WINE-drinking, according to Ernest Hemingway, is one of the most civilised things on earth. But wines are so new to these shores the subject still intimidates many people. In the past 10 years, a growing number of wine enthusiasts have set out to dispel the mysterious aura. Until a year ago, the pleasures of the humble crushed grape were disseminated through informal wine circles and associations, but now Hong Kong's novice wine-lovers can take a course at The Wine School and tread a more structured path to knowledge. The man behind the venture is Chris Baker, a former lecturer and co-ordinator at the Baptist College Institute of Hotel Management. Responding to inquiries from those seeking professional qualifications, Mr Baker started teaching a higher certificate course in association with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust of Great Britain. ''Then members of the public started calling me up,'' he said. ''There seemed to be a widespread desire to learn more about the subject, so I set up a wine appreciation course. It took off from the word go.'' Mr Baker is running eight programmes concurrently: four wine appreciation courses, two higher certificate courses, one certificate course and one wine and dine course. The number of students is 160. The six-week wine appreciation courses are purely for pleasure, with the 21/2-hour evening class every week suitable for those with little or no previous knowledge. Getting people to admit they know little about a subject saturated with pretensions is half the battle. Mr Baker said one Japanese gentleman enrolled because he was sick of pretending he knew what he was doing when presented with a wine list in restaurants. On the first evening of the latest wine appreciation course, the class members were Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Westerners of all ages and, judging from their attire, all professions. ''This is the biggest and most varied group we've had yet,'' Mr Baker said. ''What's most notable is that 60 per cent are Chinese, with a slight majority being women.'' The courses are in the classrooms of a business and language institute on the fifth floor of a Wan Chai building. As with any education venue, they are furnished with a simple white board, overhead projector and plastic school-style chairs with attached tables. But unlike most venues, there is also a table set with rows of sparkling glasses and bottles of wine. The extent of knowledge among participants varies greatly. ''One lady in a previous class was astonished that wine came from grapes,'' Mr Baker said. ''That taught me not to make any assumptions.'' Unlike many adult education classes, and partly because of Mr Baker's humour and informality, the evening warmed up early on. Discussing wine, it seems, is as convivial as drinking it. ''What do you know about Beaujolais?'' he said. ''It's good for a rip-off,'' answered one bright spark - and that was before any tasting had been done. The subject jumped from why young wines have a short finish to how the Romans kept their wine drinkable in the days before corks were invented (they poured a layer of oil on top). In between came a discussion of varietals; comparisons of Old and New World wines; how white and red wines are made; how to ''read'' a glass of wine; the role of tannin in the ageing process; what represents value for money; and correct storage procedures. A constant theme was the debunking of myths. While students twirled their glasses against the thoughtfully-provided piece of white kitchen towel, Mr Baker let slip that the first glance was only to make sure it was free of unidentifiable objects. ''It's just to make sure the wine is OK - that there's nothing floating around and it's clear and bright. Experts will be able to tell if all is as it should be, but that only comes with experience.'' With each stage, questions were asked before Mr Baker gave anything away. Of the Australian shiraz: ''What do you smell?'' The replies: ''Pepper, olives, cherries.'' ''I think we're on the receiving end of something very good here,'' Mr Baker said. ''You're all right. A quality shiraz should be fruity, spicy and peppery. This is a classic; remember this smell.'' The subject which elicited the most response was the hangover. This can be caused by drinking too-youthful wines before the tannins have softened, or spirits passed off as fully-matured. By showing a ''headache'' chart, Mr Baker also gave drinkers a future safety net. For the record, vodka - as the purest form of alcohol - is the best drink to avoid a hangover, while brandy is the worst. But back to the wine. ''In Hong Kong, there is a tradition of buying wine because of the name on the label. Remember, don't equate price with quality,'' Mr Baker said. ''Most of what I tell you is only my opinion. It doesn't mean I'm right.'' Rachel Weller will share the lessons of the Wine Appreciation course over the next five weeks.