A shudder goes through Oz Clarke as he recalls the moment he realised he wanted to overthrow the snobbery of drinking.
Now famous as a wine expert, he started out as an actor and, when he landed his first job with Northampton Rep, some of the seasoned members took him to a club.
“At the end of the night they went and I was left there with the bill that cost me six weeks’ salary,” he said as we sipped coffee at a pub near Borough Market.
“I thought, ‘You utter b*****ds’. I remember that absolute terror of not being able to afford the bill and the shame of knowing those blokes had thought I was just a bumpkin who would pay.
“It was traumatic and still makes me shiver with horror. That dreadful sense of inferiority. I have never told anyone that story before.”
Well known for bringing wine to the masses on programmes such as the BBC’s Food And Drink and Oz And James’ Big Wine Adventure, Oz believes he has achieved what he set out to do.
He recalls with fondness being stopped in the streets by a former mill worker, a wannabe firemen and even a couple of men being handcuffed by police, all of whom wanted to chat to him about wine.
“How fantastic is that?” he said, tapping his chest. “It got me right here.”
His moral compass was largely set by his father, a physician who treated coal miners and set up health programs in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.
“He was a great crusader so I always had that sense of social justice,” said the south-west Londoner. Then I got involved in the wine industry and, you may ask ‘What has that got to do with social justice?’.
“But 50 years ago only 5% of people drank wine because people would say, ‘It isn’t for the likes of us,’ and they couldn’t understand it.
“When I got offered the television thing I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to try and democratise wine. The old school trade really disliked me and I still have trouble with some of them because I like to draw in a wider audience.”
His most infamous falling out was with the Champagne producers who tried to ban him when he outed them for trying to keep bubbly as a product for the elite.
“I turned to the camera and said, ‘Don’t buy Champagne’. The next year the sales fell by 53%.
“Producers now are much more savvy and realise it is an exciting wine. Back then they just saw it as a symbol of excess and weren’t too worried about what went in the bottle. These days if you have Champagne it’s got to be worth it. The Pol Roger I had last year was the best I have had in two decades.”
He also name checks Ca’ del Bosco, Gramona, Wiston Estate and The Wine Society who will all be bringing wines to Let’s Get Fizzical an event Oz will be co-hosting with his Three Wine Men partners Tim Atkin and Olly Smith in Canary Wharf on Tuesday, May 24.
Oz, who scotches reports Prosecco is running out and says Cava is better now than it has ever been, had some recommendations for summer drinking
He said: “Certainly try some English wine. They can make sparkling wine as good as the Champagne region. “It’s not the same, as the vineyards give smaller yields so the grapes have more flavour, but it is at the level of very good Champagne.”
May’s informal tastings at the East Wintergarden will be some light relief for Oz from a busy month he’s set to sing on stage for the first time in 20 years during the first of a series of wine tasting concerts with Armonico Consort . He is also frantically trying to finish his latest book Oz Clarke’s World Of Wine.
The energy and charm that he has used to capture the public’s attention over the years is just as evident in person and, when Oz tells the story of his first taste of booze, aged three during a picnic on the banks of the River Ouse, it is easy to picture the scene.
“It was my mum’s damson wine,” he said. “My brother had fallen in and was drowning and my mum was having hysterics while my dad was trying to save him.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh what’s this? It looks nice,’ and drank it.
“When my dad realised he turned me upside down and gave me a whack in the stomach and 95% came back up. It put me off drinking for 15 years.”
However, he quickly fell in love with it when he joined the wine tasting club at Oxford University in an unsuccessful bid to impress girls.
Instead he met lifelong drinking buddy Charles Metcalfe, who provided his first sip of Champagne.
“He asked me to go for a punt and said he would bring some bottles of wine,” said Oz. “He showed up with these half bottles of Pommery 1961 vintage, that they were selling off for nothing from the college as they said they were too old.
“I tasted it and said, ‘Too old my foot’. It was absolutely fantastic and ever since then I have enjoyed old Champagne.”
His university days also landed him an Oxford Cambridge punting record with a time of 44 minutes and 58 seconds and he recently discovered he may even have featured in a Beatles film.
He said: “Apple came down and filmed us racing. I have never seen it but somewhere in the depths of YouTube there may be a film of me, with my fantastic muscles punting over the line.”
You can definitely see him on film in Superman, a role he landed while doing fringe theatre.
“Christopher Reeve was the nicest guy,” he said. “He was one of the big stars who was a really charming fellow.
“The finances of the film were so rickety though, so we heard, the director only started filming each day after he had been paid in cash.”
He has no regrets about giving up acting in favour of wine but despite his passion for grape Oz said his last drink on death row would be a bottomless glass of fresh milk or a barrel of perfectly brewed English IPA.
There’s some on tap where we meet, which he excitedly points out.
“But why am I on death row?” he asks. “For being rude about the French I suppose?”
Lets Get Fizzical , 6-9pm, May 24, from £35, East Wintergarden