Bianca Bosker had a successful career as a technology journalist when she became fascinated with the world of wine, and blind taste testing in particular. How could expert tasters identify the grape, vintage, and even the vineyard of what they were drinking, without ever seeing the bottle? Cork Dork is the story of the eighteen months she spent following this obsession, quitting her job as a journalist in order to study to become a certified sommelier, while also interviewing vintners, sommeliers, chemists, and collectors.
Cork Dork is a fascinating look behind the scenes of the wine world, approached from the broad perspective of a reporter. Bosker looks at blind tasting, tasting notes, and sommelier certification, but also the history of how the current batch of terms for describing wine came into use, how science and chemistry are changing wine making, and the evolution of the sommelier profession. Much of the book takes place in restaurants, the setting we usually associate with sommeliers, but Bosker also ventures out to wine festivals, vineyards, and private tasting groups, providing a perspective that goes beyond the service we’ve come to expect with our meals.
Cork Dork is mostly a behind the scenes look at the wine world, but Bosker does spend some time unpacking the basic elements of wine tasting for beginners. If they’re not just doing it to be pretentious, then what are connoisseurs looking for when they swirl a glass of wine and watch it run down the inside of the glass? The size and speed of the drops that run down hint at the alcohol level of the wine. Ever get that puckery feeling in your mouth after sipping wine? Those are the tannins, which come from either the skin of the grape, or the barrels in which the wine is aged. Most of the book, however, is dedicated to letting civilians see the aspects of the wine world they might otherwise never have access to, rather than outright instruction.
The rubber really hits the road in Cork Dork when Bosker tries to make her way into the restaurant industry armed with her freshly polished but highly theoretical knowledge of wine and wine service. She starts out as a cellar rat, keeping inventory, and stocking bottles, and job shadows sommelier friends in high end Manhattan restaurants. A good deal of the humour of the book comes from the fact that Bosker is an outsider, with very little practical experience in the wine world. Even as she studies varieties and vintages, and memorizes vast wine trivia, she can barely decant a bottle, let alone smoothly execute proper service to a table of expectant diners. It is also here that she touches on the perils of being a woman in the wine world. Other women working as sommeliers warn her to always address the wife, lest she be accused of flirting, and to be especially demure and respectful when dealing with older people who may be skeptical of her knowledge.
With her journalism background, Bosker would be remiss if she did not address studies that have discredited wine expertise, including a study by Frederic Brochet which dyed white wine red, then asked oenology students to describe the flavour. They overwhelmingly used terms associated with red wine. This might indicate that even experts cannot tell red and white wine apart, or that even experts can be manipulated by environmental factors. Similar experiments have been performed by dyeing lemon Jello red, and asking tasters to identify the flavour, a test which regularly confounds people. By the end of the book, Bosker lies in an fMRI machine, and correctly identifies two wines given to her through a straw, sight unseen, with no bottles, labels, or prices to sway her judgement. She identifies both correctly, a task that utterly baffled her during her first forays into blind tasting groups at the beginning of the book.
Bosker also acknowledges the high degree of subjectivity and inconsistency among experts as to what constitutes a “good” wine. Experiments have shown that wine awards are no better than random, and that the same judge can vary wildly in their assessment of the same wine in a blind test. Bosker spends a lengthy section of the book trying to get to define “good” wine. With the refinements of science and modern technology, very few wines today are legitimately bad, that is to say, poorly made or gone off. An acceptable modern wine is narrowly separated from an excellent one compared to the range and uncertainty that once existed. Yet some bottles of wine cost as much as a latte, and others could consume your entire annual salary. Bosker ultimately decides on a highly subjective measure of quality suggested to her by a mentor—“one sip leads to another,” that is, you want to keep drinking it.
Cork Dork has a strong balance of history, humour, and reportage that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the world of sommeliers and wine connoisseurs. Even a reader skeptical about the science can be fascinated by the history of wine and the complex culture that has grown up around it, and Bosker makes for an excellent guide.
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