“They epitomized what I found endlessly intriguing about the sommeliers, which was the fact that they united extremes of personality – devoutly studious and unrelentingly sybaritic – I’d rarely seen in combination. Given the sheer quantities they drink and the late hours they keep, I had expected them to be extravagant party animals. But instead, they were meticulous, even scholarly, about their hedonistic experiences and their customers’, as though Daniel Webster and Keith Richards had spawned a new race (that, like the two of them, was also largely white and male). …
There is something strangely conservative and old-fashioned about sommeliers that can make them – even the women – seem like little old men trapped in twentysomethings’ bodies. In addition to dressing like they’ve raided Jay Gatsby’s closet, they spend much of their time thinking about the past, mulling over the traditions of a five-hundred-year-old chateau, or mooning over a particularly warm spring thirty years ago. The poise they maintain while serving infuses their manner with a formality even off the floor. They are every parent’s dream: perfect posture, good eye contact, precisely enunciated full sentences.”
Former executive tech editor of The Huffington Post Bianca Bosker has her geek credentials in order. In an heroic and bacchanalian feat of participatory journalism, she decided to build up her wine chops, as well. Bosker fully immersed herself into the world of wine and wine snobs, shadowing sommeliers, interviewing scientists, joining elite tasting groups, and drinking a dizzying amount of wine, all in an effort to decide for herself – what’s the big deal about wine?
“Since embracing the world of wine, I’d plunged into tasting groups, competitions, distributor dinners, Master Sommelier boot camps, wine societies, wine clubs, wine auctions, and wine study groups. 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.”
As Bianca Bosker explores every avenue surrounding the complicated and often elitist world of fine wine, she narrates her story with hilarious self-deprecation, glorious wit, and a nerdy quirkiness that is absolutely charming.
“For a field that’s ostensibly all about pleasure, the current generation of sommeliers, or ‘somms,’ puts themselves through an astonishing amount of pain. They work long hours on their feet late into the night, wake up early to cram facts from wine encyclopedias, rehearse decanting in the afternoons, devote days off to competitions, and dedicate the few remaining minutes to sleep – or, more likely, to mooning over a rare bottle of Riesling. It is, in the words of one sommelier, ‘like some blood sport with corkscrews.’ Another called what they feel for wine a ‘sickness.’ They were the most masochistic hedonists I’d ever met.”
Master Sommeliers, Bosker discovers, are indeed a breed apart. Their finely honed skills, their encyclopedic knowledge, and their extreme unction are often transformative.
“Despite his lofty pronouncements, Morgan, as well as many of the other somms I would come to know, was not without a sense of irony. He knew how ridiculous his job could appear to a casual observer – a glorified, overpaid waiter with a drinking problem. Or, even less charitably, a sycophant sponging off the rich and powerful, hawking wines for their price as much as their quality. Morgan was aware that what he was doing was not exactly saving the planet or rescuing orphans. But he had pushed through the self-awareness to the other side. It was only wine the same way that a Picasso is only paint on a canvas and Mozart is only vibrations in the air.”
By the end of her tale, Bosker herself is transformed.
“Sensations no longer waft by unnoticed and unrecorded. Instead, they are grasped, explored, and analyzed. They evoke curiosity, critique, associations, appreciation, and feelings of repulsion or ecstasy or sadness or astonishment. They enlighten and they inspire. They become a memory, and they slot into the library of experience that makes up our understanding of the world. Far from smell and taste being primal, animalistic senses, it turns out that learning to cultivate them engages, in a literal way, the very part of us that elevates our reactions, endows our lives with meaning, and makes us human.”
“Cork Dork” is exceptionally well-researched, delightfully funny, and eloquently written. Chock full of rare experience and positively nerdy facts, “Cork Dork” is highly readable and interesting from first page to last. Bosker is a delight to read, and her book will leave you thirsting for more.
Thank you to Penguin Books for providing a complimentary Advanced Review Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.