You want to interest your children in wine, but how to ensure they appreciate it rather than abuse it, asks Beverley Blanning MW
Mummy, no! Not a glass of wine!’ This was the reaction of a friend’s 11- year-old daughter when she saw her mother pour herself a glass at home. ‘It’s awful,’ said my friend; ‘they’re taught at school that alcohol is really dangerous.’ The latest advice from the UK government’s chief medical officer is indeed unequivocal: ‘Parents and young people should be aware that drinking, even at age 15 or older, can be hazardous to health and not drinking is the healthiest option for young people.’
Most parents think 14 and a half is the right age to start talking to children about alcohol. Yet the Drinkaware Trust told us last month that, in their words, ‘parents are leaving it too late to educate their children about alcohol’. Recent research indicates that only 40% of parents actively discuss alcohol in the family. So what is the best way to teach children about responsible enjoyment of wine? And, assuming Decanter readers’ children aren’t the types to tear up the streets after a glass, what is the best way to actually encourage a genuine interest in wine?
The increasingly drastic public health messages focus on the perils of alcohol as a harmful drug. But the mere existence of magazines such as Decanter, the hundreds of websites devoted to discussing wine and the countless outpourings of individual bloggers and twitterers provide persuasive evidence that in wine’s appeal lies more than its capacity to intoxicate. Of all those written, spoken or texted words, how many speak of the qualities of a wine in terms of its alcohol content? What would there even be to say, apart from the fact that one wine has more alcohol than another, or that it is more noticeable? Of course wine contains alcohol, and every adult knows that excessive ingestion of alcohol is hazardous to health (as is high consumption of salt, sugar, or processed foods).
But alcohol is the least distinguishing aspect of wine. Any wine, however bad, can make you drunk. There has to be an alternative message about wine for children, a way to install an appreciation of its essential qualities from an early age; one that could arguably save them from likely abuse.
It is every child’s fate to be indoctrinated from an early age with his or her parents’ taste in everything from music to clothes, friends and holidays. But sharing an enthusiasm for wine with your children is a little less clear-cut than imposing your choice of radio station in the car. Although it’s perfectly legal to serve your five year-old Frascati with his fish fingers if you wish to, I’ve never come across any parent who does this, nor indeed any five year-old who would be remotely interested in drinking it. (I regularly try to persuade my children to taste or sniff some of my lovely wine, to no avail.)
A child’s sensitive palate tends to reject the sensation of alcohol, which burns far more readily than in an adult’s mouth, and wine’s acidity and flavours just don’t appeal to children. Decanter.com editor Adam Lechmere tells me the reaction from his children when they taste wine: ‘They take a sip and and say “Urrghh” or “All wine tastes the same”.’ But he adds, ‘I’m gratified when they pull a face – wine should be an adult thing: an acquired taste.’
Food for Thought
If, though, you are cooking and eating with your children, and your meals include wine, it seems only natural to share this experience to some degree. And it would be an unusual child who expressed no interest in what was drunk by others at the table. In countries where wine is historically part of the national culture – France, Spain, Italy, for example – it is quite normal for children to have a sip of watered down wine, or a drop of wine in their water, from a young age.
Argentinian Master of Wine Marina Gayán explains: ‘Wine is seen at the table, with food, and is part of the meal – part of family life. Our parents drank in front of us, with food all the time, so it’s not something you’re desperate to find out about when you grow up.’ Audrey Gachet, a 19-year-old French student living in London, says that she was regularly given a drop of wine to taste with meals while growing up, ‘to know the taste’, but was also warned about the danger of alcohol at school. Did this include warnings about the dangers of wine? She laughs. ‘You must be joking – I come from Bordeaux. We were only taught about the dangers of strong alcohol – spirits.’
