UNITED STATES (WASHINGTON POST) - The wine world is abuzz over a new book, Cork Dork, by Bianca Bosker, that is both an exposé and a love affair with wine. It is a memoir of how Bosker quit her job as an editor for the Huffington Post and immersed herself for a year and a half in the world of wine obsession, eventually achieving the certified sommelier rank in the Court of Master Sommeliers.
I have mixed feelings about Cork Dork. Bosker is an engaging tour guide who takes us on an enjoyable romp through her personal exploration and discovery of wine. There is good advice on how to taste and appreciate wine, written more like a travelogue than a textbook. We accompany her as she transforms from a casual wine-drinking neophyte to an expert who understands the thrill a taste of fine wine can give. "A glass of wine was no longer just good or bad, empty or full," she writes near the end of her odyssey. "I felt I was going beyond knowing what I liked to grasp why I liked it." Wine helped open her senses to more joys that life has to offer - especially food.
And yet, before I even opened the book, the over-the-top subtitle gave me pause: "A wine-fuelled adventure among the obsessive sommeliers, big bottle hunters, and rogue scientists who taught me to live for taste."
Uh-oh, I thought. Another hatchet job on wine lovers, our snobby know-it-all attitude, our flowery language about flavours and aromas we tease out of a glass, and our perpetual pursuit of esoteric and expensive wines.
We are an easy target. There is a cottage industry for academic studies showing that "experts" will rate a wine more favourably when told it is expensive than when they are told that same wine is cheap. In blind taste tests, average consumers prefer cheap wine to fancy, rare, expensive bottles, which somehow suggests that wine lovers who get excited over a grand cru burgundy might be fools.
Bosker does a fair share of that, and those parts of the book are fodder for her publisher's publicity campaign. In an oft-quoted sentence, she says, "Most days, I was drunk by noon, hungover by 2 pm, and by around 4pm in the afternoon, deeply regretting the hamburger I'd devoured for lunch." We learn of sommeliers who lick rocks as a reference to "minerality" in wine and eschew brushing their teeth or other hygienic practices so as not to cloud their palates. Anything, in other words, to make them look silly.
She also plays to stereotypes of sommeliers as sneering over our shoulders as we dine, criticising our wine choices and table manners. And once she passes her certified sommelier exam, she wonders whether the Court of Master Sommeliers might be out of touch with the way we dine today.
"What troubled me was the total disconnect between the Court's vision of wine service and the real world. We were like members of a forgotten bacchanalian tribe preparing for a wine utopia, where only people with money to burn ate out, speeches about quartzite soils were a turn-on, and everyone got their own ice bucket," she writes. The service exam she passed, based on concepts of old-school formal dining, "didn't look anything like what most people encountered in their restaurants. Sure, maybe the restaurants should look more like the Court. But shouldn't the Court look more like the restaurants?"
Like Bosker, I took the first two levels of the Court's training programme and passed the certified sommelier exam. (These two levels are open to "civilians," while the advanced and master sommelier levels are much more rigorous and for professionals.) I practised blind tasting and mock service with somms in training. While I didn't work as a restaurant "cellar rat" like Bosker did, I have trailed sommeliers as they worked their shift.
Through all this, I was impressed not by the sommeliers' hedonistic pursuits but rather by their professionalism. Somms, bartenders and even waiters taking the certified-level exam told me of their desire to improve their knowledge and skills to get better jobs in the restaurant industry by providing better service to diners.
That theme was stressed by Ron Edwards, the master sommelier who taught the introductory and certified level courses I took. "It's not about technical expertise in a fine-dining restaurant," Edwards says. "Exceptional service is not exclusive to highly detailed, high-priced locations." The "heart of service," he says, is not formality but kindness, which he defines as the ability to sense what the customer wants before she realizes she wants it. With kindness comes professionalism.
And once servers and customers view service as a profession instead of something to do while looking for a "real job," we'll all have better dining experiences.
That wouldn't, however, make for as interesting a book.
Cork Dork By Bianca Bosker (Penguin Books), $30.98 (online price, available at Books Kinokuniya Singapore)