For highly entertaining insights into the world of wine, restaurants, the route to becoming a sommelier and tips anyone can use to improve their understanding and appreciation of wine, check out Cork Dork, by Bianca Bosker.
She went from being a tech writer, virtually a novice in the world of wine, to total immersion with a wine obsession on the road to becoming a sommelier. “Living for taste above all else.“
Bianca calls going for sommelier credentials a competitive sport, like the Westminster dog show, going through rigorous steps to become a sommelier, or best of breed.
In the introduction, she talks about sacrifices, leading to potential divorce (“Is Bianca drinking again,” they asked her husband.), no more use of salt, acquiring the skills of bomb sniffing German Shepherds. The somms suffer pain, late night on their feet. What drove them? For some, it is like a religion. Her mentor, Morgan Harris, was the Obi-Wan Kenobi of wine.
Bianca tracked through the difficult route on how to teach ourselves to be better tasters. It starts with those in charge of restaurant wine lists. They pursue their passions. They hire cellar rats to schlepp wine from cold, dank places into the light of gloried consumption.
Wines by the Glass: Rape and Pillage the Customer
She talks about wines by the glass. Big money makers for the restaurants. “Rape and pillage“ with Chardonnay, Cabernet and Malbec by the glass. For better values, go for obscure wines. She connected with different wine tasting groups and fanatics pursuing their credentials to accelerate her education. Some members would meet before and after tastings to continue the quest, tasting new wines, having each person provide their description of the color, nose and flavor of the wine, its nuances, and guess on its origin. They filled out 3×5 cards by the hundreds to test their knowledge and create their own vocabularies to describe wines. For example, descriptive words on aroma and bouquet could help them identify in blind tastings whether the Sauvignon Blanc was from France, South Africa, New Zealand and California, or the Cabernet blend from France or the new world.
Advancing through the different steps to improve one’s perceptions requires building your skills and going through processes and constant practicing: “cardio for the tongue.” Bianca provides tips for tasting. To improve her impressions of scents, she worked with a noted French perfumer. His key was to assign words to smells. Do scent analysis all the time, wherever you are. Even in the street, she would draw in a single, long breath. Hold, then exhale through your nose. Analyze it. Where ever you go, she says, smell what is around you. She talked about being in the subway, with odors of human bodily functions, sweat, residual tinge of vomit and other things.
Since her cohorts were mostly involved in the restaurant business, she was pleased to share some of their insights. They talked about bad diners. American diners expect restaurants to humor their every whim, instead of opening themselves up to the new and unfamiliar.
“Should everything be exactly what you wanted to be, or should you encounter things that are difficult and challenging I do not live up to your expectations? For me, going to a restaurant is like going to a show. I don’t expect to necessarily like it. I expect to see the opinion of the chef and of the wine director and of the service staff.“
The pros learn to assign names and meanings to smells. Sour red fruit aroma is cranberry. They develop a framework in which to orient that smell with wines from other countries, such as Sangiovese from Tuscany.
“Pinot Noir, a fussy weakling of a grape that’s far more delicate and disease-prone then it’s happy-go-lucky cousin Cabernet Sauvignon.”
The Burgundy Conundrum
“Some of the most expensive wines in the world are from Burgundy. Also, many of the most unreliable wines in the world are from Burgundy.“
“I’ve never watched someone open up but was supposed to be an outstanding bottle of Burgundy without a look of mild terror in her face. The wines oxidize, they get reductive, they are fickle in mediocre villages, and they go through awkward phases in their youth. The people who adore these wines tend to have a masochistic streak, and when you meet a Burgundy fanatic, it’s hard not to puzzle over what trauma – weren’t they hugged enough his kids?”
The manager of a noted Burgundy wine company told her: of course, the dirty secret of this business is it a $1,000 bottle of wine is maybe two percent better than the $50 bottle of wine; and sometimes it isn’t.
The professionals value wine based on balance, complexity and finish. An unbalanced wine will have flavors that stick out in awkward and unpleasant ways. A balanced wine brings great pleasure to you with all parts into harmony.
Tip: Quality is elusive. But bad wine can’t hide.
The big wineries can tweak their wines to suite the consumers test. They can control color, bitterness, tannins, even aromas of blackberry, cherry and plums. Each could be cranked up or down according to the drinker’s desires. Wine critic Jancis Robinson said that fewer than one percent of all bottles available in the international marketplace exhibit a winemaking fault.
The ultimate test: one sip leads to a second step. One glass leads to a second glass. One bottle leads to a second bottle.
“Good wine can lead you on a journey to try something else.”
She looked for technical clues, too, at a company that uses a gas chromatograph – mass spectrometer (GC-MS) to separate the chemicals in a complex mixture and identify them using each one’s molecular weight. They used this to demystify Cabernet Sauvignon from California: the fresh minty character comes from eucalyptol. The machine?
“It looked like the love child of a Xerox machine and an air-conditioning unit.”
The testing did raise questions about value. Did they master an elaborate set of rituals that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of having sommeliers master an elaborate set of rituals?
On the good news side for diners, trust your somm. The good somm will create a mental state, an atmosphere. It is a performance, kind of theater that sets the tone for the experience. The sommelier provides the human touch that can elevate a meal.
In her transformation, “Wine had gone from something like a condiment – just some edible accessory that could enhance a meal – to the main event.”