First in a series of monthly tasting panels drawn from Washington's varied communities.

To uncover the clandestine essence of selected wines, I chose men and women who have spent their careers discovering secrets and detecting nuance. Two ambassadors and three experts in the intelligence field made up the panel.

If the U.S. intelligence agencies' views on Iraq's weapons capabilities had been as divergent as this group's opinion on wine, the prewar National Intelligence Estimate of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction would have looked a whole lot different. Nearly every wine earned both praise and indifference, high marks and low.

The panel met with Washington Post wine critic Ben Giliberti to taste two groups of wines: sauvignon blancs and cabernet sauvignons. The panel proved to be independent-minded and rule-averse. They refused to follow Giliberti's advice to "spit." Everyone swallowed.

Our senior ambassador, Jean-David Levitte of France, got tied up in a meeting, missed the whites entirely and didn't jot down his views of the reds, although he shared them with us along the way. The newly arrived Australian ambassador, Dennis Richardson, the only other real wine expert in the group, proved a man of few words, but he did rank the wines. Think quality, not quantity, when reading his evaluations.

James Pavitt's passion as a gardener served the former deputy CIA director for operations well. Pavitt, now a partner at the Scowcroft Group, found trace tastes of cedar, grass, flowers, minerals, peach, raspberry and pineapple. Suzanne Spaulding, former staff director of the House Intelligence Committee and now managing director of the Harbour Group, found sweetness, butter and even cantaloupe in her favorite picks.

Visiting Georgetown University Professor and former senior State Department intelligence officer Jennifer Sims took the prize for the most descriptive descriptions, including a reference to a safari and an old library. She was the single holdout against the evening's lovely and most expensive bottle of red. Then again, she did acknowledge that she had been so busy she had had only an ice cream cone for lunch. The panel's two favorite wines were a 2002 Shafer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($47.99) and the 2002 Louis Martini Winery Cabernet Sauvignon ($12.99). The Louis Martini was the "find" of the evening, appreciated by every member, including Ambassador Levitte.

The wines are listed in the order in which our critic ranked them. They are available at many local liquor stores. We bought the whites at Total Wine & More in McLean and the reds at Calvert Woodley Wine and Liquor in Washington on Sept. 17.

Our tasting panel: Dennis Richardson, from left, Suzanne Spaulding, James Pavitt and Jennifer Sims.