Howard Jacobson: How dare you make me choose between Shiraz and life? Actually, I can't decide

I am a wine drinker, slowing down to a less than a bottle a night only at the behest of age

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Hello, my name is Howard and I am a wino. I didn't know I was a wino until I read that a small glass of wine – whatever a small glass of wine is – contains 1.3 units which, according to the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at Oxford University (who sadistically chose the eve of the Queen's Jubilee celebrations to publish its findings), is twice the amount of wine I should be drinking if I want to stay alive long enough to see another jubilee. The previous advice was that I wouldn't live to see even this jubilee if I didn't drink at least six times that amount a day. But now these high-minded, interfering shufflers warn I must reduce my daily intake to whatever half of 1.3 units is – as though any of us measure our drinking in units – and if I don't, if I tell them to stick their decimal points and go ahead and polish the whole glass off, I am officially to be described as bingeing. One small glass of wine a night – bingeing! So what's an orgy? A glass and a half and a packet of crisps?

Hello, my name is Howard and I am a binger and orgiast.

Let me tell you how it all began ...

I wasn't born into a bingeing household. One thimbleful of a sweet, syrupy, kosher medicinal fluid called Palwyn No 4 or Palwyn No 10, kept in a display cabinet between a porcelain shepherdess and a terracotta rabbi and brought out strictly for festivals whose names we couldn't pronounce, was all I ever saw my father drink. As for my mother, she found even a thimbleful too strong, and would fan herself and take to her bed if my father accidentally breathed on her. As for me – I was not allowed so much as to smell the cork, that's if it had a cork. Wherein lay the difference, alcoholically or ritually, between Palwyn No 4 and Palwyn No 10 I never discovered. If my father knew, he didn't tell me. Wine was not a subject we discussed. In that regard it was like sex, though there was one brief sex discussion when I was 16 which centred on the word "protective" – an unnecessary niceness on my father's part since I'd been buying "johnnies" from a schoolyard dealer for at least a year, no matter that there'd been no call for them. What is plain now is that he should have been protecting me from alcohol, not sex, that thimbleful of Palwyn No 4 (or was it No 10?) being the thin end of the wedge.

It was still some time, however, before the effect of it was felt. At university I drank beer, not wine. I didn't like it, but I drank it. Back home, in the decadent hellhole that was North Manchester, my father had progressed to lager, still by the thimbleful, diluted with lime. But I couldn't be heard ordering that in a pub in Cambridge where I was already held to be an uncouth provincial on account of my trying to prove I wasn't an uncouth provincial by wearing paisley cravats. Sherry was the only sophisticated option to beer. The Master served sherry at his garden parties and we men – a Cambridge fantasy: that we were "men" – kept a bottle at the ready in our rooms on the off chance totty showed up. Dry Fly was the sherry we bought, on the mistaken assumption, I now realise, that it possessed the same aphrodisiacal qualities as Spanish Fly. What it was about a fly that could get women going we didn't bother to enquire, and since we'd never got a woman going the question didn't arise.

Only when I left Cambridge and went to Sydney for my first academic job did I discover wine. This was in the days before the fine pinots noirs and semillons with which we now associate Australia and which merely to pronounce is to embark on the fatal road to alcoholism. Wine was then distinguished by its colour – red or white, and even to show a preference was to mark yourself out as a poseur and a poofter – and came in flagons. It would be an exaggeration to say that offering someone a drink in Sydney in 1965 meant handing them the flagon by its neck, and that accepting a drink meant pouring as much of its contents down your throat as you could manage in a single swallow, but only a bit of an exaggeration. In fact, you wiped the neck of the bottle with the end of your sleeve before you passed it on.

This made for a rough camaraderie which I came to love and, now that it's over, lament. A flagon friendship is like no other. You mingle wine, saliva, laughter and eventually tears. Compared to this, those Teutonic rites of bonding in which men prove the eternality of their friendship by swapping blood drawn from their forearms are clumsy and ineffective. Eventually, though, as Australia discovered the subtleties of grape; the four-litre flagon gave way to the 750ml bottle and a degree of froideur entered social relations. Since it was about that time that Sydney became the gay capital of the Southern Hemisphere you have to wonder whether those jibes about poseurs and poofters weren't premonitory. But drinking in bulk is still remembered in Australia in the new convention of driving to a vineyard every weekend to buy bottles by the caseload, or indeed to buy the vineyard.

Australia marks a man. I have been a wine drinker ever since, slowing down to less than a bottle of shiraz grenache mourvèdre a night only at the behest of age. Now I'm told I must give up wine drinking all together (0.65 of a unit is giving up altogether) or die. Shiraz or death. You might think it's an easy choice, but it isn't.