A true lover of wine finds joy among the lower shelves

"Wininess", unlike snobbery, needn't be expensive.

Many foodies hate the word “foodie” – I’ve never quite worked out why. Granted, it’s an ugly word, if it’s a word at all, but the state it describes – of being obsessed with one’s dinner – is not in itself a crime. It depends on how that obsession manifests itself: foodism runs the gamut from gourmandise to snobbery. At one end squats the great god Michelin, white rubber rings plumped with foie gras, truffles and first-growth Bordeaux; at the other sits the elegant figure of the cookery writer Elizabeth David, acknowledging that, despite the opinion of some that wine and egg dishes don’t go together, she regards “a glass or two of wine as not, obviously, essential but at least an enormous enhancement of the enjoyment of a well-cooked omelette”.

For lack of a better epithet – and in support of the kind of foodiness that is not about prioritising sustenance above a point that is reasonable or even credible but about nourishing one’s life – I am coining the term “winie”. Wininess, unlike snobbery, needn’t be expensive. If I had received a pound every time the epithet “wine snob” was hurled at me, I could have bought the Balthazar of Château Margaux 2009 I spotted – it was quite hard to miss – in a fancy wine shop in Dubai Airport recently. (A Balthazar is 12 litres; the only bigger bottle is a Nebuchadnezzar, at 15 litres. Why, one wonders, did Margaux hold back?) Only six were made, apparently, and this one’s a snip at $195,000, if anyone out there fancies a duty-free acquisition the size, in every sense, of a house. But I wouldn’t have bought it if I could, because I don’t believe the wine will ever be made that is worth that kind of money. That’s why I’ll always fail the wine snobbery exam.

Being a winie, however, is an enviable occupation. In Dubai, it enabled me to bypass all the so-called icon wines – the bottles of Castarède Armagnac 1888 and the magnums of Ridge Monte Bello 2005 – and head for the lower end of the shelves, where I knew that $32 for a bottle of Allegrini’s La Grola 2010 was an excellent price and that the wine – a ripe blend of Corvina, Syrah and Oseleta from a family of north-east Italian winemakers, full of tobacco, berry and espresso, like a smoker’s morning fantasy – would make a group of exhausted colleagues on a work trip lose their slump and regain their sparkle. A winie cares more for context than for price tag because, while good wine can enhance any occasion, up to and including breakfast (try Clos Vougeot 1959 with your croissant and tell me it doesn’t improve your day), that’s all it can do. The occasion is the point.

Circumstances can make nectar of bad booze – the boring prosecco opened to celebrate a long-awaited reunion can sparkle like a dull person lit by love – but good wine can do no more for a lacklustre evening than help drown it out. This is why I want to lob a Balthazar at people who call me a wine snob. Knowledge of wine helps me to live well. I’d rather drink water with a wit than Margaux with a moron, although I hope you won’t oblige me to make that choice.

When the great gourmand American writer A J Liebling arrived in Paris to cover the Second World War for the New Yorker magazine, the director of his bank invited him to a lunch that “turned out to be just Marennes, Pouilly-Fuissé, caille vendangeuse and Grands Échezeaux” – that is, some of the world’s best oysters from France’s Atlantic coast with decent white Burgundy, followed by quail potted with grapes and grand cru red Burgundy. That “just”, to me, is the word not of a wine snob but of a winie: the nourishment was marvellous but the company substandard, or at least the conversation flawed. The director had shouted him the meal to let him know he was too late – “There’s a strong tip on the Bourse this morning that the war’s going to be called off.” The month was October 1939. Eggs don’t ruin good wine – but waffle will.

Simple pleasures: an obsession with wine doesn't have to be expensive. Image: Laura Letinsky/ Gallerystock

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times