like Rioja Crianza or Zinfandel, or a dry Australian Riesling or Semillon. For carbonara she prescribes Frascati Superiore Secco but suggests alternatives of both colours, including a simple red like Bardolino or a light Barbera.

My first stop was Waitrose, where a cheerful young stocktaker giggled: "I'm not a drinker myself." But she stopped her work to ring someone else, and soon came back with four suggestions. All were sensible, though only one (own-label Rioja Crianza) followed Simon's guidelines. Then she backed off to let me choose for myself. My choice: Fiordaliso Sangiovese (pounds 3.75).

At Safeway I found a shelf-stacker who clearly was a drinker. He too assumed there would be one bottle throughout the meal, and asked about the price limit, but he concentrated exclusively on the bacon (bacon = meat = red wine). White wasn't mentioned, neither were the peppers. On the other hand, he did explain different styles of red, and impressed me with his enthusiasm for Spain. At his recommendation I bought Safeway's Valdepenas Reserva 1991 (pounds 3.99).

Number three was my nearest Victoria Wine. It was exceedingly busy, but the manager took time to listen. Instantly she said: "You need Zinfandel" (Simon seal of approval), and briefly explained why. Gallo Turning Leaf 1994 was by far the better of its two Zins, though a quid dearer at pounds 5.99. Into the bag it went.

Next stop was Sainsbury's, from which I expected great things. It's been running a "Wine Without Worry" promotion, with wine-suggestion labelling on various foods, and in-store tastings. What's more, it's been training wine staff at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and even sending some to visit suppliers in France.

The man I encountered hadn't had his training yet. He tried hard, but the sum total of his oenophilic knowledge came from a little JS booklet. It didn't mention vegetables, so he couldn't help with the peppers. He didn't know what anchovies were. The best he could offer was that "pasta is Italian, so you should drink Italian wine." That meant a bottle of Bianco di Verona, reduced from pounds 2.99 to pounds 2.49. When he moved on, I put it back.

At Oddbins, by contrast, my guru pushed all the right buttons. He said that I needed two bottles, asked me about my price limit (bingo!) and then talked intelligently about my menu and the principles of matching wine with food. With little hesitation he offered two wines made by flying winemaker Kym Milne: white Greco di Puglia 1995 (pounds 4.99) for the peppers, and Primitivo del Salento 1994 (pounds 4.49) for the pasta; Primitivo is Italian for Zinfandel. I happily stuffed the bottles into my bag, though I couldn't oblige when he invited himself to dinner.

Final stop: the kitchen. The peppers were roasted and the pasta was boiled. I opened six bottles, chained my wife to the kitchen table, and produced a receptacle for unwanted glassfuls while we dined and glugged. (Don't try this at home, folks: we're professionals).

The good news: every wine went reasonably well with the food. The bad news: there were no marriages made in heaven.

We both found that the elusive fruit of the Greco di Puglia caved in under the peppers, though the Primitivo went perfectly with the pasta - better than the pricier Californian Zin. Best compromise for both dishes was Safeway's Valdepenas. Second best was Sainsbury's Tarrawingee Gren- ache (pounds 3.99), which I'd acquired for unrelated reasons. It had the same combination of spice and smooth, mellow fruit that made the Valdepenas a winner.

What struck us most was that each wine accentuated something different in the food. Instead of discovering a single perfect match, we found a series of good ones. The exercise made me think that my laid-back views on marrying food and wine are no bad thing. But of course, I would say that, wouldn't I?

And the wisdom of using a sales assistant as match-maker? Well, it's the luck of the draw. The best advice may come from Oddbins, but the best wine can come from just about any place - including the seedy off-licence just round the corner.

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