A few weeks ago in New York I found myself in a neighbourhood off-licence searching for a wine to take to a dinner party. It took longer than expected because I spent so much time reading the owner's handwritten blurbs taped to various bottles. These pithy opinions were fascinating. 'From the middle of nowhere in France . . . comes our best-selling merlot. The 1996 Ardeche Merlot. Just US$6.49 [about HK$50.19]. Please take our word for it. It's cheap and it's good.' You just had to believe this guy after reading such a sincere-sounding piece of advice. He could beg all he wanted but, if you ask me, pure merlot - while currently in the limelight - is not a grape that holds up on its own. Inoffensive to the point of boredom, it is all bland softness and totally devoid of spunk. It cries out for grapes with more depth or personality for company in the bottle. I moved on. 'We really love this cab,' effused the next review. 'Blended with merlot and malbec to give you a wonderful complexity of flavour. Drink it tonight or keep it. The longer you do, the better it gets.' Now this was more like it. Merlot was put in its rightful place - as an appreciated additive. 'The carnivore's companion. A real gutsy, in-your-face zinfandel you can cut with a knife, just like the steak you'll drink it with. Try it, you'll like it. US$6.99.' This helpful food-and-wine-pairing was just one of many recommendations among the reds. But my friends were vegetarians so I made my way over to the whites. 'Sing the wine electric,' proclaimed the little sign poetically. 'The rhapsodies of spring are yours with this new Napa chardonnay. A sip will transport you through aromatic orchards redolent with apple, pear and peach. Only US$8.' Even the song of Solomon couldn't have wooed me over to an unsubtle Napa chardonnay. Yet I admired the author for taking the interest in his stock. But frankly, no matter what these little notes advise, they are a real plus. Not only do they give the prospective buyer a bit of insight into the liquid that lurks within, they impart a friendliness and personal concern that is, in my view, the very best PR there is. 'You like fruit? You like flowers? This fragrant gewurztraminer is for you. Chill it, sip it, drink it with fish or fowl, cheese or chips, or neat, on its own. All the way from Alsace for just US$10.99.' When my friends asked what had kept me, I replied I had been reading about wine. 'That's you, always working,' they said, understanding completely.