Part memoir, part sensory science, part wine history, part primer for wine enthusiasts of all levels, Cork Dork (Penguin) is Bianca Bosker's quest to understand the subculture of restaurant sommeliers.
Bosker has written for The New Yorker online, The Atlantic, Food & Wine, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and The New Republic. She is an enticing writer who recounts the heavy-drinking, esoteric gauntlet of becoming a sommelier.
The project was sparked by an encounter with a sommelier while dining with friends. She began studying sommeliers during her job as an editor at Huffington Post. She found that she wanted to be more like them, and she trained to become one.
She left her job, talked her way into private tastings, cultivated relationships with sommeliers, del-ved into the science of taste and smell and became immersed in the subculture. She spoke with Gambit about her experiences researching the book.
G: How did you become interested in sommeliers?
Bosker: I started off obsessed with sommeliers' obsession, and I ended up obsessing over the same things they're obsessed with. I had this realization that these somms and I were living life at opposite extremes. My life was one of sensory deprivation; theirs was one of sensory cultivation. I wanted to know whether I could train my senses — whether any of us could — and what would change as a result.
G: You pursued sommelier training. How was that?
B: As a way of guiding my training and of testing whether I'd actually improved, I was determined to pass the Court of Master Sommeliers' certified sommelier exam. The court recommends that you spend at least three years in the wine industry before you attempt the test. I gave myself a year. And this exam is not a gimme. It tests wine theory, blind tasting and service, which requires you to demonstrate your skill tending to guests. It's something like Trivial Pursuit meets ballroom dancing meets a blind date. They're judging not only whether you can follow the dozen or so steps required to properly open a bottle of sparkling wine, but even whether you demonstrate the proper personality and je ne sais quoi.
G: In the book, you write that you gained access to private events and knowledgeable people in the field. Were you able to fit in?
B: In the beginning, I was what sommeliers refer to as a "civilian." I had to earn my way into the inner sanctum of their tasting groups and onto the restaurant floor. Training as a sommelier took over my life. I was blind tasting, going to distributor tastings, working as a cellar rat, cramming, practicing and going to sommelier competitions. At the same time, I supplemented the tried-and-true training methods passed down through generations of sommeliers with research by sensory scientists.
Cork Dork does not follow the typical wine world script. The book pulls back the curtain on parts of the wine world that are rarely explored. The wine industry tends to paint a very rosy, fairy tale portrait of itself — one that traffics heavily in tradition and romance. But as I found in my journey everywhere from the floors of Michelin-starred restaurants to neuroscientists' labs and mass-market wine factories, the reality of wine is way messier, way more complex.
G: What did you learn about your palate?
B: My experience training as a sommelier revolutionized the way I saw my senses. There's so much we misunderstand about taste and smell. First, you don't have to be born a bloodhound. Any of us can train our senses with a little effort. Second, we're actually better smellers than we realize. There's this idea that humans essentially unlearned how to smell when they started walking upright. But new research shows that when it comes to our sense of smell, we actually beat some species long considered the uber noses of the animal kingdom.
In the course of having my brain scanned by neuroscientists as a way of testing whether I'd improved, it became clear not only that any of us can hone our senses, but also why this transformation matters. Cultivating these capabilities is actually a prerequisite to fuller, deeper experience. In response to the same flavor stimuli, a novice's brain will stay relatively dark, where a trained taster's lights up. When we attune ourselves to flavor, we engage our more critical, analytical and higher-order brain functions. I came to value a mindset I describe as "sensefulness," which is the idea that it's by tuning into our senses that we can better make sense of the world. That outlook can start with a glass of wine. But it doesn't end there.
I think there's a paradox to our foodie culture. We spend all this time obsessing over food that will taste better, and yet we rarely teach ourselves how to taste well.
The result is that many of us settle for what I call "secondhand sensing" —things taste delicious because they're expensive, or because they come with a fancy description. Blind tasting teaches you to filter out the noise that often plays to our cognitive biases. In essence, wine can provide a discipline to stay true to our own felt experience of the world.
G: What's your advice for wine enthusiasts?
B: So much of the complexity and nuance of a wine exists in its aroma, and yet most of us never make the effort to learn to listen to our noses. Consider that humans can perceive only five different tastes, but scientists estimate we can pick up around one trillion different smells. If you've ever learned a new word in your life, then you've already practiced the skills it takes to be a phenomenal smeller. Start by putting meaning to smells: Sniff the herbs in your kitchen, and say their names as you do. You'll begin recognizing the aromas in your wines.
G: How should diners approach a sommelier?
B: Whether you're buying wine at a wine store or ordering at a restaurant, there are really just two key pieces of information you should share. First, what do you want to spend? And second, what flavors do you want to taste? The latter could be as specific as "I had a superb Grillo from Sicily the other day — can you suggest something like that?" or as vague as "I like white wines that taste like peach." The somm, who knows the options better than a guest ever could, can guide you from there.
As a somm, one of the most fun parts of the job is to take people on a journey through a glass of wine. You can travel through time and space without ever leaving your seat.
Bianca Bosker studied to become a certified sommelier to write Cork Dork.