Nights of wine and roses


VALENTINE'S Day, less than a week away, calls for some response. No matter how much we may squirm at the red satin pin cushion padded cards and the twee restaurant promotions, "delivering needless death" to acres of red rosebuds, most of us have a soppy little streak which radiates romantic intent, on cue, into the chill February air. Wine may help, as anybody who has ever drunk a special bottle with a special person can attest. But supposing you haven't met the special person yet? Here's a Valentine story to suggest that wine may help there, too.

Niall Dooley and Louise Barry are the first couple I've heard of for whom the Wine Development Board has acted as a kind of marriage bureau. Just over three years ago, Louise, who is manager of Tinakilly House in Wicklow, stumbled into Niall at the Grahams Wine List Awards in Dobbins Restaurant, Dublin, where he is sommelier and assistant manager. The initial chat up bit was easy: they vaguely recognised each other as fellow graduates from the Hotel Management Course at Galway RTC. They then discovered they had both enrolled for the Wine Diploma Course and had the nerve to risk a first date a few days before classes started.

"It would have been very embarrassing if it hadn't worked out," says Louise. "We'd have had to put up with each other for six months."

It did work out, of course. Imagine the scenario - all those tasting sessions together, all the talk about mouth feel and tongue tingle. Can you think of any better breeding ground for romance? I've advocated classes before, for the fun and pleasure of learning about wine, but after the revelations of this happy pair, I'm beginning to see them in a new, soft focus light. Anybody partial to savouring the occasional glass and seeking a partner with a view to sharing same, should stop loitering in the small ads and sign up.

The mechanics of the first date may be of topical interest if you move at the speed of light and arrange yours in time for Valentine's night. Niall took Louise to L'Ecrivain. Nothing mealymouthed about that. He ordered half a bottle off respectable white Burgundy, then a bottle of Barolo - good indicators of serious intent. One year later, in January 1995, they were engaged (and showered with presents of vintage claret).

Last October they were married, taking over Tonlegee House in Athy for a reception memorably fuelled by Yves Boyer Martenot's Meursault `L'Ormeau' and Robert Mondavi's gorgeous, unfiltered Napa Valley Pinot Noir.

More wine flavoured still was their honeymoon, picked from a Winetrails ad in Decanter - a fortnight on the old Tuscan wine estate of Podere Terreno. It was harvest time, with early morning mists making the dreamy landscape of Chianti especially ethereal, and one day they joined the grape pickers: a photograph of the two of them with their big, red, plastic buckets is on the mantelpiece in a silver frame. They visited Badia a Coltibuono and Selvapiana with its romantic, cobwebby old cellars; spent lunchtimes exploring local wines and discovered a passion for sweet vin santo.

"It was magical," they say and, judging from the wine details alone, one feels bound to agree. The amusing thing is that the long arm of the Diploma Course helped even to determine the honeymoon direction. "We had one lecturer," Niall recalls, "who used to say: `Now, you've all seen bunches of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on the vine...' We used to look at each other and think, `no, we've never seen any grapes on any vine.' It was time to do something about it."

The exams suffered, by the way, from the pressures of a fast blossoming romance and a pair of work schedules filled with 12 hour days and horribly late nights. While Niall plans to re-enrol for the Wine Diploma next January, Louise has decided to retire from study for a while. "There just isn't time for it." They consider themselves lucky if their rotas coincide to give them one weekend in three together.

But as both have responsibility for a constantly changing list of about 200 wines, the drink, that brought them together continues to play a starring role in their working lives and bottles are regularly enjoyed in the limited time they have together. Like all wine lovers - all lovers, indeed - they argue about likes and dislikes. And like all wine lovers, they spend an indecent chunk of their free time succumbing to temptation in good wine shops, with The Wine Vault in Louise's home town of Waterford a favourite. In case you're wondering, they'll both be working this Valentine's night but last year they were at home, sharing the intense thrill of a bottle of 1982 Malescot-St Exupery.