Even though drinking wine has seemingly become millennial America’s favorite pastime, the truth is, most of us aren’t getting maximal enjoyment out of the tasting experience. No matter how much we drink it, love it, and crave it, we often aren’t able to pinpoint the elements we like and why. There’s no shame in that, but it is sad to think of all that we’re missing out on.
Enter Bianca Bosker, author of Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste. After quitting her job as executive tech editor at the Huffington Post, she embarked on a journey most of us literally dream of: becoming a wine connoisseur. Over a year-and-a-half, she threw herself into the task of achieving wine whiz status, one mid-afternoon hangover at a time.
Although it sounds unbearably glamorous, her mission involved a lot of hard work. Her fascinating book takes us through long hours she worked as a “cellar rat” at a New York City restaurant, her intimidating blind tastings with a group of hardcore sommeliers, and even into an fMRI machine. Thanks to Bosker’s sensory descriptions, we get to taste and smell alongside her, without dealing with the thousands of hours of study and endless flashcards first.
It’s hard not to want to follow in her footsteps, though.
“The more that I taught myself to understand taste and smell, the more that I felt like I was picking up all of this information and nuance that I had overlooked,” Bosker tells Bustle. “It was almost like I had spent years living in a foreign country, and suddenly I had learned how to speak the language.”
She’s not exaggerating. Through practice and study, she learned how to interpret the clues a wine offers about its origins. She even got to the point where she could hold her own in elite blind tasting groups, calling wines correctly without any external clues.
Interestingly, the task wasn’t just about gustatory and olfactory prowess; she found her mindset mattered, too.
“Blind tasting is one of the things that is guaranteed to make you feel like a total idiot,” she says. “When you approach a glass of wine, in order to pick up on the tastes and smells, you really have to have incredible mental discipline that shoves all of this stuff out, all of the questions, all of these insecurities about looking stupid.”
One advantage that Bosker may have had is being a woman. She cited a study that found that women of child-bearing age get better at detecting odors by “leaps and bounds” than men do with the same training.
“If you’re a woman, you have this sort of latent super power that we should all be taking advantage of,” she says.
In spite of that, the wine world has traditionally been dominated by men. French wineries even used to have a superstition that women would spoil the wine, and thus they weren’t welcome, Bosker says. It’s not really surprising that the first report of a female sommelier working in New York City didn’t come until the 1940s.
The good news, however, is that change is occurring, as Bosker saw firsthand. “There are more women in wine than ever before,” she says. “We’re in this incredible female renaissance in the wine world.”
Still, an ongoing challenge for sommeliers is the restaurant industry’s “absolutely punishing” lifestyle. Bosker says that it makes it difficult for both men and women to balance the job with a family; however, ideas about traditional gender roles have presented an obstacle to women.
As she points out, it’s “a story that is common to a lot of industries.” She is, however, optimistic about the changes going on. Throughout her dive into the wine world, she met plenty of women making their mark, including in sommelier competitions and in high-level restaurant positions.
Whatever the restaurant industry’s faults may be, working in it had some big perks for Bosker. In addition to being exposed to — and better yet, able to taste — wines she wouldn’t have discovered otherwise, she learned some interesting tricks.
As it turns out, we should all be more adventurous when it comes to ordering off a restaurant’s wine list. They almost all have “gimme wines” on them, which are options that restaurants know people will recognize and pay more for. These typically have a bigger markup than lesser-known alternatives do.
Knowing all that she does now has helped Bosker drink better wine for less money these days — as we should all aspire to. That said, she admits that she has “developed a kind of bank account-draining weakness for older white wines and champagnes.” There was even a recent bottle so good she described it as being “as good as foreplay.” (Alas, not quite orgasmic.)
The only downside to all this, it seems, is that becoming a honest-to-goodness wine expert might scare your friends out of bringing your favorite beverage to your dinner parties. Bosker’s friends now find it “incredibly intimidating” to pick out bottles for her, she says. One even brought a six-pack of Bud Light in protest once.
That risk doesn’t seem so bad in comparison to the benefits. Drinking and experiencing wine like Bosker does takes work, but there are easy steps you can start with. She recommends teaching yourself to smell first. That may sound strange, but as she points out, we learn the names of colors and sounds as kids, but the same isn’t true of scents.
“Our teachers never taught us to assign words,” she says. “The problem is most of us don’t have a language to smell.”
To acquire that language, Bosker recommends consciously exposing yourself to various scents — from the herbs in your spice rack to the scent of your shampoo to a rock on the ground, etc. As you do it, make sure you associate a name with each scent. It takes time and repetition, but you’ll come to find more enjoyment in not just your wine, but your experience of all tastes and scents — in food and drink, and beyond.
Cheers to that.