Thursday, March 30, 2017
Cork Dork: A HoseMaster of Wine™ Book Club Selection
I’ve been wondering for a couple of years when a book like “Cork Dork” would come around. It seemed inevitable to me that an enterprising journalist would one day decide that writing about what it takes to become a Certified Sommelier in the world of fancy schmancy restaurants would make for an interesting book. I’m glad that journalist was someone as talented as Bianca Bosker. This could easily have been a dreadful book, just as “SOMM” was a dreadful film for me to watch. Instead, it’s a wonderful read. I especially admire Bosker’s prodigious research about wine, and about our senses of smell and taste, and her unflagging sense of humor. I rarely laugh when I read, but Bosker made me break out into noisy smiles quite a bit. I blamed the dog.
In her acknowledgments, Bosker mentions Susan Orlean and John McPhee as inspirations, but reading “Cork Dork” made me think more about the late George Plimpton. Plimpton, founder of “The Paris Review,” and quite the literate raconteur, may have reached the pinnacle of his popular fame with his book, “Paper Lion.” “Paper Lion” is about Plimpton’s desire to find out what it’s like to be a quarterback in the NFL. He talks the Detroit Lions into allowing him to train with them for a season, and takes us along. Plimpton is a writer with a gift for the extraordinary and telling detail, and his misadventures in the NFL are very funny and surprisingly poignant. The book made Alex Karras, a defensive lineman for the Lions, into a star. It’s Karras who famously knocks out a horse with a punch in “Blazing Saddles.” Bosker shares Plimpton’s keen eye for detail, and she also sports the exuberance of youth. In a business as stuffy as the wine business, these qualities serve her wit well. Bosker also echoes Plimpton’s editorial game plan. Plimpton, of course, takes a beating as a quarterback, has to win over the skeptical pro players who slightly resent his presence, yet he triumphs in the end. Bosker is often humiliated in her attempts to understand wine and work the floor as a sommelier in exclusive, service-oriented restaurants, she is warned by many Master Sommeliers about the folly of her task as she gives herself a year to accomplish what has taken others many years, but, of course, in the end, well, you know… And she’s worked pretty tirelessly to make Morgan Harris, a young New York sommelier, her Alex Karras, though Harris struck me as less horse pugilist and more horse’s ass.
The book is really eleven set pieces organized into a whole. You may have read parts of “Cork Dork” already, one chapter as a “New Yorker” piece, “Is There A Better Way to Talk About Wine?,” and part of another chapter served as a piece in the Opinion pages of the “New York Times,” “Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine.” The latter piece stirred up the hornet’s nest of natural wine’s alt-right. The eleven chapters stand on their own, you’ll learn a lot about your senses of smell and taste, and how sommelier’s brains are different than yours (I’m a prime example of that), but it makes for a very clunky ride taken as a whole. A chapter about working the floor in a fancy New York restaurant, a visit with Ann Noble in California, a brain scan in South Korea, a wine exam in Virginia… All of it’s interesting, but most people trying to become Certified Sommeliers don’t have expense accounts that cover their curiosity. Much of that serves to make Bosker less sympathetic to the reader, harder to identify with, which works against her. And yet her talent is so great, she wins us over and makes us glad we signed up for her journey. I may have a crush on her.
Bosker has talent, and, apparently, a great agent. (So, really, it doesn’t matter one iota what I think about her book.) “Cork Dork” is a stereotypical work of participatory journalism. Poor man’s Plimpton. The risk in that kind of journalism is that the work can eventually come to be about the writer, and not the subject. John McPhee is the master at this sort of creative nonfiction, and clearly someone Bosker (among many others) idolizes. McPhee has a talent for knowing what to leave out in his work. In his work, you always sense his presence, his intellect, but he is very much in the background most of the time. You see through his eyes, but you don’t think McPhee is his own subject. In the end, “Cork Dork” is very much a book about Bianca Bosker. Don’t get me wrong, she seems like someone I’d like to know, though there’s fat chance of that (though, I, of all people, understand that a voice should not be mistaken for the actual person writing in that voice). Wine transforms her, though I’m not sure I cared. It’s certainly not why I decided to read the book.
