Cork Dork – fast track to sommelier

In Cork Dork (Penguin, 2017) Bianca Bosker writes engagingly about her 18-month journey from normal social wine drinker to Certified Sommelier, a first step towards the prestigious Master Sommelier (MS) title. A year and a half may not seem a very long time for this. However, on this account she packed in far more experience, learning, high quality research and drive into one year than most of us would manage in five. Her core skill set is that of the journalist: relentlessly pursuing her story, showing Olympic gold medal levels of skill at networking and persuading top professionals of all sorts to let her into their worlds, and summarising all this experience and knowledge in a highly readable way.  Having recently read and struggled with the science of how we humans process smell and taste – see Neuroenology – she not only summarizes this in an accessible way but persuades a neuroscientist to scan her brain when she is blind tasting to see how it functions – having travelled to South Korea for this opportunity.  The competitive drive shown is remarkable. It is not an accident that she gave up her job as the tech editor for the Huffington Post because she heard that there was such a thing as a competition for the world’s best sommelier.  

I read this book for two reasons. First, as a Master of Wine (MW) student I knew very little about the world of the trainee sommelier in New York, one of the world’s fine wine hotspots.  There is a certain rivalry between the two clans of wine super-geeks who have similar short post-nominals beginning with the same letter: MS and MW.  This book fills that gap very neatly, as is summed up in the sub-title: ‘a wine-fueled adventure among the obsessive sommeliers, big bottle hunters and rogue scientists who taught me to live for taste’.  

Second, I thought I might well be faced with another year as an MW Practical Only student, anticipating, correctly, that I had not been successful in the tasting exams I took last June. I needed someone to fire up my interest in tasting again, for what will be a fifth year.  Again, Cork Dork admirably does that.  (By the way ‘cork dork’ is a term used by somms of themselves.) MS students are if anything more obsessed with tasting and elaborate tasting descriptors than the cooly clinical and logical world of MW tasting. The more descriptors the better; ‘oyster shell kelp yoghurt’ may not be a thing at all but it is a more flamboyant description of Chablis than would ever be encouraged in the MW world.  But we do share a lot – an absurd level of concentration on the aromas, flavours and textures of the better bottles of wine made around the world; the fear and compulsion of trying to pass ridiculously demanding exams; thinking nothing of flying hundreds of miles to visit a wine region or even a tasting group; and spending all our discretionary income and more on wine when others are happy with a bottle of something affordable.  In normal life being able to tell by blind tasting that a Chardonnay is from a cooler rather than a warmer part of Sonoma is not a genuine life skill but in MW/MS world it certainly is.  I needed to be re-energised and Cork Dork certainly did the trick.

What else did I take away from this book, apart from the pleasure of reading it?  First, an enormous respect for the service element of the work of the sommelier.  The somm is there to help other people, to meet their wine needs and, if possible to recommend the wine which will really make their visit to the restaurant memorable, even, occasionally, life-changing.  But to do that they must lay tables, lug wine boxes around, get service temperatures right, polish glasses, move elegantly around a restaurant while balancing 11 glasses and a bottle of something expensive on a tray, and of course be a team player with everyone else in the restaurant.  It combines a huge and detailed knowledge, physical skill, social grace … and a humility to act as though the customer is always in the right and to serve him or her, however little they may know or care. Respect!

Second, the depth of a somm’s wine knowledge must be equalled by their ability to read people and their motivations in a few seconds. A really good somm has to be able to intuit what sort of interaction the customer needs so that any recommendation or suggestion comes as a welcome tip from someone who is on their side – while of course wanting to upsell, to increase the restaurant’s and ultimately his or her own income.  Humble service, consummate performer and intuitive sales person all rolled into one … and all in a matter of a minute or two.  Yet more respect! MW students don’t have to worry about this at all – we can be as curmudgeonly and/or as arrogant as we like, at least until we get into the real world.  

Cork Dork is a terrific read.  It is packed full of human interest, the participative anthropologist’s ‘let’s live with this tribe, to learn about them’, it informs and amuses in equal measure.  

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