Landing in my inbox just before Christmas was a story published by the authoritative wine magazine Decanter under the headline: 'Girls private school teaches wine appreciation.' I was intrigued. Reading on I learned that Malvern St James School in Worcestershire, which charges up to 9,000 a term, runs regular wine appreciation evenings. Apparently considered one of Britain's best schools it runs a twice-termly course open to girls aged 16 and over.
"Certainly we have not had any instances of binge-drinking at the school, and the girls are very aware of the news stories and can see what happens outside the school," the college's teacher, Rachel Huntley, was quoted as saying. "My personal view is that children, who are introduced young, in a permissive atmosphere where there might be spirits, may form bad habits," she went on. "But if you introduce them age 16 to wine in a controlled environment, this helps move them away from drinking Bacardi Breezers or fruit juices loaded with neat alcohol."
Huntley then added for good measure that after pouring a taste for up to 24 participants, there is usually a quarter of a bottle left. "We do not teach them that the purpose of drinking is to get drunk," she added. "It's about enjoying a meal together and having a discussion."
I'm not sure if the story was meant to shock or whether it was run to illustrate an eminently sensible way in which to educate the young on the dangers of alcohol abuse.
In the early 1990s I too attended a boarding school and, although it seems incredible in the present climate, in my final year I too enjoyed the benefits of a Wine Society. It was called La Confrrie and we met once a month under the tutelage of various wine merchants, connoisseurs and experts. It was run by a geography master from Inverness. The emphasis was very much on education, appreciation and preparing our palates for all-important wine tasting matches that occurred between a handful of other schools. I can't ever remember anyone ever getting drunk at the meetings as the amounts we received to taste were simply too small. On the contrary, the society was a wonderful way of introducing alcohol to adolescents in a relaxed, semi-formal environment. Rather like driving a powerful sports car, alcohol needs to be respected and never abused. I was reminded of this when I later taught in a school in the Czech Republic. One day one of the pupils invited me back to his house to meet his parents. Now this pupil was well under the legal drinking age but his father let him take one tiny sip of his beer. My astonished look must have said it all as the boy turned to me and said: "Just one small sip."
I'm not advocating wine lessons or mass drinking parties for the young, but a little bit of gentle education goes far further than demonising and prohibition which only goes to encourage alcohol misuse.
I went back to my school a couple of years ago to give a lecture on wine. Sadly La Confrrie was no more.
Ctes du Rhne 2006 14 per cent 8.69, reduced to 6.95 each when you buy two (Majestic)
E Guigal, Rhone Valley, France
This really is a great offer from Majestic. I'm a huge fan of Guigal, who is one of the Rhone's top producers. This is a rustic, heady wine to see you through this cold snap.
Cabernet Sauvignon 13.5 per cent 4.75 (Tesco)
Casillero del Diablo, Chile,
On offer in Tesco is this reliable, over achieving red from Chile. This has a wonderful spicy character and is very good value for money.
Chardonnay 2007 14 per cent 18.99 (Waitrose)
Cloudy Bay, Marlborough, New Zealand
I have always preferred the chardonnay to the sauvignon blanc in Cloudy Bay's portfolio. It used to be really hard to get hold of but now Waitrose is putting it on the shelves. Yes it is pricey but its crisp, clear purity makes it a wonderful mid-winter treat.
This article was first published in Scotsman on Sunday on 10 January, 2010.