A Little Learning

POSTED ON 11/01/2010

Government advisers have been coming out of the woodwork with some pretty alarmist statements about alcohol. First we had David Nutt who said that ‘if you want to reduce the harm to society from drugs, alcohol is the drug to target at present’. Not a very happy choice of words. We now have the government’s chief doctor, Liam Donaldson, telling parents not to give their offspring alcohol, even watered down because ‘the more they get a taste for it, the more likely they are to be heavy-drinking adults or binge drinkers later in childhood’. Is that so? Maybe we should take anything the good doctor tells us with a pinch of salt. This is the man after all who predicted that up to 65,000 people could die from swine flu in the UK, so perhaps his job requires him to state the case for the ultimately cautious approach.


When I teach wine in schools for the Leiths School of Food & Wine, I regularly take classes in which most of the students say that they drink wine, often introduced to it by their parents. Along with their teachers, I have also seen these sessions attended by parents, by a local headmaster, and at the most recent session, the school chaplain. In addition to learning about the wines of the world, the different grape varieties, wine and food matching, and how to taste, we also talk about moderation and responsibility. And it’s become clear to me over the years that by and large these young men and women drink responsibly (a) because they’re mostly pretty level-headed in the first place and (b) because they’ve been introduced to alcohol by parents who understand the value of showing their children that alcohol doesn’t have to be the hand-grenade that the likes of Liam Donaldson would have us believe it inevitably is.




One of the schools on Leiths' books, Malvern, recently announced that it has started a wine-tasting club which girls can join at the age of 16. You might think from some of the attendant publicity that it had announced it was turning itself into a brothel, such is the fear and ignorance surrounding the issue of teenagers drinking alcohol. The club’s creator, Rachel Huntly, a teacher at the school, made some telling points, saying that by creating a club that’s designed to appreciate the fine art of wine-tasting, girls will be less likely to engage in binge drinking in a society that promotes a culture in which they are under a lot of pressure to conform to the notion of “get as wasted as you can, as fast as you can.” Most of the comments about Malvern were supportive of what Malvern is doing.

A Leiths wine classA Leiths wine class

“Finally someone understands that you have to teach kids that alcohol is not the devil and can be drunk safely and responsibly”.

“As parents you can be open and honest with your kids, make it clear they can ALWAYS call you if ever in a jam. Teach them about drugs and alcohol through your own actions and with lots of communication”.

“Growing up my parents always let me try sips of their drinks and I think me tasting them and thinking they tasted gross has helped to make me not want to drink”.

“My parents did the same thing - having a glass of wine with dinner, etc. On my 21st I had one drink at a restaurant. Other friends didn't have a drop of alcohol until college and now their livers are gone”.

“Everyone I know (including my own father) who grew up in a situation where their family allowed them to taste different drinks and maybe even have a bit of wine with dinner every now and then drink responsibly now”.

learning responsible wine drinkinglearning responsible wine drinking

You don’t have to read these comments to see that Rachel Huntly’s approach is responsible without being permissive. Indeed, as the co-founder of Leiths, Baroness Caroline Waldegrave of North Hill, OBE, points out: 'I strongly believe that the Southern European experience shows clearly how young people who are brought up understanding about wine learn to drink responsibly and therefore what we do with schools is wise and I disagree with what Liam Donaldson said'. The Taliban tendency in contrast, demonizing so-called underage drinking and with it the cynical undermining of parental responsibility as a ‘middle-class obsession’, negates the best way of dealing with alcohol abuse, in other words through responsible education and information about its potential for both pain and pleasure.

As a recent Drinkaware poll of more then 1000 teenagers made clear, most teenagers who drink alcohol drink it at home, with 41% saying that they were given a drink by their parents. And 60% believe it is a normal part of socialising and ‘being young’. Statistics in the US show a similar story. If you try to prevent teenagers from drinking alcohol by banning it, and you only tell them that it’s a dangerous, anti-social weapon that will blow up their faces, don't be too surprised, viz. Prohibition in the USA, if it ends up blowing up in your face.

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