One of the truisms of the restaurant business is that the people you work with become your family. There are especially strong ties that bind among sommeliers: a deep knowledge of wine, but also that no one else really quite understands why you care so much about wine except your sommelier family. Bianca Bosker is the author of Cork Dork, an unflinching account of her personal journey into wine obsession. She tells us the story of how she fell in with “the soms.”
Perfume was the first to go, but I'd been expecting that. Scented detergent followed, then dryer sheets. I wasn't sorry to give up raw onions or hot sauce. I went through a dark phase when I cut out coffee, but by that point I was used to being a little slow in the morning. Daytime sobriety was ancient history along with all hot liquids, the enamel on my teeth, and my Advil supply. All this was part of the routine I cobbled together out of the advice of more than two dozen sommeliers who during the span of more than a year became my mentors, tormentors, drill sergeants, bosses, and friends.
I'd come to them a wine ignoramus, which had never bothered me until I discovered this world of fanatical cork dorks. These people live for taste. They train their senses the way Olympians train their bodies. They divorce spouses to spend more time studying bottles. And they detect stories where most of us pick up merely smells.
(Photo: Matthew Nguyen)
I was living at the opposite extreme. As the tech editor for an online website, I'd spent five years at screens immersed in a world that couldn't be touched, tasted, or smelled. It was a life of sensory deprivation, not sensory cultivation, and as I learned more about this elite subculture of “soms” I got fixated. What was I missing? I came to them wanting to know what life was like at the extremes of taste. Then it became a question of whether I could get there too? If any one of us could get there, and what would change if we did? Despite my loved ones’ objections, I quit my steady job and got hired as a cellar rat, the lowest of the low in the wine world. From there I set out to train as a sommelier.
As a journalist, I'd maintained more or less the same routine for half a decade: wake up, take the subway to 8th Street, and arrive at the office by 9:30 a.m. in time for our editorial meeting. Under my new regime as an official member of New York's wine army I began visiting free tastings hosted by wine distributors, those middle men who sell to stores and restaurants. Most days I was nursing my first glass of wine around the same hour I'd usually be running through the mornings headlines. I was drunk by noon, hungover by 2 p.m., and around four in the afternoon deeply regretting the burger I'd devoured for lunch. I discovered New York is a much, much drunker city than I'd ever imagined. At any time of the day, any day of the week, I could join men in suits to stagger around purple-toothed and a little buzzed sampling the newest wines.
Left: To make wine seem less intimidating, Bianca Bosker has fun with adventurous pairings and posts them on her Instagram with the hashtag #pairdevil. Here, Bianca pairs pickles and pastrami from Pastrami Queen with a 2014 Alain Graillot's Crozes-Hermitage. (Photo: Matthew Nguyen) Right: Bosker tastes through a collection of different wines: "Drinking all day isn't as easy as it sounds." (Photo: Anna Harman)
I took the advice of a young som, who'd also learned to taste on a budget, and used the tastings to figure out the distinct flavor profiles of the classic grape varieties. One week I'd drink nothing but Sauvignon Blanc, the next week would be exclusively Riesling, then Tempranillo, and so on. I was trying to wrap my tongue around each one's character – Merlot's plumminess or Pinot Noir's cherryness. And understand how that grape changed as it crossed climates and countries. Every Thursday, I'd stumble back over to the restaurant where I worked for yet another round of tastings. For two-and-a-half hours, sales reps stopped by with suitcases full of bottles. I tried them all. But that still wasn't enough drinking.
by Bianca Bosker
To hone my flavor-sensing skills I needed to learn to blind taste. In other words, to learn to tell through taste and smell alone the year a wine was made, from what grapes, and in what corner of the planet. So far I'd weaseled my way into two blind tasting groups. Fridays, I met with beginners. Wednesdays, I joined advanced sommeliers; they liked to taste early in the day, believing their senses to be more alert in the morning than after a day of stimulation. At 10 a.m. every Wednesday, we'd show up to a som’s apartment in Queens, lugging bottles hidden under crumpled aluminum foil or tucked into knee socks. After my first blind tasting the advanced group assigned me homework. “You need to learn to spit,” a no-nonsense som informed me after watching me struggle through a glass. Apparently, there was an art to expectoration, and it didn't – in any way – resemble my tactic of positioning my mouth over the frothy contents of the spit bucket and dumping out wine with a slack-jawed blah. They introduced me to spitting with confidence. Pursing my lips to shoot out a forceful steady stream. The first time I tried their way of spitting droplets from the communal spit bucket splashed onto my face.
In between my liquid training I was sniffing at quinces, munching a mix of apple species, and seeing how long I could smell herbs at my local Fairway supermarket before arousing suspicions of the security guard. Master sommeliers had advised me to develop my sense memory. To implant the impression of animals, vegetables, and minerals in my mind so deeply I'd be able to recognize these odors in a wine. The advice kept coming. Taste all different types of citruses. Try the peel, the pith, the juice. Someone else recommended that I add a little dirt to my diet. “Lick rocks when you're around outside,” he said. “I lick rocks all the time,” he assured me. “What kind of rocks?” I asked. “Any rocks that I haven't licked before,” he answered. It's fun to taste the difference between red slate and blue slate. My husband came home early from work one evening and caught me gumming gravel. He was quiet for a long time before he gave me the sanest advice yet, “Have you thought about asking for your old job back?"
Bianca Bosker is the author of Cork Dork. She gave us this list of the books that pointed her way towards wine dorkdom for anyone hoping to dive deeper into the glass.
The Juice by Jay McInerney
Bosker: "McInerney's profiles of the 'grape nuts' who live for wine – their flaunting, foibles, and zeal – are every bit as delectable as the big bottles his subjects obsess over."
Inventing Wine by Paul Lukacs
Bosker: "From being revered by the ancients as a gift from the gods to getting guzzled by drinkers as a healthier alternative to bacteria-ridden water to getting worshipped by wine snobs waxing poetic about vintages, wine has a twisted history full of surprises that Lukacs untangles in his captivating exploration of one of civilization's oldest pleasures."
Natural History of the Senses by Diana Ackerman
Bosker: "To enjoy wine, you have to know how to savor with your senses. Ackerman's ode to our overlooked senses of taste and smell will make any reader eager to sniff and sip with greater care--which is key when it comes to getting more out of wine."