Lively. Effervescent if not bubbly. Shall we add intoxicating?
The words might bring to mind a champagne, but seem apt descriptors for Bianca Bosker, the writer of last year’s “Cork Dork” about her journey from amateur wine-drinker to professional sommelier. It’s an immersion not only in the sometimes cut-throat, sometimes mad, always demanding New York wine world, but also in Bosker’s own adventure in climbing the daunting mountain of wine knowledge, from lore to Loire – through flash cards, deep reading, relentless tasting (and not quite enough spitting), mentors and guardians, a life-changing journey that leads where it will.
“It’s a very different type of wine book,” she said by phone, racing to catch the Q line en route to Terroir, the hip wine bar in Tribeca that figures prominently in “Cork Dork.” “I entered the world with a lot of curiosity, but a healthy degree of skepticism.”
It was a conversation alternately distorted by fluctuating cell-phone coverage and cork-dork geek speak, making the book itself – a New York Times bestseller in the year it came out, 2017 – required reading for aspiring sommeliers or status-averse wine aficionados.
Bosker, 31, wasn’t always a wine writer. Her first book was more about architecture, actually, and her first “career” in high-tech, at Huffington Post. And as she tells it, it was overhearing someone say they were preparing for the World’s Best Sommelier competition that caught her attention. “How could serving wine possibly be a competitive sport? Open, pour, and you’re done. Right?”
Wrong. Not only does a sommelier do more than open, pour, but it’s a whole package: the knowledge and confidence to gauge the guest’s tastes (and pocketbook) and recommend an appropriate wine; the etiquette of how to open a bottle (quietly) and how to pour it (don’t “backhand” your guest); deep wells of knowledge that is literally centuries old in a through-line across civilizations; and not least developing the senses to appreciate the full complexity of what’s in the glass.
Even though, as she says in the book, being a sommelier “sounded like the least fun anyone’s ever had with alcohol,” she found herself being sucked into the matrix of a sensory competition, where subtle nuance could make all the difference between a New World and an Old World wine, between a nebbiolo and a sangiovese, between a good wine and a great one.
What she found was that the world got bigger. “I turned my life upside down in training to be a sommelier. The wine universe too often falls back on telling people what to taste, instead of how to taste. To me the latter is the most lasting foundation for a healthy, empowered relationship with wine.”
Learning how to taste – and how to smell, the partner sense in appreciating a good glass or a good meal – became an obsession for her. “I find obsessives are capable of seemingly superhuman feats, their fervor propels them to do incredible things that we mere mortals never felt possible.” In Bosker’s case, that obsession led her from skepticism to expertise in a little over a year: she passed, on her first try, the demanding Certified Sommelier Examination.
More than earning the certificate, though, Bosker’s journey was about training herself to, literally, smell the world in new ways.
“Taste and smell are seen as the lesser senses,” she tells us. “But they’re part of our animal nature, to be able to perceive the world as a whole.” And while there are five named tastes, there are millions of smells that our noses can actually discern, once we train ourselves to parse them. We teach a 2-year-old the names for colors, she said, but we don’t always teach them the words for smells.
Cork Dork at Readers
Bianca Bosker will read from “Cork Dork” on Friday, March 16 at Readers’ Books in Sonoma. Wine may be served so admission is limited to 21-and-older. Tasting and talk begins at 5:30; post-event mingling encouraged.
Readers’ Books is located at 130 E. Napa St.; phone 939-1779.