Bosker, Bianca. Cork Dorks. Penguin, New York. 2017. NF; 4/17.
Some people are just naturally good at coming up with great book titles. This author and I share a blind spot in that area, and I had trouble getting past her almost offensive one, but I’m glad I made the effort. I learned a lot about wine (which is an interest of mine), but this clever serious young lady followed her instincts well beyond smell and taste to reach a couple of wise profound conclusions about aesthetic experience and… geewhiz… life.
A journalist, Bosker decides to find out about becoming a sommelier and seems to do such a thorough job that her whole outlook on experience changes. She befriends professionals, attends their serious tasting sessions, takes a job in a restaurant, studies and gains an international qualification in wine expertise, talks her way into conversations with a bunch of world experts, and finally gets a job as a sommelier. Her writing is clear and crazy-funny enough to bridge any sections that don’t quite hold interest.
There is a lot of straight information about wine in this lovely book. I had always thought of mouth feel components using the mnemonic “FATAS”: fruit, alcohol, tannin, acid, and sugar. I changed the first of that list to “body”, which is really viscosity or the difference between skim milk and heavy cream. I was very pleased to have my bias about wine smell confirmed a bit. Characteristic descriptions of what wine smells like are a series of buzzwords like “minerality”. And as you would expect about something as highfalutin as wine appreciation, style and terminology are a big deal and some of those words function as magic amulets without which you can forget about being taken seriously among experts. (Why bother? I’m happy with my personal anomic system of wine smells.)
Placebo effect exists too, and Bosker reaches one of her more serious conclusions to do with subjectivity of wine and of experience in general. ”The wine I drink is not the wine you drink” she says. Environment, experience, DNA; all sorts of things influence how we process the impact of chemicals, flavours, events, prevailing wisdom, and milieu. One expert is quoted as saying that a $1000 a bottle of wine is really only 2% better than a $50 bottle. No question wine participates in the value/cost curve that affects all luxury items. And we all fight the battle between prestige and the financial sweet spot on that curve.
These days it’s hard to avoid the scientific side of just about anything, and wine is no exception. There is a tendency for experts now to focus not on what a wine smells like, but what it smells of. Thiols, not grapefruit. Petrichor, not a spring rain on dry pavement. And of course there’s no escape from brain science. Our author has herself functionally imaged by MRI, and is pleased, once finished her sommelier education, that multiple anatomical sections of her brain light up just like real experts’ brains, whose activity was found in a study to be much more complicated than that of ordinary Joes while tasting wine inside a functional MRI machine. Bosker tells us with pride that her sommelier experience “changed (her) brain”. Well (say I), at least it caused other parts of her brain previously quiescent while tasting wine to be recruited.
I ended up impressed with this young author’s conclusions. Summing it all up, she thinks about wine and every other experience we see, feel, and smell that life is enriched if we pay attention. One of my dad’s cousins was a graphic art aficionado, and his advice for enjoying a museum was to make yourself choose your favourite painting in each room, spend a little extra time in front of it, and ask yourself why you like it.
Reflecting on dining in a restaurant, Bosker hit the nail on the head for me again. She is with wonderful Ruth Reichl in understanding that we go to restaurants fundamentally not to taste particular food but to be made to feel good. It’s the difference I found between L’Ambroiserie and Troisgros when I was still interested in very high-end eating. The best service, like the best love and friendship, finds out, and gives us, what we need to feel valued and comforted.
For people interested in wine it’s well worth getting past the title and the specific wine content of this one. 9.1/8.1