If alcohol were available only at Tesco, or sold exclusively from behind grilles in the back of Asda, there would be a lot less drinking done in the Watson household. In fact, it occurs to me that my habit of buying a fruity Pinot Blanc on the way home from work is pretty much entirely due to the seductive atmosphere of my local wine shop, twinkling away with its rickety wood and crumbly-looking wines, exuding a cosy, comforting, yet decadent aura. Just crossing the threshold makes you feel sophisticated and in-the-know, not to mention a bit naughty. The right kind of wine merchant - the long-established, avuncular kind - is to the adult consumer what the library and the corner sweetshop were when we were children: a place of wonder that makes you blow all your pocket money at once.
There have been times when I've dallied with Oddbins and Majestic. Yes, they've got all the flash discounts and they do nuts, glasses for parties, trays of beer and Coca-Cola. But these chains are to Corney & Barrow what Britney Spears is to Maria Callas. When I walk into Oddbins, the staff instantly clock me as a typical, low-spending, badly informed, social drinker who is not worth lushing up, as I'm only ever interested in buying the chilled stuff at the bottom of the fridge. At Corney & Barrow, on the other hand, I'm identified straight off as someone who could, with enough nurturing, be converted from a "something-like-a-Chablis-only-cheaper" woman to an enthusiast with an account. The staff never tire of reminding me which grapes come from where. And even when there's a queue of loaded-looking men in cashmere coats, they always have time to discuss the merits of a £7 Burgundy over one at £5.99. It seems to be written into their contracts that they must educate and indulge, regardless of what's in it for them.
But the wine-selling aspect of Corney & Barrow is only a tiny part of the service it provides. There have been times when I have run into the shop, desperate for ideas on presents, and been offered a choice of decanters, rare malt whiskies and exotic bottle openers. I once took a date in there to run him by the discerning eyes of the boys behind the desk - because, after all, who knows your needs and character better than your wine merchant? After he'd patronised them and displayed his ignorance all in one go, they gave him an instant thumbs down, saving me a lot of time and effort. More recently, I've got involved in the monthly wine tastings, which is the equivalent of taking up photography classes (stacked with eligible, like-minded boozers). All in all, I can safely say that, though no particular friend to my liver, Corney & Barrow is the club I've never had. I recommend you find your nearest branch and strike up a relationship without delay.