Oenophiles Gone Wild

Who would have guessed that a journey through the snooty world of sommeliers could be such raucous fun?

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi.

You probably think oenophiles are pretentious, effete, and snobbish. But Cork Dork, Bianca Bosker’s irresistible journey through the world of wine obsessives, teaches us that elite wine lovers are so much more. They’re also vain, self-centered, and surprisingly desperate for the approval of the outside world.

Cork Dork is often aggravating, from the off-putting personalities to the book’s reliance on dubious science. In this way, it’s the perfect book for the age of Twitter and the Real Housewives franchise. A small group of people will identify with Cork Dork. The rest of us can delight in our pétillant sensation of outrage. (If there isn’t already a German word for the exasperated sound you make in response to someone else’s smug superiority, I propose Prädikatswein.)

Author Bianca Bosker is a former tech journalist who has cast off her workaday life covering Silicon Valley to plunge herself, almost literally, into the world of wine. She moves with suspicious alacrity from the world of counting bottles in restaurant cellars to the highest echelons of blind tasting sessions and high-prestige competitions. (In case you’re wondering: Yes, her friends express concerns about her drinking very early in the process, but the indefatigable Bosker does what she has to do to bring us the story.)

Cork Dork spends 300-plus pages dancing around a single question: Should you care about wine? I mean, really care, like your life depends on it? Before you say no, consider the wisdom of Morgan Harris, the hipster-sommelier extraordinaire who guides Bosker through the world of wine appreciation. What’s a great bottle of wine? One that “recontextualizes” your life, a catalyst by which “your humanity will be changed,” says Harris. What makes a good restaurant server? Someone who shows you that “we’re not just going to procedurally stumble through our lives,” Harris explains. How can you tell whether someone has enjoyed a wine? It looks like they’ve been “harpooned in the fucking chest,” he says [emphasis in the original].

I’ll reveal my ideological bias right now. I don’t think a sip of wine should be capable of recontextualizing your life. Cradling your baby in your arms. Sitting by the bedside of a dying loved one. Falling in love (with a person, not a bottle). Those are life-changing moments with which quaffing a Tokaji really should not compare. I’m coming across as pedantic, but this is the worldview that Bosker presents—without obvious judgment—through people like Harris. And he’s not alone. The most fascinating part of Bosker’s journey is the revelation that a startling number of people have built their lives around wine. These people want you to understand that wine is art. “It was only wine,” Bosker writes, “in the same way that Picasso is only paint on canvas and Mozart is only vibrations in the air.”

But you can turn anything into art by this logic. Try it. “Sure, Sudoku is only numbers in boxes, but Picasso is only paint on canvas.” “Sure, cornhole is only tossing bean bags at a piece of plywood, but Mozart is only vibrations in the air.”

Is wine really art? The answer has more to do with how you define art than how you think about wine, and therefore is a deep philosophical question that probably shouldn’t be answered by a half-in-the-bag socialite at a $1,000-a-bottle bacchanalia. Why does the wine world want to be grouped in with Picasso and Mozart, anyway? Obviously because it needs to feel that its financial excess has some basis in reason. Two hundred grand is a small price to pay for a work of genius that recontextualizes your life.

But Cork Dork reveals a deeper reason wine lovers need to identify with art—they fear science. Bosker’s merry drunks reserve special contempt for the mass-marketed wines whose manufacturers dare to tinker with nature’s perfect food. That stuff is soulless, manipulated, overblown plebe juice. Deep down, the elite wine world must hear the footsteps of science behind it. It won’t be long before Deep Blue can make a wine that even a master sommelier cannot distinguish from Château Margaux.

When it comes to justifying their own skills, however, wine lovers suddenly find a use for science. Unfortunately, it’s pretty junky science. Bosker spends a fair amount of time extolling fMRI research that purports to show that sommeliers experience wine in a different way than we mere mortals.

This is the only real criticism I have of Bosker. She is a delightful guide through this bizarre community of lunatics, and she lets readers make decisions about where to place wine appreciation in their personal ontologies of values. But she falls into an fMRI trap that most journalists learned to sidestep years ago. It’s called the “imager’s fallacy,” and, to quote the blogger Neuroskeptic, it involves taking “the existence of a statistically significant ‘blob’ in one area of the brain, and the absence of a blob in another area, … as evidence of a significant difference between those two areas.” If a region of the sommelier brain lights up when drinking wine, does that mean the sommelier is experiencing the wine in a deeper or more sophisticated way than the rest of us? We don’t know. The blobs might just be blobs. In any event, these studies have ludicrously small sample sizes. One of the studies Bosker cites relied on just seven sommeliers and seven controls.

This is not a minor point. Bosker trots out the fMRI research in an attempt to downplay the significant body of research showing that wine experts are regularly fooled by extraneous factors like price and that many Americans actually prefer inexpensive wines in blind taste tests. (In other words, even if wine is to be compared to Mozart, most of the world is deaf.) The fMRI research is one of the only straws a wine snob has left to grasp at.

Cork Dork is, despite this quibble, an admirable achievement. Bosker manages to babble, banter, and bribe her way into places the average reader will never go. We hear the under-breath murmurs of the staff at super-high-end restaurants. We get to attend a party where the rich and famous wave their big bottles around like big …  well, you know. We even meet a sommelier in Virginia who works not for the transporting love of wine but for the far less elevated task of feeding her family. To Bosker’s great credit, after hobnobbing with the rich and superficial, she maintains her ability to recognize the humanity in this woman. That sommelier might be the only person in the book with whom you identify. But, hey, maybe you’re hoping to have your life recontextualized. If so, Bosker knows a guy.

Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker. Penguin Books.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.