Sunday, October 1, 2017

Cork Dork

Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste.

Bianca Bosker (2017, Penguin Books)

    The first sommelier Bianca Bosker met was preparing to compete to be the World's Best Sommelier. Her journalistic curiosity engaged, she started watching videos of competitors "uncorking, decanting, sniffing, and spitting" and walking in elegant circles, like so many show dogs at Westminster. Just imagine if those same dogs could also find a child at Disneyworld after one sniff of his jacket: a master sommelier is capable of tasting a glass of an unknown wine and telling where and when it was made, down to the vineyard.

    This seemingly occult ability is not born, but learned, by thousands of tasting experiences over a professional lifetime; for purposes of journalistic immersion, Bosker boiled that time down to a year and a half. With a goal of passing the first round of sommelier certification, she plunged into training. The typical tasting group is a half-dozen somms, who gather on some weekday morning around six bottles of wines with foil covering the labels, and try to guess what's in them. The basic properties have physical manifestations: the more alcohol a wine has, the more it burns your throat, and the higher the acid level, the more you salivate. Together with sweetness, body (density in the mouth) and tannin levels (the mouth-puckering quality from grape skins, or aging in oak barrels), these properties find their characteristic balance in each type of wine. Matching all that to the grape variety, the location of the vineyard, and the year's weather? Flash cards, flash cards, and more flash cards. 

    That's to say nothing of the scents the somms claim to detect, because that's where a lot of what we think of as taste comes from. "That first sniff was crucial. If it was intense and unmistakably fruity–plum, fig, cherry, blackberry–that would be a vote for a New World wine, meaning it came from anywhere but Europe. More restrained, savory aromas–dirt, leaves, herbs, even stones–would trigger thoughts of the Old World, aka European wines." These descriptors are conventional, part of the agreed-upon jargon; "If you know the language, you can decipher the code. Mentioning rose and lichee is a giveaway that you're heading for Gew├╝rtztraminer. Olive, black pepper, and meat mean you're barreling toward Syrah. Plum? Merlot. Cassis? Cabernet."

    In addition to drinking herself silly with her hard-drinking tutors, Bosker looks into some scientific, historic, and commercial aspects of wine. Some scientists analyze the chemical components of the classic properties, though their language doesn't translate terribly well into the social world of wine. The wine in your grocery store has very likely been subjected to chemical tweaking, in the interest of producing ten million bottles that all taste the same.

     Of course, that's not what the Park Avenue sommelier is going for. He's looking for a reason to sell the man in the twenty-thousand-dollar watch a seven-hundred-dollar bottle of wine, and make him grateful for it, or at least a little proud. Oneupmanship and conspicuous consumption certainly lead people to try things they're told are good, rather than what they might like best. (The sommelier competitions include a table service section, in which the somms are expected to act like excruciatingly correct English butlers, never spilling a drop, while answering the demanding and impertinent questions idle rich people might ask.)

     Between the industrial-grade wines and the pointlessly extravagant ones, there really is a field of knowledge and pleasure for Bosker, and an astonishing increase of knowledge. "I'd dissected cadaver heads and lugged cases down ladders and eaten dirt and probably done irreparable damage to my tooth enamel. I'd been driven by a desire to understand what made cork dorks tick, what came with a more sensory-aware existence, what it was that made wine so endlessly fascinating, and which aspects of the bullshit-prone industry were meaningful."

     Cork Dork is highly worthy to join your shelf of books about things people obsess and do that you never have to do yourself. Bosker's journalism by immersion is more literal than you ordinarily see, yet she keeps her eye on the nub of the question: "What's the big deal about wine?" Even though Bosker drank more wine in a week than I will in my life, I'm a lot closer to understanding that than I was. Cheers!