Just who are these crazy bourgeois who sink a bottle of Waitrose plonk every night on the sofa? Where I live, in up-and-coming Whitechapel, locals take great care to minimise the risks of alcohol by consuming all their cans of Tennents Super but a few steps away from the entrance to East London's biggest Accident & Emergency ward.
Middle-class wine buffs, conversely, are a devil-may-care bunch. According to the health minister Dawn Primarolo, they routinely notch up dozens of units of Premier Cru without a second thought for the billions they are costing this country in sick days. To observe these over-educated hellraisers at close quarters, I visited The Wine Show in north London. The annual event attracts 15,000 wine lovers drawn from all walks of life – so long as those walks place them squarely between the age of 30 and 35, with a job in banking or law and a braying voice that fairly vibrates with a sense of entitlement.
It's 7pm when I arrive and a queue of well-to-do boozers snakes into the front entrance of the Business Design Centre in Islington. Inside, more than a hundred tasting "stands" – free bars, in effect – are packed out. We travel through Argentina, South Africa, Burgundy and the Champagne region, plastic goblets aloft. It's all going quite swimmingly until I realise you're actually supposed to ask questions about grapes, vintages etc. Neither does it help that I make the schoolgirl error of knocking back the vino instead of using the spittoon – although I didn't see anyone else forgoing the chance to get drunk on the cheap either.
The organisers of the exhibition have told me that one of the big trends in wine drinking is that women are "taking charge of the wine list in restaurants". I like the sound of that. So at the California Wines stand I kick off my empowerment with a lesson in the basics from company director John McLaren. I taste two chardonnays and John tries to explain the difference between oaked and unoaked flavours. He tells me some facts about how cheaper oaked flavours are achieved by dunking teabags of oak chips in the barrels rather than doing the proper old-fashioned way.
Yes, yes. But, John, let's get to the heart of the matter: alcohol percentiles. Wine lovers have lately got used to drinking bottles that are around 13-14 per cent proof, he says – "So people are realising that their weekly allowance of units is getting used up more quickly." To spin out their quota, drinkers are demanding a lighter wine and percentages are drifting back towards the 11-12 per cent range. Indeed, I tell him, that's more in line with canned tramp juice favoured in my neighbourhood. Then he tells me a curious thing. Drinking wine is SO GOOD FOR YOU that "You'd actually need to drink 63 units a week to reach the same mortality rate as a teetotal!"
I'm trying to process this unlikely statement when at a busy intersection in the middle of the exhibition hall I bump into Sudhir Singh, who runs a distributing company that sells wine to fancy restaurants like the oligarchs' favourite, Zuma in Knightsbridge. He has a bottle of red in each hand. Restaurants mark up his wines by five times, he says with a grin. While I neck the sangiovese and cabernet blend ("An easy wine for lunchtime, ladies and fish") Sudhir tells me about the punters here tonight. "Oh, you know, they work in the City, they'll generally go for a bottle for as low as 20 quid, but they've become more aware of wine." I ask him if it's true if women know more about wine than the men. "Oh, they're about the same. As equally unknowledgable."
Twenty years ago, the only real wine connoisseurs were either pretentious twits or Oz Clarke. And in fact, the latter is the big star of the night, getting a whooping applause when he takes the stage in a lecture theatre set up in the middle of the stands. Despite Oz's bumbling telly persona, in person his spiel is to tell off-colour anecdotes about Germans, Scots and women, interlaced with erudite blather on appellations and vineyards. I would cringe – and I'm sure the good, liberal-minded people of north London would, too – but by now we're too lathered to care.
And now the hard stuff. Not everybody likes to consume their units at stately pace, so as part of my alcohol education last week I also met "vodkaologist" Jacob Briars, who is employed by the Kiwi brand 42 Below to tutor ignorant drinkers on appreciation of this underrated spirit. He takes me through the fundamentals. Russian vodka he describes as "lively and hot"; Scandanavian is "softer and lighter; Polish "oily, with a sweetness, very textural"; New World "it's a blank slate – anything goes".
Vodka can be made from anything, but it's usually potatoes, wheat, rye or molasses. Home-distilling is not generally advised since the results can cause blindness. Cheap supermarket own-brands might be made from sugar beet or even milk (whey alcohol). And drinking vodka ice-cold is for saps; for best appreciation, it should be room temperature. Any colder and you can't detect the nuances in the various types of water used as a base – and the quality of water is crucial, says Briars.
The priciest brands use water that's been filtered through the Champagne limestone (Grey Goose), or glacial run-off (Finlandia), or volcanic spring (42 Below). Briars usually offers 15 different brands for comparison, and his sessions are incredibly popular. The problem with vodka tasting, as I discover, is that after the first five it may as well be 50. If you have the constitution to take part in one of his tutored tastings, Briars is at Harvey Nichols bar in west London next week. Or, he suggests, get up off the sofa and teach yourself by going to bars and engaging the bartender in conversation. "Every day that you spend drinking," he says, "You learn more." Aren't we a clever lot?