I can’t remember who recommend this book to me, but I am glad they did. It is about wine, and the weirdnesses we attach to wine, sometimes for good reasons, but often not. It’s a good companion to a movie like Sideways for those people who have a tendency to put their noses too deep into their glasses.
Bianca Bosker sets out with a huge ambition (to become certified as a sommelier, aka “cork dork”), and she learns a lot on the way from those kind enough to give their time (or too slow to escape her persistence). This book is her record of that process of going from “red or white?” to someone able to recognize the smell of a particular grape, vintage AND region.
I won’t go into step-by-step details, except to say that the process gives some excellent structure to writing that balances between funny failure and caustic critique of the many steps between the grape and your glass.
The good news is that most of us can drink tasty wine for $30 per bottle (these are restaurant prices, so maybe $10 from the store?). The bad news is that anyone who wants “something different” — and especially if they want something that’s more handmade (a thousand cases per year) than industrial (a thousand cases per day) is gonna be paying $100 per bottle ($30 in store) and up, until you get to showoff bottles ($500 and up) that are not really worth the extra Benjamins.
Along the way, I made some notes:
- The per-glass price to a customer is roughly the per bottle price to the restaurant.
- If you’ve heard of the grape (e.g., cabernet sauvignon), then you’re likely to be over-paying for such a crowd-pleaser. Weird grapes are better value for money.
- Sommeliers can steer you to more expensive wines, but they are more likely to get excited about finding “the most interesting you have for $30,” since they can actually put their knowledge to work.
- Intellectuals and scientists have neglected smell as a sense, which is why we know so little about it in comparison to other senses. It’s also hard to collect anything like “objective” data on smell, since we have different sensitivities to different smells and can’t easily explain what we smell to others. It’s much easier to describe what we see or hear…
- A “dry” wine has turned all its sugar into alcohol, so its stronger and less sweet.
- Rules rules rules: “Don’t pour men before women, don’t pour hosts before their guests, don’t pour more for one person than another. And God help you if you drip. Don’t pick up glasses to pour, and don’t take more than two pours to fill one glass. Don’t empty the bottle the first go-around. Don’t ever block the label with your hand. Don’t look awkward. Don’t fidget. Don’t pour from the left. Don’t walk clockwise. Don’t ever swear. Don’t make guests ask you the vintage. Don’t be so eager. Don’t be so serious—you don’t want to be a funeral director, do you? Don’t be so shy. Don’t say “um.” And for the love of God don’t look so nervous. This is supposed to be fun.”
- “Flavor” happens in the mouth. “Taste” combines flavor, smell, and even touch (feel).
- Humans can smell more accurately than dogs, sometimes, and smell can help us avoid dangers, such as sick people or food that’s gone bad. Protip: If the wine is corked, then say something. I got a corked glass once and sent it back. I was amazed to see that it came from a nearly-empty bottle, which meant that three people before me hadn’t noticed that the wine tasted (=smell + flavor) like
- Marketing? “These mass-market wines are what you see over and over again in every liquor store you visit, or on the laminated menus in chain restaurants. They usually have critters on the label, or puns that get chuckles around the office water cooler (“Marilyn Merlot,” “Seven Deadly Zins”). And they drive oenophiles crazy. Wines like Yellow Tail have all the delicacy of “raspberry motor oil,” railed biodynamic winemaker and cellar celebrity Randall Grahm in one of his newsletters. To the elite, these are overmanipulated, nurture-trumps-nature, factory-made Frankenwines“
- Lots of marketing: “Anything that costs $500, it’s not about wine. You’re not buying wine. That’s a collectible,” said Orley Ashenfelter, a Princeton University econometrics professor who collaborates with Karl on the Journal of Wine Economics. Putting aside speculation or sentimental value, when it comes to flavor, “there’s no justification for a $500 bottle of wine. I guarantee you I can get you one that will cost only $100 and you won’t be able to tell it apart,” he said. “The world is full of people buying bullshit“
- All the crazy words associated with taste (start with “forest fruits” and keep going to “wet socks”) are there for two reasons — pretension and communication — that are hard for normal people to separate (=they’re meaningless). These “flavor words” were only invented in the 1970s, so Churchill (a legendary drinker) was not asking for a “lively” wine with “a dose of rich mineral character,” and which was “very refined with a driving slate imprint that intensifies the already seething soil/fruit battle.
- Sommeliers who cannot afford to taste the wine menu are not going to be able to say more than “others have chosen this” when it comes to recommending expensive bottles. Part of their high price, therefore, is the cost of helping the somms learn what’s on offer.
- Is there such a thing as “super smell”? Maybe for some people but that’s not what somms specialize in: “Though I’d initially wondered about super-noses and über-tongues, I no longer had any doubt: Advanced flavor-fanatic sommeliers don’t possess better physical equipment, like ten times as many taste buds or thousands of extra olfactory receptor genes. Rather, it’s their manner of thinking that is unique. They perceive and interpret the flavors they encounter in a more developed way, and that filter changes everything.“
This is an entertaining fun book. If you like wine, then read it. FIVE STARS.