Cork Dork – a wine-fuelled journey into the art of sommeliers and the science of taste, by Bianca Bosker. I bought my copy recently online for around £6.50 including postage.
A friend once told me that the best accounts of life in a foreign country were by those who had either recently moved there, or who had lived there a long time. Cork Dork has the advantage of being written after only a year or so of the author throwing herself into the foreign deep-end of wine-geekery. The experience is still very fresh, and its portrayal insightful, clear, vivid and lively.
I found this book enjoyable at two levels. It works well as a personal story of Bianca’s entanglement in the world of high-flying New York sommeliers – a story in which she starts by observing only, but eventually goes native, takes her Certified Sommelier exam, and ultimately works as a sommelier. On this journey she also gains access to La Paulée de New York, and interviews academics and scientists.
But I also liked the other level – where Bianca takes a reflective and sceptical look at wine expertise with its associated rituals and characters. The reflections are perceptive and accurate, and the scepticism is never heavy-handed and often understated. Indeed sometimes is not stated at all, but the mere recounting of a personal experience occasionally seems to function as a questioning comment on her new world of wine. I share all of her scepticism, and have written about it here many times, but this never descends into calling bullshit on wine expertise – neither my scepticism I hope, nor Bianca’s. I think we both agree that what we are looking at are human responses to a subject that is both intriguing and complex – and this is perhaps the main reason I think wine is such a fascinating subject.
Finally, an observation that the wine world entered by Bianca lies at the geekiest extreme of the spectrum. I know a lot of wine people, but very few of them are at all like her New York sommelier friends and colleagues. We did in the book get a small insight into an out-of-town sommelier desperate to pass her Certified Sommelier exam so she could better support her family, but she was I think the sole example of a more normal wine professional. Also, there are many amateur wine enthusiasts I know who do not indulge, or would even want to, indulge, in exclusive Paulée debauchery. Neither do we aspire to be PXs (customers worthy of buttering-up and up-selling) at Michelin-starred restaurants. We are not all like that – honest. To that extent, there remain many alternative, more attainable, wine worlds worthy of exploration by anyone wanting to stick their toe in the wine water.