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.

21 comments:

Miquel said...

I assume it was bound to happen, what with life being so subjective that I would find myself in disagreement with the Hosemaster, I'm just shocked that it arrived in the form of this book.

To be honest, I've never really "gotten" the appeal of Ms. Bosker's writing as it always seems rushed and shallow. Having read this book, it took all the weaknesses I find in her writing and amplified them making it hard time bang through until the end. But, what do I know, I'm just a dude with a blog and a few writing gigs. I have however gone through the Certified Sommelier as well and found most everything she wrote about it to be just silly.

So it goes I suppose and I do find what criticism you put forward to be on the mark, but it's really just a book for those in the wine trade, yet it's so burbling and seemingly exaggerated at points, I don't know who would want to read through it.

And yes, the promotional blurbs all over it are simply ridiculous and tedious, written by people who obviously didn't crack the book. I will however be curious to see how her publisher cut and pastes your review as further praise, because I'm sure they will if they know what sells.

gbrezic said...

Very happy to see this today as I was already prepared to buy this book simply to support Ms. Bosker as an F-you to the natural wine alt-right and the blogosphere that represents it-- wasted more time than I'd like to admit following the NYT imbroglio the last few days. Will admit that I appreciated Blake Grey's piece on it (for once) and definitely Esther Mobley's. Anyway, the whole time I was wondering what the Hosemaster thinks, but realized that after following you for a few years, I at least knew how you'd feel about the vitriolic polemic proffered by the natural wine or death folks. I'm not familiar with Ms. Bosker's writing like the previous common-tater, but I appreciate your non-blind book review and look forward to checking this book out and forming my own opinion.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Miquel,
I wouldn't say that Bosker's writing is shallow at all. And if anyone's writing is rushed, it's the HoseMaster. Hell, I write this crap as fast as I can.

Bosker has something very few wine writers have--a voice. That gives her a nice leg up. That the people she chose to hang out with were, for the most part, shallow is just part of the job and, no doubt, part of her intent. Agree with her or not, I think she's a better writer than everyone I can think of with a blog, and most that write for major wine publications. She's young, and she's very obsessive--maybe that's what reads as "rushed" to you. I sort of got a kick out of the naivete she admittedly brought to wine.
Unlike too many young writers, she didn't lie about her wine knowledge.

I thought about this book review a lot. I try never to praise anyone unworthy, but it's just my opinion. I love her conceit--a participatory book about becoming a Certified Sommelier. My feeling is this could have been an absolute catastrophe of a book. But Bosker clearly did a lot of research, went down a lot of paths that most of us have never trod, and kept her wit about her.

So much is quibbling. I didn't like her choice of Morgan Harris as her mentor, her main character (aside from herself), his image as some kind of idiot savant of wine was extremely wearisome, and the book is way too New Yorkish. And, hey, it's ten bucks, the price of a shitty Treasury wine, and the wine world needs another strong, young, smart, talented woman as its face.

I almost didn't read the book because fucking untalented Madeline Puckette has a blurb on the back. But I enjoyed it, Miquel.

Don't worry. Nobody in their right mind uses me as a quotable source for a book.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Gbrezic,
Thanks. I thought Esther's piece was a simple reflection of what normal people think and was beautifully expressed. Esther is so talented, it's sort of scary. I think 90% of the negative reaction was to the NYT headline, and not the piece.

I always wonder, is there a difference between people who say, "I only drink natural wines," and people who say, "I only drink wines that get 95 points or more." I expect the difference is one of bank accounts, but both are snobs.

Cris Carter said...

Hey Ron,
Enjoyed hearing your measured and thoughtful review on this book and others recently. NeuroEnology and Cork Dorks are now on my list. Being consumed with wine often we put up with shitty writing, just because it's on our favorite subject or profession. I'm happy to hear about a talented writer, who likes wine. I don't need another passionate "wine lover's" take on things. If you're getting paid to write, act like a professional. Make the reading of your writing, you know, enjoyable. Hopefully, it's factual, but even that term seems up for debate nowadays.

I don't agree with Little Jon's take on wine most of the time, but, fuck him, I still want to read it! He has talent and a unique perspective. But really, fuck that guy. I'm glad that Bosker is out there, starting real conversations about wine. I hope that people who care learn about how wine is really made, not how many winemakers present alternative facts to writers and the general public. I'm not into heavy-handed stuff myself, but sometimes you gotta put that lipstick on the pig. I wish that winemakers could be more open about techniques and additions, but the marketplace is a ridiculous place right now. You've got infants running the buying programs at high-end places.

Ahhh dung beetles... you always get something good in there, even your straight pieces. Cheers amigo.

Miquel said...

Ron, thanks for taking the time to respond and I understand your stance, I obviously just feel the opposite. Glancing over the Amazon reviews it seems that people are generally polarized in their opinion of it so we'll see where it goes.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Cris,
I had an email conversation with a very successful wine editor about the state of wine writing, which is pretty dismal. Too many "writers" who don't actually know that much about wine but may be good at self-promotion and social media. I told the editor I thought it would be great for someone to come along who admittedly knows nothing about wine but then sets out to learn and takes her readers along. I was hoping for someone with talent. And then I read Bosker's book and there it was. It's participatory journalism, and one of the results of that when you do it well is some anger and backlash from the industry you write about.

