MATCHING WINES TO DISHES An elegant Italian white wine from southern Tuscany won the most praise in The Washington Post's November tasting of wines in the $20 to $30 range (or about $50 to $80 in a fine restaurant). One by one, the wine directors of four of Washington's leading restaurants paired it with food that could be served in their establishments.

The fact that the wine was Italian -- this was a blind tasting, so its provenance was not clear -- mattered not at all. The sommeliers matched it with dishes ranging from crab imperial to rib-eye steak to simple grilled fish and portobello mushrooms.

We invited Mark Slater, who presides over 700 wine selections in the cellar at Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown; Nadine Brown, who oversees wines from every state in the union at Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill; Michael Flynn, sommelier at Kinkead's on Pennsylvania Avenue and Colvin Run Tavern in Vienna; and Kathy Morgan, wine director at Ristorante Tosca in downtown Washington (she moved to 2941 in Falls Church this week), to join Post wine critic Ben Giliberti in a formal tasting of three whites and five reds from the United States, France and Italy. Flynn and Morgan are in the last stages of studying for a master sommelier diploma, which has been awarded to fewer than 100 Americans in the 30-year history of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

What goes with what? we asked. Does Italian food, like that served at Tosca, call for Italian wine? How about American cuisine, such as the fare at Charlie Palmer, or seafood, the specialty of Kinkead's? Would the fine French-based food at Citronelle cry out for only French wine?

In the end, there was nothing dogmatic about the sommeliers' views of the varied wines. French wines paired well with French dishes, but so did Italian and American wines. A similar pattern held for the other wines.

The alleged distinction between the fruity New World style of American wines and the earthy Old World style of Europe also fell apart. With the exception of a rustic Italian Barolo, all the wines were New World fruity.

The favorite red of the evening, a Saint-Emilion from Chateau Destieux, was ranked relatively high by all -- even as it was described as having a nose with a hint of the barnyard, and put down as "needs time." Its French derivation didn't prevent the sommeliers from suggesting "partner" dishes in non-French restaurants.

The least favorite wine of the evening was a zinfandel from Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino, Calif. Giliberti, Slater and Brown dismissed it as too alcoholic, overripe and not their style. Even so, Flynn found it interesting and gave it one of his second highest number rankings of the night, proving that palates -- even the most educated -- differ.