Many books about wine are published each year but too many are poorly written and lack flair. For publication in the week starting 20 November 2017.
A wonderful new book about the wine trade, Cork Dork, marries erudition with a delightfully light touch. It’s also one of the funniest books I’ve read for a while.
The premise is simple: Technology journalist Bianca Bosker, though interested in wine and describing herself as an “amateur drinker,” becomes fascinated by the elite world of sommeliers (“cork dorks”) and decides to write about becoming one.
Sommeliers have dedicated their careers to understanding flavour. Bosker wants to know why they love what novelist Robert Louis Stevenson called “bottled poetry”. Morgan Harris, an aspiring master sommelier in Bosker’s home city of New York, becomes her mentor, and is the book’s unofficial hero.
Bosker asks him why a grand cru Burgundy is better than a wine that cost a twentieth of the price. “Why can’t the answer be there isn’t a fucking answer,” he replies angrily. “It’s in your heart. It’s spiritual. It has nothing to do with quantification. … thank God there is still something on this planet that belongs completely to the … mysterious and the aesthetic.”
This outburst occurs relatively early in the book. Near the end Bosker relates her own epiphany. Wine combines art, culture, religion and history. Learning about wine must occur through engaging our senses of taste and smell. That training “does change us,” Bosker concludes, “even more quickly and profoundly than we realise”.
About 2,500 years ago Plato revered the senses of seeing and hearing, and dismissed taste and smell as lesser sensations. Hearing and sight could bring aesthetic pleasure but taste and smell were “intellectually bankrupt”.
Generations of thinkers and philosophers bought into this conceit. Immanuel Kant singled out smell as the “most ungrateful” and “most dispensable” sense. Thomas Aquinas said it was impossible for a human to be happy if they focused on the “pleasures of the table”.
Bosker’s book gently corrects this stupidity, using modern scientific methods such as MRI brain scans: “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.”
Morgan Harris argues that good wine is “transformational”. Give him a good glass of wine, Bosker writes, and he could “decode, through its flavour, the blood, sweat, tears and hopes that the pickers, farmers and vintners had poured into that wine. He was sensitive to the human contributions and natural metamorphoses represented by the craftmanship of that bottle, along with the moral and historical dimensions of each.”
Harris admits he has had “experiences with wine in which I’ve felt small in a way that happens when you see Modigliani’s Reclining Nude. When I see that painting … [I know] there is something outside of myself and bigger than me”.
As any good journalist knows, the story is the key to engaging with people. Bosker notes that the best wines “regardless of pedigree, came with a story”. A glass of wine reached its “full potential” when it “left you with a story”. That story is often about the consumer who comes to appreciate the dimensions of life unlocked “by senses you thought you used only for basic survival”.
Bosker is talking here about the untapped power of the brain and the sub-conscious, which have a close affinity with smell and taste. Proust, among other great writers, helps us discern the connections between aroma and memory.
For Bosker taste and smell are the “most intimate” of senses. They enable us to enjoy life in a more vivid and informed way. “Honing the senses is a prerequisite to fuller, deeper experience.” Bosker admits that sometimes only she noticed the differences: “I’d take a bite of something and feel like I’d finally gotten the punch line to a joke I‘d been hearing for years.”
In her final paragraph she concludes: “Every person has the capacity to find and savour the soul that lives in wine – and in other sensory experiences, if you know how to look for it.” The key is paying attention, which she reserves for her punchline. “Feeling something for wine and unleashing your senses begins by just paying attention. And applying yourself with gusto.”
Bosker achieved something remarkable as the background to writing this book. She passed the difficult Certified Sommelier exam after about a year’s training. This is tantamount to doing a PhD in a couple of months. Many people fail several times and need to pay the USD 325 fee each time they sit the exam.
Morgan Harris taught her the skill of “unconscious consciousness” known as “mushin” (it means “no mind” in Chinese and Korean). Tasters learn to shed their thoughts, emotions, fears and ego as they prepare to identify wines based solely on taste and aroma. Mushin is similar to the Japanese state of “mizu no kokoro” (“mind like water”) where a person makes their consciousness still like the surface of a pond, able to reflect exactly what it is shown or encounters.
In the book, published last month, Harris is studying to achieve the award of Master Sommelier (MS), the highest rank in the wine world, and similar to the award of Master of Wine. In the US, a MS earns about USD 150,000 a year.
Bosker describes a MS as “the dining room equivalent of being made a Navy SEAL” and notes that at the time of writing (2016) America had 2,450 active SEALS but only 230 people had become Master Sommeliers.
About 200 people sit the exam each year and 95 per cent fail. The failure rate for the Master of Wine (MW) is more than 90 per cent. As of October this year the world had 369 MWs in 29 nations. Only four people worldwide have both qualifications. The first was Ronn Wiegand MS MW, who remarkably passed all exams at his first attempt.
One wonders what Plato would think about these statistics.
Other review books recently received include Hungarian Wine: A tasting trip to the new old world by Robert Smyth and The Ultimate Guide to Champagne by Liz Palmer. Both contain useful information and are recommended as reference texts. But they lack the flair of Bosker’s prose. Her book elevates wine writing.