Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Wine Book Review: Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

Penguin Original - $17 - On Sale 3/28/17
Calling all gonzo wine geeks, aspiring somms, restaurant lifers, science nerds and culture critics! There is something in Bianca Bosker’s book Cork Dork for all of you.

The run-on title (“A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste”) aside, this book is as fresh and fun as a Wachau Riesling. Bosker’s book is packed with helpful information, wrapped in honest inquiry, and slathered with humor and wit. “Less a journey from grape to glass… this is an adventure from glass to gullet,” she writes. And, sure enough, there is a whole lot of cork-popping, glass-draining hedonism recollected in 300-something pages. But there’s also plenty of information that should be useful for both wine novices and other “cork dorks.”

Many readers may have seen the movie Somm, and its sequel, which chronicle several sommeliers studying for the Master Sommelier exam. While I liked Somm, I feel Bosker’s book may be an easier hook for casual wine fans who want to know about the fast-paced, bottle-clinking life of America’s wine stewards. Bosker’s book jumps into some of the same waters (the pre- blind taste test jitters, cramming for the written test, stressing out of the service exam), but she tells the story from the perspective of an outsider, a neophyte, a “civilian.” Combined with her punchy, intelligent prose, this outsider perspective on the hardcore New York wine subculture makes it accessible.

Having spent much of her journalism career focused on technology, Bosker strives to break complex subjects down into digestible parts. Where there is myth, she wants to find demonstration. Where there are powerful personalities making wide-sweeping claims (there might be a few of those in the wine world), she wants to find out if those claims hold up to scrutiny.

But Bosker does more than rehash stories about the intensity of wine study programs and the difficulty of big blind tastings. She spends time with flavor scientists and neuroscientists to try to figure out whether wine expertise is a definitive, demonstrable thing.

“Somewhere along the skeptic spectrum between atheists and flat-Earth truthers, there is a sizeable contingent of people who believe wine expertise plain just doesn’t exist,” Bosker writes. But then, instead of throwing her hands up, she goes out and investigates. She even goes under an fMRI after her year-long wine studies to see how they have altered the way her brain works.

Using language to describe wine is, it turns out, is important to how our senses perceive and how our memory registers wine. Especially in the context of sommelier study programs and blind tasting — it is absolutely necessary to assign specific wines labels and descriptors using language. Bosker talks to researchers about this topic, and there are some fascinating results: Language helps us understand wine.

Summarizing one researcher’s findings: “If we don’t have the vocabulary to describe an experience, our struggle to convey that encounter in words — and it will be a struggle — corrupts our impression of it, a phenomenon known as ‘verbal overshadowing.’ Asked to talk about something like a glass of wine, people who lack the terminology to do so later become far worse at recognizing the same wine again than individuals who weren’t pressed for words. People who have jargon to rely on aren’t as affected by verbal overshadowing.”

The science Bosker digs into is too in-depth to cover here, but I’ve included two quotes from Bosker below, in which she is summarizing scientific studies. 

“Professional tasters really have taught themselves to experience wine differently from amateurs. And the smells in a glass of Cabernet Franc are not… tickling the leftover, primitive side of our gray matter. To the contrary, wine demonstrably activates more advanced, higher-level parts of the brain.”

“Similarly, wine expertise comes by paying attention, sensing clearly, and then imposing meaning onto those physical sensations. Language, for instance, is thought to play a key role in boosting odor discrimination. The pros improve their olfactory skills as they learn to assign names and meanings to smell.”

No dead horse wine topic has been beaten more than the wine tasting note. I’ve written thousands of them and read dozens of screeds about their frivolous nature. But Bosker, while acknowledging the absurdity of some extremely purple prose, approaches this subject with an open mind, and achieves the near impossible: she writes about how we describe wine in a way that is fun to read.

I also appreciate her perspective as a woman in the wine world, as those voices are not always amplified as much as they should be. Bosker talks openly about being hit on by obnoxious drunk men at La Paulée, being groped at wine tasting events, and otherwise being objectified and harassed by pompous jerks. As a man, I’ve felt awkward and out of place in many wine crowds, but never have I feared for my safety or personal privacy, so I appreciate Bosker bringing those issues to light in the way she does.

This book is a fascinating read for wine-lovers all over the nerd spectrum, and I highly recommend it.

I’ll finish off with two memorable quotes from Bosker’s friend Morgan the Somm, who takes Bosker under his wing and has a way with wine words.

“Bottles of wine are ways that my humanity will be changed.”

“Wine for me is just a touch point to a wider world view: That I am not important. That I am a sack of water and organs that’s going to be here on Earth for eighty years if I’m lucky. And so I should figure out some way to make that count.”

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

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