A recent email exchange caused me to burn with embarrassment and eventually to chuckle ruefully. Responding to an invitation to attend the launch of Reds, Whites & Varsity Blues, a book about the Oxford v Cambridge blind wine-tasting competition, I said I should probably be there as I’d managed to win the individual prize in this competition two years running. The genial host, James Simpson of Pol Roger (a family-run champagne house that has sponsored the competition since 1992) replied that he’d come bottom the first time he competed. I sent an immediate apology for my earlier bragging. His reply was a masterpiece of tact, not denying that there had been an element of boastfulness in my note but adding that he had passed his Master of Wine examination at the first attempt.
My rueful chuckling was not without deeper reflection. I sat no wine examinations after the relatively straightforward Higher Certificate, and greatly respect colleagues who pass the extremely demanding two-part MW exams. Looking through the book, edited by Jennifer Segal, which charts the history of the “bibbers’ boat race” from its amateurish origins in the early 1950s through to the terrifyingly professional present, I noticed that the most stylish wine writer of them all, Hugh Johnson, didn’t score particularly well when he was on the Cambridge team.
The Varsity wine match has become far more demanding. In our day all the wines tasted blind (six whites and six reds) originated from classic European areas. Now they can come from anywhere. We did take it moderately seriously, going for weekly preparation at the rooms of a quietly encouraging don. The Cambridge coaching strategy had changed after its teams, whose training had previously consisted mainly of lengthy dinners, had been beaten three years running by Oxford outfits inspired by Oz Clarke (the most talented blind-taster I know), who understood that blind tasting was a skill that could be learnt and honed.
The 1960s and 1970s, when training was not too onerous, come across as a gilded period. The FT’s Jancis Robinson – who judges the competition and who, fortunately for us Cambridge types, avoided the Oxford university Wine Circle when she was a student – says that current competitors often taste more accurately than the judges.
Just before attending the convivial party at Maggs Bros, I read a pamphlet by Dr David Butterfield telling the story of another prize competition in which I played a small part. This was the Newcastle Scholarship at Eton College, founded in 1829 by the 4th Duke of Newcastle. The Duke, worried by the godlessness of schooling, hoped that the scholarship might give boys “a first knowledge and affection for a Religion which shall regulate their future conduct”. In practice, the Newcastle became a combined prize in classics and divinity, historically the most prestigious among the school’s academic honours, and certainly the most generously rewarded: initially the prize was worth £150 spread over three years, the equivalent of some £10,000 today. From the beginning, the Newcastle inspired intense competition; it became perhaps the first way of truly assessing the academic merit of Etonians, and a spur to hard work rather than languid grace.
The lengths to which this hard work could be taken are mind-boggling and slightly shocking to read about. The first world war poet Patrick Shaw-Stewart (who died in action in 1917) worked so hard to win the scholarship that all his hair fell out and he was banned from serious exertion for the next four years, while Henry Fitzmaurice Hallam, brother of the brilliant Arthur Hallam, went to such pains to win the medal (second prize) aged 15 that he destroyed his health and never competed again. He died at 26.
When I came to take the Newcastle in 1975, it was something of a historical relic, though still quite demanding. We had to read St Matthew’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles in Greek, write on the doctrine of the atonement and do various translations from and compositions in Greek and Latin. By the end I was exhausted but my hair stayed in place; the prize was £240, which translated into a set of second-hand golf clubs and a cello bow.
Thinking back, I never really questioned why I was doing it. Historical reflection and the words of Ecclesiastes might have made me more sceptical about the value of winning prizes at a young age. Butterfield tells us that the first winner of the prize, Thomas William Allies, is best remembered for this precocious achievement; nothing in his subsequent career matched it. And as Ecclesiastes tells us, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong”. The winners in life are not necessarily those who take the early prizes.
More columns at ft.com/eyres