I like to think I'm immune to advertising and branding. I'm not, of course. I only ever buy Fairy washing up liquid (because my mother did) and I will only wear DKNY jeans in public (they succeed in making my fat backside lok slimmer than any others I've tried).

Truth is, I'm not terribly bothered about the sparkling results of my dishwashing and I'm not about to kid myself - or anyone else - that I'm a tidy size eight, so this blind brand following is incomprehensible. But I'm clearly a bigger sucker than I thought.

When it comes to wine brands though, I become uncharacteristically animated. I promise you, this is nothing to do with snobbery - or a misguided belief that brands don't deliver on either quality, or value for money.

Rather, it is because I think wine is great. I am endlessly fascinated by it; that wine lives and breathes and that it can be so delightfully unpredictable is what I love about it the most. I emphatically don't want the Mars bar experience, which is to say an entirely predictable taste experience, no matter when or where you buy it. I want to be surprised; stimulated; intrigued and certain wines can do this by the bucket load.

Brands, by their very definition, remove the element of surprise. Robin Knapp, director of fine wines at Constellation Europe (the world's largest wine company and brand supremo) was a recent speaker at a debate on the role of wine brands in the restaurant sector. He made a persuasive case in favour of brands.

He argued that wine drinkers are looking for a guarantee of quality and value for money. He talked a lot about the customer's desire for reassurance' and comfort' and in these respects he argued that wine brands are best-placed to deliver.

In the opposing corner was Ian Ronald from independent wine merchant, John Armit Wines.

While Robin was able to draw on extensive research, endless quotes and irrefutable figures, Ian's case was of the more emotional variety.

He called for the wine drinker to be treated to wines of personality and flair'. His hope was that restaurant wine lists would expand our horizons'; stretch our imagination' and take us on a sensory journey'.

Emotionally I'm 100 per cent behind Ian - but my head is thumping with the frustration at the lack of substance and welly to his argument.

Just 24 hours after the Knapp vs. Ronald debate, the Oxford Wine Club (oxford.wineclub@virgin.net) was hosting its very own Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Brands?' tasting.

Constellation delivered six branded' wines and wine purchasing director, Simon Jerrome (a knowledgeable, witty speaker), whilst the non-brands were represented by Master of Wine and consultant, Richard Bampfield.

The idea was to taste the wines blind' in pairs and to have a show of hands to see whether the drinking public would opt for the supposedly less interesting' brands or the more characterful' independent wines. In the end the brands come out on top in five out of the six votes.

What, if anything can be concluded from such a results? In truth, nothing earth-shattering, but I think there were some noteworthy points from at least three of the pairs.

Two New World sauvignon blancs offered an interesting comparison between a user-friendly style versus the more esoteric. New Zealand's Villa Maria is the country's second largest wine producer and founder, George Fistonich has retained a focus on quality that appears not to have been overshadowed by the company's continued growth.

The Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc 2006 (£7.59, Waitrose) was a classically zesty, intense gooseberry glass of wine but with more than a hint of sweetness.

I believe it was this very sweetness that secured its success over the (smaller estate) Nepenthe Sauvignon Blanc 2006 from Australia (£7.99, Waitrose). This was a much drier, minerally, almost herbal sauvignon and, for my money, the more challenging and ultimately rewarding of the pair.

Quite coincidentally, I was showing the Nepenthe Sauvignon Blanc at a tasting two weeks later. Sadly, nearly everyone found it to be too austere and dry. It is hard not to believe that the winemakers and consultants at Villa Maria are only too aware of the consumer preference for a hint of sweet and have created a style to ensure its continued success in the market place.

The Stowells brand is one of the UK's top performers and is currently the UK's third best-selling wine and I confess to only having tasted it for the first time last year. Though my first sample of Stowells Bag-in-Box Tempranillo was memorable for all the wrong reasons; sludge brown and no more redeeming on the taste buds.

So, how did the Stowells VDP d'Oc Merlot NV (approximately £3.66 a bottle) hold up against Majestic's VDP de l'Aude Cuvée Richard 2005 (£3.15)? There wasn't much contest to be honest.

The Stowells was vibrant, juicy and extremely enjoyable. By contrast the Cuvée Richard was a little tired and definitely the flatter of two.

Stowells knows exactly what it's about; delivering affordable, easy-drinking, un-intimidating wines. By making a non-vintage product, the winemakers are able to blend with previous vintages - a strategy that enables them to deliver both consistency of quality and flavour. The ultimate Mars bar wine and impossible to quibble with.

The Cuvée Richard was undoubtedly a better bottle of wine six months ago and if the tasting had been held in the summer of 2006 it may even have triumphed.

This exposes another challenge for the smaller outfit. There's a requirement to know the stock intimately and know how quickly you need to sell stock before moving onto the new vintage.

Finally some good news for the romantics amongst us! Hardys is Australia's second largest wine producer and has a hard-earned reputation for its extensive range of wine brands.

Constellation bought Hardys in 2004 and in doing so became the largest wine company in the world. With all that backing, investment and expertise you might have expected the Hardys Nottage Hill Cabernet Sauvignon / Shiraz 2005 (£6.45, Tesco) to romp him with first prize in the blended Australian red category.

Well, three cheers for the family-owned Wakefield Promised Land Shiraz / Cabernet 2004, (£6.99, Oddbins) which delivered way beyond its comparatively humble price. Lashings of rich, peppery, dark berry fruits and a well-balanced, long finish. The Hardys was dowdy by comparison and the Wakefield inarguably more interesting. Absolutely work the extra 54p.

It was Miss Fritton (played by the fantastically gifted Alistair Sim) in the St Trinian's films who declared "in other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared".

If boutique, sensory-evoking wines of the world are to hold their place in our wine racks, the people who make and sell them must work as creatively and robustly as the St Trinian's sixth-formers, ensuring that they are delivering the best wine possible accompanied by a robust strategy for communicating their merits to us humble wine drinkers.

Rest assured that the likes of Constellation are not resting on their laurels - and John Armit and friends should be prepared.