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08-08-2017

8 Questions with Cork Dork Author and Unlikely Sommelier Bianca Bosker

The tech journalist-cum-sommelier stopped by the test kitchen to discuss her book about her journey from “wine ignoramus” to bona fide oenophile.

Terrence Doyle

Bianca Bosker isn’t just another wine-guzzling writer—she’s what industry types call a “cork dork.” What better name for her most recent book, then, a New York Times bestseller that chronicles her journey from amateur wine drinker to professional sommelier, and which fellow cork dork Madeline Puckette called “the Kitchen Confidential of wine.”

Bosker stopped by the test kitchen to read a bit from Cork Dork and to teach us all a thing or two about how to taste a glass of wine. I caught up with Bosker after her chat and asked if she had any magical hangover cures and whether anyone should ever spend $100 on a bottle of wine. A lightly edited version of that conversation is below.

What’s the weirdest thing about a sommelier's tasting habits?

I think in part what makes them weird is the composite of the extremes to which some people will go in the name of flavor. One thing that I find generally peculiar and fascinating is the way that most of us ignore taste and smell. We only have five senses to make sense of the world, and we’ve written off two of them. And so overall what I find most compelling about sommeliers is the way they just turn that logic on its head and say, “No, there’s a beauty in flavor. There’s a beauty in odor. There’s a beauty in acid on the tongue that can rival a piece of music or a piece of art or a piece of writing.” I think that that worldview is so dissimilar from what most of us experience. And it translates into doing truly batty, far-out things in the name of honing your tastebuds and your sense of smell. So what’s the weirdest? Ah, it’s hard—going more than a year and a half without drinking anything above lukewarm temperature is pretty nuts, right? Licking rocks, chewing dirt . . . Not brushing your teeth at certain times of the day. But also just generally reorienting your life in order to keep things consistent if you’re tasting.

Is there any credence to the “red wine with meat, white wine with fish and seafood” logic?

I don’t know where that rule came from. I think there’s a lot of these inherited pieces of wisdom that have just been kicking around for a long time. There are a lot of red wines that are delicious with fish—and it’s also a personal decision.

I remember when I was starting out [training as a sommelier], and people would say, “It’s all subjective. Everyone likes their own thing, everyone experiences flavor differently. So you just should love what you love.” When it comes to tasting logic, you find what is pleasing to your own palate. And by taking risks and tasting a little dangerously, you can find some really incredible pairing combinations. I just had leftover Thai green curry with this kind of oxidized white wine from the Jura, and it blew my mind! But I think that works better if you have the tools to wrap your mind around flavor and listen to your nose.

So there are red wines that go well with fish?

Oh, Pinot Noir? Gamay? Any lighter-bodied red wine. But then again, some people might want an overwhelming Syrah.

How did you go from “wine ignoramus”—your words—to wine expert?  

I’d go out after work and I’d spend $12 on a glass of wine and I’d be like, “I don’t know what the hell is in this. I don’t know why I spent $12.” I went through this entire phase where I only ordered Sancerre. And I thought it was because I was getting really confident about wine, and that I really liked Sancerre. And I was very proud of myself for a while until I realized the only reason I was ordering Sancerre was because it sounded vaguely familiar, because it sounded like Sansa on Game of Thrones. I was like, “You’re an idiot.” And I was frustrated because I bring wine to dinner parties, I spend money on this thing—and I don’t understand what differentiates one thing from another. And usually when I feel that way about something, I stop spending money on it.

So the key to getting more out of it isn’t just throwing French wine regions at people. It’s about tuning into taste and smell, and most critically about building your sense memories. You’re never going to smell strawberry in a wine if you don’t know what strawberries smell like. Before you get to a glass of wine, if you really want to get more out of it, just start smelling everything. Smell the flowers that you pass by; smell your coworker’s lunch; smell the shampoo that you use in the morning. And start putting words on those aromas, and you’ll get more from a glass of wine—and you don’t even need to spend any money to do it.

