There's no shortage of tastings and smart wine evenings for the initiated, comparing California Cabernets with 1988 Chateauneuf du Pape. But a straightforward, unpretentious course for the person who just wants to feel more confident when studying a wine list or serving guests at home is hard to find.
Outside London, the would-be wine buff may be lucky enough to find an adult education course (details from the Wine Promotion Board, see below). The standards vary; some are worthwhile and fun, the kindest description for others is uninspiring. The best are in London. I have looked at four courses, aimed at beginners and taught by some of the country's top wine experts.
As a hardened wino, I tend to forget that not everyone is an uninhibited slurper. So I was delighted to find that 'How to slurp' was one of the first subjects on the curriculum at Winewise, along with how to sniff and how to spit. With my fellow pupils at Michael Schuster's six-session wine classes for beginners, all gleefully slurping away, there was no awed silence for me to break. Slooshing wine around the mouth while sucking air through it, Schuster explained, distributes the taste and releases more of the volatile aromas.
This is the place I would choose to get a basic grounding in wine. Schuster knows his stuff as he trained in tasting at Bordeaux University and worked in the British wine trade, though he is now independent. His classes can be fun, but though his style is affable, he can also be quite serious, with just the occasional glimpse of dry humour. It was partly the setting that put people at their ease (classes are held in the basement of his north London house). We gathered chatting in the garden before the session began, and took a break there half-way through. Inside the whitewashed cellar, we faced each other with a set of 10 glasses and a mini-spittoon each.
People giggled, slurped, and asked questions. 'He's not at all intimidating,' said solicitor Andrew Wilkinson, slurping alongside me. There were just 16 of us, mostly in our twenties and thirties, a few older, half men, half women; nurses, business executives, two lawyers, a housewife, two city accountants . . .
Somehow it also helped morale that we didn't get wine in our first four glasses. Four large plastic bottles came down the table filled with London tap water, and solutions of sugar, lemon juice and vodka. We tasted them separately, then played at mixing them. When the first wines came after the break, everyone, like fledgling pros, happily commented on levels of acidity, sweetness and alcohol.
'I now know what to call things I'd tasted in wine but had not identified - ah yes, that taste was the acidity, or the tannin,' said Tony Bealt, a company director, several weeks into the course. 'I now know I like certain grape varieties more than others - Merlot more than Cabernet Sauvignon, for example. And I've learnt how the processes of winemaking affect the taste, what makes a better wine a better wine.'
Christie's beginners' course was an altogether more formal affair, even though Michael Broadbent, head of its wine department, had a chirpy and witty delivery. Students sat in academic ranks in a large lecture theatre, and the wines were slickly poured by young Christie's staff, so there was not much chatting. The wines (mostly French) were brilliantly chosen to illustrate particular grapes and wine styles, by Steven Spurrier. For many years he ran a wine school in Paris to teach French wine-drinkers how to taste, and now organises the Christie's courses. Each evening in the five-week course is taught by a different (mostly excellent) wine expert.
There was no class discussion at the session I went to, and few questions from the floor at the end. Michael Broadbent simply talked us through the wines, concentrating very much on the wine in the glass and leaving the background information to a typed sheet. Anthea Snow, a book editor, said at the end of the evening that she found it reassuring that she 'could detect the things in the wines that he could'. By the end of the whole course, she had thoroughly enjoyed it: 'I got much more out of it than I expected. I'm definitely much better at tasting.' She is now keen to stray beyond France.
Exploring beyond France, or at least beyond the participants' own wine horizons, is the speciality of another set of courses, at the Fulham Road Wine Centre. On their 'What's my wine?' courses, squeezed into the basement of the shop, you taste eight wines an evening 'blind' - unidentified, that is, until you and the class, with the help of many leading questions from the speaker, have formed your opinion. This was another chatty group, though interacting less with each other and more with the speaker.
'Anyone finding under-ripe raspberries?' asked wine consultant Maggie McNie, slurping a vin du pays made from the Syrah grape. 'Cheesy', 'farmyardy', 'smoky', 'broad beans', they threw back at her. 'I wanted to be able to identify wines,' my travel-agent neighbour told me. 'I learnt a lot in the first week's class - to the extent that I was able to guess a wine correctly at a dinner party.' This is not the place to come for a structured, thorough grounding. It aims, according to the brochure, 'to help you discover what you really enjoy', concentrating on the characteristics of different grape types, and the styles of wine they make. 'I've always stuck to Chardonnay,' said one student, 'but since last week's white wine tasting, I've developed a passion for Riesling and Gewurztraminer.' I came away from this tasting feeling that participants needed a properly written rundown on the grapes. The organisers say they are about to 'beef up the literature'.
I couldn't visit Winecellars' classes in Wandsworth since their last beginners' course was in January. But I like the sound of the course they propose to run from September to December this year, and I have great respect for the three in-house masters of wine who will be fronting it. The emphasis here is on the mechanics of tasting, and relating the taste back to winemaking methods. There is a whole session, for example, on the balance between tannins and alcohol, another on oak flavours: oaks of different origin, barrels made in different ways and how they affect the colour, smell and taste of wine. Most wine buffs - and many professionals - would probably learn a lot here, too.-
BEGINNERS' WINE COURSES
The Wine Promotion Board at Five Kings House, 1 Queen Street Place, London EC4R 1QS (071-248 5835) can supply information about courses in your area, or look in the information sections of Wine or Decanter magazines.
Christie's, 63 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3JS (071-581 3933). 'Introduction to wine tasting' courses starting 6 October and 10 November, pounds 155 for five evening sessions.
The Fulham Road Wine Centre, 899-901 Fulham Road, London SW6 5HU (071-736 7009). 'What's my wine?' starting in the second week of September, pounds 49.50 for three evening sessions.
Winecellars, 153-155 Wandsworth High Street, London SW18 4JB (081-871 3979). 'In-depth tutored tasting programme' starting in September, pounds 50 for six evening sessions.
Winewise, Michael Schuster, 107 Culford Road, London N1 4HL (071-254 9734). Beginners' course starting on 14 October, pounds 95 for six evening sessions.