I want to be clear about a few things because I ramble like Professor Irwin Corey with head trauma. Bianca Bosker is a flamboyantly talented writer. I could read her work all day long. She’s genuinely funny, and wit is a precious asset that’s absent in most wine writing. She does have McPhee’s work ethic. She doesn’t want to just understand a subject, she wants to master it, destroy it, and perform an autopsy on it. “Cork Dork” is a great glimpse into obsessive personalities, especially Bosker’s. I’d read it for that, and be grateful I’m not one. If I have issues with the book, it’s not about the quality of the writing. I’d go on any journey to which Bosker invites me. I’d already been on much of this journey long before Bosker could hold a pen, so I bring an old and odd perspective to the book. But I loved the book for its youthful bravado, and for Bosker, especially when she stops to think about what a stupid obsession wine can become.
When Bosker travels to Virginia to take the Certified Sommelier Exam she meets Annie Truhlar. I found Annie’s story to be the most interesting, and the most revelatory, in the book. Annie is the one “sommelier” (she isn’t really) in the book who loves wine with a passion, and not obsession. I got tired of the obsessed sommeliers in the book who give up what’s actually important in life, love and family, for a life in wine. I know a lot of people like that in the biz, and I feel sorry for them. (I wish Bosker had spent a bit more time talking about the rampant alcoholism in the trade, but I get that she didn’t.) It seemed that Bosker’s view of wine, and of being a sommelier, changed after her time spent with Annie as they endured the Certified Sommelier Exam together. Annie can barely afford the money to take the test. She’s never been able to go to a La Paulée kind of event, which is Bosker’s subject in one of the chapters, or even taste any Champagne tête du cuvées before she’s tested on them. She’s never dined at Eleven Madison Park, and probably thinks it’s the name of a Korean M.W. Annie just loves wine. It’s her story that holds the book together for me. She’s a breath of fresh air amid all the fetid breath of too many yammering young sommeliers. Annie Truhlar is the one person in the book with whom I’d like to share a great bottle of wine, aside from Bosker herself. Annie, you’re ever in Sonoma, call me!
I cannot imagine this book will have much resonance for those who love wine but don’t live in New York. It will teach you a lot, but won’t speak to you. It’s a very New York-centric book. I found that tiresome. There were endless and casual dismissals of California wine throughout the book, which is very New York somm. In her quest to learn about wine, Bosker learned far too much elitism, despite the chapter excerpted in the “New York Times” about how Treasury manipulates cheap wine to taste good, which she defends to a degree, but which, of course, takes place in California. Reading the book made me grateful to have grown up in the wine business outside of New York. So much of what Bosker writes about on her path to becoming a sommelier was foreign to me. I wasn’t unaware of it, as I’m not unaware of the behavior of dung beetles, with which sommeliers have a lot in common, but the book reads like this is how the wine world and the restaurant business works everywhere. That’s certainly not true. I found myself disliking almost everyone in the book, aside from Bosker herself and Annie Truhlar. Ah, but that’s me. However, if you’ve never been a New Yorker, or worked in the New York wine trade, you might be rather perplexed by much of “Cork Dork.” I actually wondered why Bosker would want to be part of that group. They read more like Swiftian fools to me than wine lovers.
If you read this stupid blog regularly, I think you’ll like “Cork Dork.” I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it. It’s in paperback, it’s cheap! Buy Bosker’s book! I mean it. It's not even ten bucks on Amazon. She’s such a great young writer. She deserves our support. I’ve had my say here, but this is a book easily worth reading and recommending to friends that love wine. All my reservations aside, it’s terrific work.
I’m obviously not a professional book critic. There’s a very vapid review that the “New York Times” published (it’s a good review, which the book deserves, but it’s emptyheaded, and I get the feeling the reviewer might even know Bianca, though I don’t know that). And there are some of the most transparently fake blurbs I’ve seen on a book cover in a long time. For example, late in the book Bosker recommends “Wine Folly” to her readers for their summations of grape characteristics. And then there’s a blurb on the back cover from Madeline Puckette calling “Cork Dork,” “The ‘Kitchen Confidential’ of wine.” That’s pretty shameless. It’s more the “L.A. Confidential” of wine, really. Jay McInerney, whom Bosker meets at La Paulée, has a blurb proclaiming her a “gonzo nerd prodigy.” So you know he grabbed her ass. The blurbs are completely FAKE NEWS! Sad.
Bianca, I love your writing. “Cork Dork” shows the wisdom and the foibles of youth. With no added sulphur.