Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Hugh Johnson, the world's bestselling wine author

'I remember being foxed by tort law'

Hugh Johnson, 68, wrote his first book, Wine, in 1966, and it is still in print. The World Atlas of Wine is now in its sixth edition, and Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book has been published annually since 1977

When I was eight, I boxed for Arnold House, a private school in St John's Wood, London. We had a formidable instructor called Gutteridge and I was so frightened of him that I fought for my life! I was presented with a prize by the then Minister of Transport.

I then went as a boarder to Forres School in Swanage. I'm told I ran away on various occasions; I think it was the food. Anyway, I was there for a couple of years before going to a more academic school, Tormore, in Upper Deal, Kent. We were kept on very short rations (there was still rationing in those days). My father used to put strong peppermints in with his letters, and the headmaster used to remove them and give them back to me at the end of term.

The school was pressurised and aimed us towards Westminster School scholarships, but the head thought I wasn't up to its standards in classics, so I took the scholarship exam to Rugby and got a place. My housemaster there, Jim Willans, was a languid Wodehouse figure who was quietly watching and very wise. He taught me English as did Tim Tosswill, who was completely different, a martinet and an inspiration, and what could be called "a cracking good beak".

I played rugby in the front row of the scrum – a hooker. There was a famous cross-country run, "The Crick", a 14-mile mini-marathon. In my last year, I was needed instead for a house hockey match – not that I would have won the race.

There were people at Rugby who went on to the wine trade. Steven Spurrier, for example, opened a wine store in Paris and organised the famous 1976 blind tasting at which a French jury gave top marks to Californian wines – to their chagrin! Following the success of the wine film Sideways, a film is being made about him [Bottle Shock, with Alan Rickman playing Spurrier].

I did English and French at A-level and got a place to read English at King's College, Cambridge. In my third year, I had a set of rooms with Adrian Cowell, a member of the University Wine and Food Society. He came in after dinner with two glasses and said, "Come on, Hugh, are they the same? Or different?" Both were, I am sure, red Burgundy, but one was magic and one was ordinary. This caught my imagination. It was my Damascene moment.

We had such grand rooms that, when I joined the Wine and Food Society, the committee got us to entertain wine merchants and, better, producers from France and Germany. Under the pretext of our annual tasting match against Oxford, members went on a punishing training programme, tasting everything on offer.

In those days, King's and other colleges had a Keasbey Bursary, or good living allowance. Keasbey was an American who had been entertained here during the war and so loved it that he had given some money so that young men could live better than they would have done otherwise. It was awarded in conjunction with your headmaster: a somewhat mysterious process, but it gave me £200 a year.

I got 2:2s with great consistency. My father, a barrister, was keen that I should read law, and after my second year I changed from English. I'm sure it was to please him, though he wouldn't have put me under pressure. I remember being foxed by tort, and realised that I would never pass a law exam. I returned to English for my Finals.

I passed the time by reading, mooning around, dreaming, holding hands with girls... Wimpish things like that. And I wrote poetry, which I still think wasn't all rubbish.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)