Teaching your children responsible drinking is really no different from teaching them responsible eating: both are part of a healthy adult lifestyle and both require education. It is easier to see the potential harm caused by alcohol, but the benefits, at least for older adults, are now widely accepted. It is also likely that wine is healthier than other alcoholic drinks, due to its combination of polyphenols and its tendency for regular, moderate and slow consumption, usually over the course of a meal. Numerous studies around the world show that alcohol consumed in this way has net health benefits for most people. A simple alternative, but complementary, view is expressed by Andrew Barr in his book, Drink: A Social History: ‘The benefits of wine should principally be explained by social factors…[wine] helps to reduce stress and to make people feel happier.’
So what is the best way to educate your children about wine?
For Decanter consultant editor Steven Spurrier, the continental approach seemed the natural one, as he and his family were living in France when his children were young. ‘The children always seemed to be in and out of my wine shop, went shopping in the local markets with my wife and, like all French children, treated restaurants as their natural habitat,’ he recalls. ‘We never offered them wine and water, just gave them a tiny taste if they were interested, which they almost always found bitter.’ But from his wife’s interest in food, and his in wine, both adult children now take responsibility for the choice of both food and wine in their respective homes.
Twenty-something Alex Hunt, who captained the Oxford University wine tasting team (and is now a buyer at Berkmann Wine Cellars), remembers his curiosity in wine beginning at the age of 16 when his parents bought an Oz Clarke book that explained some of the terms on the bottles they were buying on holiday. ‘There were two things that struck me: first was that here was something that could be described – a language you could apply to flavours. The second was that two white wines next to each other tasted different, and that just seemed magical.’ Soon after, Hunt had the good fortune to join a wine society at his school (Winchester): ‘We had a wonderful maths teacher who was passionate about wine and liked sharing bottles with us.’
While a school wine society may seem an unlikely addition to extra-curricular activites today, it’s not unheard of to find wine education in schools. Leiths School of Food and Wine runs school certificate courses in food and wine at 12 secondary schools across the UK for pupils aged 16 and over. Alison Cavaliero, from Leiths, claims the two-hour session ‘makes the students think about wine in a completely different way’. From her experience watching the course, she notices that some of the pupils can be ‘a bit silly to start with’, but that once they begin to learn more, their whole attitude changes. ‘They really concentrate and are deeply surprised by what they learn,’ she says, adding that that parents welcome the structured, controlled format that brings in elements of science and geography, while firmly emphasising the role of wine as a partner to food.
Richard Bampfield MW, one of the course tutors, explains his approach to telling young people (including his own teenage children) about wine: ‘The key is to encourage them to appreciate what they are drinking and to learn that there is more to alcohol than just how much of it they can drink,’ he says.
For the majority of us who don’t have access to wine education at school, there are other ways to educate our children about wine – do it yourself. After all, much of the appeal of wine can be enjoyed without drinking it at all: the beautiful countryside where the grapes are grown; the magical, bubbling transformation of grapes into wine; the invariably delicious food that accompanies the local wines; and the friendliness of the families who have often been farming the same land for generations. What better way of sharing your love of wine with your children than taking them to see where and how it is made? I thought this idea sounded perfect, but when I suggested to my nine year-old son, Leo, that he accompany me on a trip to Burgundy, his response was not exactly enthusiastic. In fact, it was a flat refusal. No end of cajoling would convince him. (‘But it’ll be fun! Just the two of us!’/‘No, it’ll be boring.’) Luckily for me, he’s still in the indoctrination stage – and too young to be left alone in the house – so we went.
Rather than the usual packed schedule, we adopted a far slower pace, with few visits and plenty of time to do nothing but follow our noses. To slow things down even further, we rented bikes and cycled the vineyard routes of the Côte d’Or, staying at a chambre d’hôtes near Vougeot. It’s easy to find your own way, although there are plenty of companies offering self-guided cycle tours, which would allow for a more varied, longer visit. Specific activities for children were fairly limited here (especially, as we were without a car), but vineyard equipment was a hit for this city boy, and it’s clear that harvest would have been a more exciting time to be there to see some more action. Of course, he won’t admit he enjoyed it… but I don’t think he’ll ever forget it, either.
Written by Beverley Blanning MW