Is it critical to have a deep wine vocabulary in order to get the most out of every experience with wine, and if it is, what are some basic steps ordinary folks can take to sound a little more like they know what they’re talking about?

Language is critical for developing your senses. If you’ve ever learned a word in your life, you have what it takes to savor the nuance in a glass of wine. If you think about learning a language, you attach meaning to sounds. If you’re learning about a bottle of wine, you’re really attaching meaning to smell. And I focus so much on smell because we can experience five different tastes, whereas some scientists argue we can perceive a trillion different odors. So when you think of the nuance and richness of wine, it all really comes from the aromas. So you have to build up your sense memory. You’ll never get strawberry in a wine if you can’t smell strawberry in strawberries. (And a lot of sommes can’t, by the way.) I remember once when it was my turn to captain a blind tasting group, and I brought all these different herbs and vegetables covered up. Chervil was one of the favorite tasting notes [in wine] among these sommeliers, and they couldn’t smell chervil in chervil.

You don’t have to use tasting notes, and if you feel confused by tasting notes you’re in good company—the whole language of wine has gotten a bit bastardized over time. What you really need to be able to do is communicate two critical pieces of information when you’re ordering wine at a restaurant or buying it at a wine shop: What do you want to spend, and what flavors do you want. Everyone has a budget and you shouldn’t be embarrassed—be straightforward. And you can be as specific as saying, “I had a great Viognier from the Rhône—what else do you have like that?” or as broad as saying, “I like Sauvignon Blanc,” or “I like wines that taste like grass.” A good sommelier will be able to give you exactly what you want. The vocabulary can be as simple as that.

Language is critical for developing your senses. If you’ve ever learned a word in your life, you have what it takes to savor the nuance in a glass of wine.

How did you start thinking about scent as a tool of language?

One of the training regimens I did was something called the “Kindergarten of the Nose,” which was developed at the Harvard of oenology—the University of California, Davis. It’s a required course for all aspiring winemakers. The name is appropriate because it essentially aims to correct an oversight from kindergarten, which is that growing up, we never learn to put words on smells. So our parents were like, “The fire truck is red; the cow goes moo.” But rarely, if ever, are parents like, “This is the smell of the lawn.” These things are lurking in the backs of our brains, but a big piece of it is making it explicit.

Do you have any good hangover advice?

I wish I could say I’ve discovered a miracle hangover cure, but I have not.

Should anyone ever spend $100 on a bottle of wine?

This is a question that really weighed on me. In general, I think there’s a close relationship between wine quality and price up to around $80 a bottle. And then you begin to pay not just for the quality of that 750 milliliters of fermented grape juice, but for the scarcity of that bottle, for how long it’s been aged—someone’s paid rent on storing it for a long period of time. Ten dollars buys you a world of difference between a $10 bottle and a $20 bottle, and less so between a $70 bottle and an $80 bottle.

But if you’ve got a budget of $20, you’re going to be able to drink well. The most important decision comes even before you’re picking out the wine, and that’s when you pick out the store. Your corner deli or liquor store, no matter how much you know about wine—you’re not going to walk out with a great bottle. And then there are wine stores curated by someone who gives a damn—sort of like your indie bookstores of the wine world—where you could pick just about anything off the shelf and it has a high chance of being delicious. Those are the places to try and spend your $12, your $15, your $20.

More Test Kitchen Visitors

Want to read more about other food friends who have visited us in the test kitchen? Check out our visits from bread guru Peter Reinhart, cookie legend Dorie Greenspan, Momofuku's sweet genius Christina Tosi, world traveler Naomi Duguid, Top Chef star Karen Akunowicz, and Tested.com host Will Smith.

What’s your favorite type of wine, and how would you describe its taste? Let us know in the comments! And for more great information on wine, check out Bianca's Twitter and Instagram

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