Jimmy Boyle was brought up in a hard school of wine drinking, on the streets of the Gorbals in Glasgow. 'Everyone drank El Dorado, or 'LD', the butt of a thousand Billy Connolly jokes. And there was Lanliq, known as Lanny. They were both South African. Everyone would drink and I would, too, to be one of the lads. But I was never really happy drinking whisky, El Dorado or Lanliq. This was when I was nine, in the early Fifties.

'All of that was a haze, a sort of madness. Then I got into stealing. Everything was seasonal. Suits for the summer, for weddings, and whisky for Christmas and the new year. That was the sort of business I was in at 14. Then I got caught up in heavy violence and ended up doing a life sentence for murder.'

Boyle, now a sculptor and writer, became known as 'Scotland's most violent man', ending up in 'The Cages' in Inverness. In a riot in 1973 he nearly died from injuries, including a fractured skull. He was charged with the attempted murder of six prison officers and transferred to the experimental new Special Unit at Barlinnie jail. 'The contribution the Special Unit made to me was extraordinary. It was an agonising process of self- discovery. Getting in touch with my feelings was one of the most painful experiences I've had.

'The Special Unit was the only place that provided a realistic basis for re-socialising people. Prison officers would bring in drink from the pub. The taboo in prison is that you're not supposed to drink. We had to say to guys who were bringing in too much booze, or overdoing it - hold it, that's not on. We were becoming the police in the place, and saying: we've got something here, either we blow it or we get to grips with it.'

With time on his hands, he began reading newspaper wine columns. And when he and his wife, Sarah, whom he met in 1977, drove to France the year after his release in 1982, they ended up by accident in Chablis. 'I'd read about it when I was in prison. The first place I went to was La Chablisienne, the co-operative. They were so bloody generous, pouring all these grands crus. I tasted the wines and absolutely loved them.'

On the same trip, in Epernay, he discovered champagne. 'I found I had a real love for wine. It was an instant love affair. We went to one place, I think it was Piper-Heidsieck, where there's a train in the cellars. I had a T-shirt on, it was very cold. I remember going to Moet et Chandon a number of times, and de Venoge. They were very generous with the champagne. There's a generosity of spirit in these people.'

Having caught the bug, Mr Boyle bought Oz Clarke's Wine Factfinder and Tom Stevenson's Champagne. 'Those two books became bibles to me. My wife said, 'Look, this is a real buzz for you, there's something happened here with you, and it's going to be with you for the rest of your life'.'

For a few years he stuck to white wines. 'I was so naive I used to think red wines gave you hangovers.' Then, after a trip to Australia, he developed a liking for reds. In 1989, he went on the Chateau Loudenne course in Bordeaux. 'It was very scary, but it really developed my palate and did wonders for my confidence. They said, 'There's nothing to be afraid of, try this, listen to what we're saying, and it's up to you to make up your own mind.' That was a real freedom, a sort of rites of passage, in wine terms.'

Admitting to an element of insecurity, he buys first-growths and top-quality wines for his cellar - 'but I'm a canny Scot and I like to make sure I'm getting value for money. I've got to know Farr Vintners very well, also Jimmy Hogg in Edinburgh, who's a very canny man. I don't know how he does it, pricewise. I bounce off between him and Farr Vintners, and sometimes Andre Simon. You know: What are the prices? What do you think? I really want to make sure I'm getting the price right.

'Fortunately I can afford them, and so I drink chateauneuf-du-pape, corton-charlemagne, chablis, La Lagune, Petrus, Mouton-Rothschild, Beychevelle, burgundies and champagnes. I love champagnes. Farr Vintners will phone up and say, 'Look, they're doing a disgorging of 1975 Dom Perignon in magnums - do you want them?' And I'll say yes, as long as the price is OK.

'My tastes have moved on a lot. I know what my red burgundies are like, and what I prefer. I know what my American wines are like, my Italians. I love Californian wines, but I don't think they're a patch on French wines in durability. I like Opus One and Heitz Martha's Vineyard. I drink top- quality wines as often as I can, but I'll drink anything anybody gives me and enjoy it. I haven't stripped all the baggage of my past.'

Mr Boyle is working on a series of bronzes for an exhibition in New York. 'In my studio, at between three and four in the morning, I'll open a bottle and play wonderful music. There's a oneness about it. It's not compartmentalised. At the moment I'm drinking Louis Latour's 1986 Corton-Charlemagne. It's stunning. Before that I was drinking his 1972. The 1986 actually has a bit to go, but I'm just addicted.

'I buy things I know it would be criminal to drink at the moment. I've got a notebook I keep, with some of the phrases people have used to describe a wine. As a writer, an evocative phrase means more to me than a score. We're all making personal judgements.'

He is proud of his Edinburgh cellar, which contains more than 2,000 bottles. 'I say to Sarah: if anything happens to me, since you don't know anything about wines, get someone to come in and advise you. Because I want Susie and Kydd, my children, who are beginning to appreciate wines at 10 and seven, to enjoy these wines many years on. For me it's a hobby, something I love, and it takes me away from the pressures of my work. It's a great release.'

(Photograph omitted)

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