When Bianca Bosker started the research for her book "Cork Dork," she wanted to uncover the science and marketing that mixes with romance and lore to sell over 30 billion bottles of wine each year. Most people start shopping for wine a bit mystified. There isn’t much to tell you about the wine except the label and who knows what that French description and picture of a cat means? If you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, then what are you supposed to glean from a wine label?
Shopping online or ordering a wine in a restaurant can be even more daunting. You don’t even get to hold the bottle in your hands before making the purchase. Thankfully, Bosker has several tips to help reduce your wine-buying anxiety.
Do you think buying wine online is better or worse than buying it in the store?
Buying wine is a bit like buying books: ordering online can be a helpful convenience when you know exactly what you’re looking for. But I’ve discovered many of my most treasured bottles—like my most treasured books—thanks to retail stores run by people who intimately know, love, and are eager to discuss the items of the shelves.
Like my favorite bookstores, my favorite wine shops have a collection curated by someone who gives a damn and is happy to get into long conversations with me. I never thought I’d say this, because at the beginning of my journey the only thing I got out of a glass of wine was drunk. But certain wines, like certain books, enable you to travel through space and time without ever leaving your house. And if you think about it, asking for a wine recommendation is a lot like asking what to read next: You need to articulate what sort of experience you want.
Should diners should carefully peruse a restaurant's wine list or trust the sommelier to make a choice?
So many people treat the wine list as a multiple choice exam, as if they have to pick the “right” answer from a laundry list of options by the time the server or somm returns to their table. But when I went out to eat with my sommelier friends, I found the more they knew about wine, the less specific they often were when ordering. If they trusted the sommelier, they’d provide her with just two pieces of information: What they want to spend, and what flavors they want to drink. The latter could be as specific as, “I’m craving something like a Cabernet Franc from Chinon,” or as broad as, “I feel like something herbal.” The somm, who knows the list more intimately than a guest ever could, guides from there.
If the restaurant doesn't have a sommelier, do you trust the waiter or try to be more careful in your choice?
There are plenty of restaurants where a staff member will do double-duty as both sommelier and server—and gets the training to back it up. Just because someone doesn’t refer to herself as a sommelier doesn’t mean you can’t trust her to recommend a good wine.
Many diners are concerned about being ripped off by a sommelier. Do you think there's any truth to that concern?
I apprenticed in Michelin-starred dining rooms as part of my sommelier training, and I was impressed to discover that high-end restaurants will judge you as much as you judge them. They aim to Google all guests before they come in, and keep detailed notes on their likes, dislikes, tantrums, importance to the restaurant, and so more so the staff know how to handle them.
Splurge on wine, and you might be labeled a “Wine PX,” short for “personne extraordinaire.” Get huffy, and you just might be labeled, “SOE,” short for “sense of entitlement.” Other somms and servers study jewelry, designer bags, or luxury watches to gauge a table’s potential price range.
Sure, there is a profit motive at play—it’s a business, after all. But the best sommeliers use all this information and more to read what you want emotionally out of your meal, so they can provide that along with a wine. The sommeliers who inspired me to set out on my quest to train as a somm treat wine less as a job than a calling, and are on a mission to convince the world that beauty in flavor belongs in the same rank as beauty in art or music. They hone their skills in high-stakes sommelier competitions (think the Westminster Dog Show, with booze), take dance lessons to learn to move more gracefully across the floor, and review wine flashcards during their commute to work—by bike. Much more than cork pullers, they are storytellers.