GRAPE EXPECTATIONS

Confused about the difference between chardonnay and Chablis? Need clarification about claret or Chianti? Your local supermarket may have all the answers.Many supermarkets are now employing full-time wine stewards to help educate shoppers about which wines to choose.To find out how well these specialists field consumer questions, SN conducted a poll of six supermarkets with extensive wine departments.

Confused about the difference between chardonnay and Chablis? Need clarification about claret or Chianti? Your local supermarket may have all the answers.

Many supermarkets are now employing full-time wine stewards to help educate shoppers about which wines to choose.

To find out how well these specialists field consumer questions, SN conducted a poll of six supermarkets with extensive wine departments. A reporter posed as a consumer and spoke with the wine steward by phone, soliciting advice about which wines she should choose for an upcoming dinner party for 12, with an Italian theme.

In this scenario, an antipasto would be served as hors d'oeuvres; lasagna and either veal or chicken cutlet parmigiana for the main course; and Italian pastries and cakes for dessert. The purpose of the calls was to see how wine stewards would respond to consumers who had little knowledge about wine.

All the associates SN spoke with were full-time employees. And all but one were wine stewards or beverage specialists, while one store had an assistant store manager filling that role as part of his function.

The advice these experts offered was comprehensive. All were pleasant, patient and personable. Moreover, the wine stewards did a first-rate job of solving such mysteries as the difference between a cabernet and chardonnay, or a pinot grigio and a merlot.

However, they all had different suggestions as to what should be served.

Kroger, Houston

"[This store] has one of the best wine selections [in the Cincinnati-based Kroger chain]. We easily have 1,000 imported and domestic varieties," SN was told.

Customers can order in case amounts (12 large bottles and six smaller bottles) and receive a 10% discount.

The wine steward suggested a pinot grigio to go with the antipasto, and a Chianti for dinner. He advised against buying an additional dessert wine.

"I can suggest some nice Chiantis. Ruffino is $7 per bottle, with a higher tier Ruffino priced at $16.50. With lasagna you want a red wine."

D&W Food Center, Holland, Mich.

The wine department at Grand Rapids-based D&W's new store here is large and growing, according to the wine steward. Currently, 1,000 stockkeeping units are carried.

The steward suggested serving three different wines: a bubbly, a red and a white.

"For any garlic-oriented meal, darker Italian reds are appropriate," he said. "You might want one white on hand for someone who has allergies to red wine, but generally, I'd serve a very deep, dark red, like a cabernet franc or a Rosso from Italy. It cuts through the garlic and tomato and complements the meal."

When asked about prices, the steward said there are selections available for almost any budget. He suggested staying within a range of $7.99 to $20.

He also was highly knowledgeable about the different types on the market. "A lot of people don't like cabernet sauvignon, which is distinctive and earthy, but everyone likes a merlot or a Rosso, which is similar."

The steward noted there are eight "beverage specialists" for 26 stores in the D&W chain. Stores with large enough wine and liquor sales have a full-time beverage specialist on staff. The Holland store is No. 1 in the chain, when it comes to wine, he added.

Harris Teeter, Briarcliff (Atlanta), Ga.

The wine steward at this year-old unit conducts wine tastings at least once a month in the store's restaurant. Harris Teeter has one of the best wine selections in town, with $300,000 worth of inventory, she said.

In response to SN's inquiry, the steward suggested a light, white wine to serve with hors d'oeuvres, and a red wine with dinner.

"Start off with pinot grigio. It's lighter than a chardonnay and as dry as a sauvignon blanc, and it goes with antipasto. Or, you can go with a sauvignon blanc, which has a citrusy note. Both of those are dry, white wines.

"You start out with a light wine and then move toward a heavier, red wine, like a Ruffino Chianti. If you don't want a heavier, red wine, you might want to try a California pinot noir burgundy, which is not as heavy as a Chianti and a little fruitier."

The steward suggested serving a wine as the dessert, rather than with a dessert. Her choices were port, a sweet wine from Germany or a local dessert wine. The steward said prices range anywhere from $8.99 to $23 a bottle for a grigio or Chianti, and explained that a standard bottle of wine (750-ml) holds about four and a half glasses. She noted most people will drink at least two glasses.

Dorothy Lane Market, Oakwood, Ohio

Dorothy Lane has wine tastings every Saturday. The wine steward explained that such tastings are a good opportunity for customers to taste three or four different types of wine and to learn more about the subject. The store occasionally holds wine classes.

Dorothy Lane, based in Dayton, Ohio, is said to have the best selection of wine in town, according to the wine steward, with more than 2,000 SKUs from which to choose.

"We have 20 or 25 cabernets that run the gamut, from $6 to $100, 20 kinds of merlot, a large selection of pinots and French and Italian wines," the consultant said.

The steward suggested using the same wine for both the main meal and hors d'oeuvres, and then serving a dessert wine.

"I'd recommend a Chianti, which is kind of fruity, earthy and full-bodied. While they do make Chiantis in the United States, the real Chiantis come from Italy.

"You'll need three or four bottles, since you get about five 5-ounce glasses out of a 750-ml bottle.

"A nice Chianti is Francisco Reserve, at $9.99 a bottle. A Sangiovese from California would be a little pricier, at $12 or $14 per bottle."

Asti Spumanti, a bubbly white champagne, or a muscato, also a sweet wine, were suggestions for dessert. Three bottles of dessert wine would be more than enough for 12 people, he said.

Palisades Market, Lake

Oswego, Ore. (operated by

Lamb's Thriftway Markets,

Wilsonville, Ore.)

This new unit has one of the best selections of any supermarket in Oregon, according to the wine consultant, who noted the store is "drawing people from all over."

It holds in-store wine tastings every Saturday, as well as private wine tastings. Three wines were suggested for a complete dinner party.

"For the antipasto you can go with a dry white, such as a Soave or a Verdicchio or Vernaccia. You can spend anywhere from $8 to $15 for a tasty, dry white," he said.

The steward said a variety of Chianti wines were available for dinner. He mentioned a Chianti Classico, from La Massa, in central Italy's Tuscan region, or a Barbera wine from the Italian Piedmont.

For dessert, he suggested two 375-ml bottles of Vin Santo at $15 or $16 per bottle, which could be served in small quantities with Italian cakes. Alternatively, Asti Spumanti would also work with dessert, with the most popular brand, Martini & Rossi, priced at about $13 per bottle.

Pavilion, Anaheim Hills, Calif.

Pavilion used to have a wine steward, but the store didn't have enough business to keep him on staff. Now the assistant manager of the store has taken over that function.

This unit has about 1,100 SKUs of wine and spirits, being the only store SN spoke with that is also licensed to carry hard liquor. The alcoholic beverage section also stocks beer and cigars.

The manager recommended two wines for the dinner party: a white pinot grigio for the antipasto and main course, and either a muscat or a light chardonnay for dessert.

The manager mentioned a few wines that were on special that could be used for the dinner: for example, a pinot grigio from Gaetano D'Aquino, with two 750-ml bottles at $9, or a reserve at $6.85 per bottle. Also on sale was a Stonehenge merlot for $6.69, which the Wine Spectator had rated at 91.

For dessert, the manager recommended Estancia Pinnacles chardonnay. He noted that the dinner party would likely require five bottles of wine: three bottles to get the guests through the meal, and perhaps two bottles for dessert.