RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT: Another hard day at the spittoon

Two years, 3,000 bottles of wine, 100 bottles of whisky and 200 beers later, it's time to take stock
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DR IONA HEATH, the greatest physician since Galen, finally had to admit defeat: she couldn't find an organic cause for my recent tendency to ponder philosophically the drink-writer's lot. Forced to consider life- events that might explain the problem, I looked at a calendar and all became clear. It is two years almost to the nanosecond since I started writing this column. If you will assume the position of a patient friend, therefore, I will indulge in a bit of stock-taking.

Some things have not changed. My list of favourite drinks is still headed by (1) water and (2) coffee made in a cafetiere. My favourite cocktail is still a very dry Martini. My favourite wines are still the ones I can't afford.

The most important change in the past two years is that I've drunk more than I had in the two decades that preceded them. Wait, Doc, don't sign me up to AA yet! I don't ingest any more than I ever did, but I've tasted ... what, two or three thousand wines? A hundred bottlings of whisky? A couple of hundred beers? Most of it I spat, into spittoons or the kitchen sink. (My children do a priceless imitation of my tasting routine.) The best, in the privacy of home at the right time of day, I drank.

There are three inevitable results of all this tasting, and one is that you get better at it. I have a surer sense of the general contours of a drink: is there the right amount of oak, is it concentrated or dilute in flavour, are the various components in balance? But I've also learned something even more important, and that is the necessity of trusting my own judgement. Do I like the drink in my glass? This is the $64,000 question.

The second result is one of the drink-scribe's greatest privileges: the opportunity to expand one's liquid horizons. Longer-serving members of HM Inspectorate of Alcoholic Beverages may experience the expansions less frequently, but for me there's a new revelation every week. And if I'm lucky, the revelations force me to abandon prejudices.

Such as my dislike of Viognier, about which I have written in these pages before. I'm by no means alone in discovering the virtues of this grape, but it remains a challenge even for the cognoscenti. A colleague told me that he was dining with a group of wine-writing friends, and one of them thought an ordered bottle of Viognier might have a fault. The glass was passed round. The conclusion: "This is such a weird grape that you can't tell what it's supposed to taste like!"

My two best Viognier revelations have come from California. Starting with the cheaper: Fetzer Viognier 1997, pounds 7.49 from Unwins, Oddbins, Majestic, Waitrose, Inner Cellar stores and Waitrose Direct. A nose reminiscent of Muscat but with hints of apples just before they start to ferment, and on the palate that strange, wild, soft-fruits richness. A lovely challenge. The dearer: Calera Viognier, sold by Bibendum (0171 916 7070). The 1996 delivered an absolutely massive attack of scented pineapple and ripe-peach fruit, oak notes played fortissimo, and a long finish. An amazing wine at a terrifying price. They should by now have taken delivery of the 1997, which is going for pounds 19.17 a throw. There's a backlog of orders.

Another pleasure that goes with the job is the discovery of hitherto unfamiliar grape varieties. Many come from Italy and Iberia, and the latter is responsible for Verdelho. I'd never even heard of the stuff two years ago, but I sure have made its acquaintance since then - and I think we're going to be great friends. My fave: David Traeger Verdelho 1997, Victoria (pounds 7.99 from Wine Rack and the Australian Wine Club, 0800 716 893). A fantastically complex set of floral and herbal flavours lives in each glassful of this stuff, with fine acidity and very full nose.

A third type of pleasure (God, don't you hate me?) comes from sampling something that's totally off the wall. Latest in this line is a curiosity from Ontario, Southbrook Farms Framboise. Frozen raspberries are vinified to 2 per cent alcohol, then fortified to 14.5 per cent. The sweetness is intense but with good balancing acidity; the wine manages to taste like a pungent, well made raspberry compote. It costs around pounds 7.99 for 37.5cl from Waitrose, Majestic, Adnams and elsewhere, and I am delighted to have drunk it. For true decadence, pour it on good vanilla ice-cream.

The third result is, in a sense, unfortunate: I drink for free most evenings, and sometimes drink wonderful things that I really couldn't afford myself in the normal course of events. I hope this great good fortune will never blind me to the fact that everyone else does have to pay for their wine, beer and spirits, and I know that I always consider, when recommending a bottle, whether I would pay the money asked.

Two things are indisputable. One, I am incredibly lucky to be making money from this. Two, you could do it just as well as I do. But please don't tell my editor I admitted this. She might offer you my job.