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.
“It just starts by paying attention. It’s like learning a language.” She acknowledges that there is such a thing as “super-tasters” – people who have more nerve endings on their tongues, like her husband; but she also acknowledges that she isn’t one.
Bosker’s path to certification is a colorful one, and she spares no detail in the embarrasments as well as the successes. She seemed to have an inordinately difficult time opening a bottle of champagne under any sort of stress. On the other hand, she was able to charm her way into the inner circles of somm-dom from the outset, talking her way onto exclusive panels she had no real business being on, like being a guest judge at TopSomm (in Santa Rosa of all places) in 2016, before she herself was certified.
Even the educated wine lover, however, cannot but notice that riesling gets an inordinate amount of attention in Bosker’s book. One of her spirit guides, if you will, is Paul Greico, creator of the Terroir wine bars in New York, and a rabid riesling evangelist. “You want a sauvignon blanc? F*** you, here’s a riesling. Want chardonnay? F*** you, try this riesling,” she quotes him. Clearly, Bosker has had the conversion experience: the sometimes off-dry, always acidic white is mentioned 31 times in “Cork Dork,” easily lapping Sonoma County favorite pinot noir.
But while she is dizzy with enthusiasm for the New York wine scene, where bottles from obscure regions and countries can be found around every corner, she acknowledges the value in drinking wine where it’s grown, where it’s made. “What grows together, goes together” applies not just to farm-to-table, but vine-to-bottle-to table.
In fact, she admitted that if there’s one thing she wanted to do in “Cork Dork,” it wasn’t to brag about her wine knowledge, or blow the whistle on pretentious wine snobs, or even to share her eccentric journey through New York’s wine bars and tasting competitions – but to change how her readers smell, their relationship with the aromas that make up our reality.
“Sometimes when I’m homesick, I’ll open a bottle of Willamette Valley pinot noir,” said Bosker, who grew up in Portland. “It has the smell of home. That’s what wine can be, traveling through time and space in a glass.”
Bosker will be in Northern California next week, first for an appearance at the Napa Valley Wine Library in St. Helena, and on Friday, March 16, in Sonoma at Readers’ Books. She promises an “unorthodox” tasting to accompany a reading from “Cork Dork: A wine-fueled adventure among the obsessive sommeliers, big bottle hunters, and rogue scientists who taught me to live for taste.”
Contact Christian at firstname.lastname@example.org.