Only infants will work the stupid hours for the shitty pay that so many high-end places demand. That's unlikely to change. And what's youth without arrogance? So much in wine these days is about obsession, not passion. The two are wildly different. Too many of the characters in the book don't love wine, they stalk wine. It's their whole identity, and it's more pathetic than admirable.

Miquel,
Let's not forget controversy is great for book sales. I'm sure the polarization is welcomed by the publisher, and even the author.

Is it a shock that wine, as stupid a subject as one can imagine outside of football, has become has polarized as the country? No room for other views? Let's face it, if the NY Times doesn't publish that excerpt from the book, and the natural wine alt-right doesn't take the bait, we're not even talking about Cork Dork. The book isn't even about that controversy, of course. What it's really about is obsession. And the very strange intoxicant that dominates our lives.

But we're civilized folks, you and I, and we respectfully disagree. People asked me why I didn't get involved in the Twitter and Facebook hissy fits over the book. The answer is, I have a life.

Miquel said...

Ron,

Wine is so subjective that it's taken on religious undertones and that's the real issue, especially when you get into the natural wine cult. Tell someone their religion is wrong and well, they go all ISIS on you. Really silly for something so simple and enjoyable. I blame the schmucks in marketing.

And I agree with you in all of this that the amount of people who took the bait to respond to that op-ed was surprising, but yet not.

tercero wines said...

Ron,

Though we may not always agree, I know you will be good for a laugh or three each and every blog post, and this one didn't disappoint.

As you also know, I somewhat disdain the industry in which I work due to pompous attitudes and way too much dogmatic behaviour. This book seems to touch upon that, and that definitely hits a big and nasty nerve in our 'reactive' industry.


I look forward to reading this shortly.

Keep on doing what you're doing . . .

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Miquel,
I blame marketing people for everything.

I haven't really followed the firestorm about Bianca's NY Times piece, but I've gotten whiffs of it. There seems to be some civilized parts to the conversation, but, for the most part, it seems like bullying. Done by people of the Natural Wine persuasion who would NEVER think of themselves as the sort of lowlifes who bully people on Twitter or Facebook. Yet that's clearly what they are doing. All in the name of the planet, ostensibly, and their own "Truth" about wine. It's both silly and shameful.

This from a guy who knows bullying.

Larry,
There isn't a soul on the planet who usually agrees with the HoseMaster.

I liked Cork Dork. I didn't expect to. In fact, I tried not to like it. The sommeliers in the book are not appealing characters, and, as a recovering sommelier, I had an aversion to them. But Bosker has produced that rare book in wine publishing these days--something original, well-written, and not filled with misinformation or dogma. I had reservations about it, but wholeheartedly recommend it. The writer in me loved the book, the wine guy in me cringed. I think that's the reaction Bosker would want.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the book after you read it, Larry. I'm sure you'd have an interesting take.

gabriel jagle said...

The "natural wine alt-right"?

(1) perhaps we are being a tad self-righteous?

(2) if we're already taking it that far, isn't "naziural wine" infinitely funnier?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Gabe,
Nothing the self-righteous dislike more than self-righteousness. In others. So that makes me happy.

Alt-right is an intentionally cheap shot, but not that far off base. Ultra conservative and inflexible, convinced of the superiority of their ideas despite much evidence to the contrary, locked inside chat rooms that reinforce their own beliefs, willing to bully those who don't agree... I could go on.

Satire, my friend, is always about walking the boundaries of taste. Alt-right is on the edge, dragging in Nazis is far beyond it. Nothing genocidal about natural wine zealots. I hope.

Paul Moe said...

Does this mean you are giving up on reviewing books without reading them?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Paul,
Of course not. Not having to read them means I have more time to devote to the reviews. It's a win-win. In this case, though, it was clear that the folks who wrote the blurbs on the cover of Cork Dork had reviewed it without reading it, so I took the satiric tack of reading it just to be contradictory. I'm just so darned cantankerous like that.

Thomas said...

This post has indicated to me that I am offically out of the loop.

I read Bosker's New Yorker piece as well as that NYTimes article. In actuality, I skimmed them, but that's because I have been around long enough to have heard or read all of it before. I am out of the loop because I knew nothing of the riff.

Don't get me wrong. I am glad I knew nothing about the riff. I've heard--or read--all that before too. Did you ever notice how each generation finds the same information the previous generation had found (with a small tweak here and there), but the new generation convinces itself it has found the answer? But I digress...

Yes, Ron being in the wine business in New York is quite different from being in the wine business in California--by about 3,000 miles. I have had contact from coast to coast and abroad. No matter where I am I find idiots, egotists, elite assholes, know-nothings, loudmouths, obssessives, nasty bastards, thieves, and a variety of lowlife...and yet, I also find some great people and personalities who have made being in the wine business worth the effort. Some have even been brave enough to befirend me.

Sorry I can't comment on the book at hand, but being an asshole from the NY wine business, I know I don't need to read it. But if I were inclined to read it, I;d use your fine review to stimulate me to part with the $10.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Well, Thomas!
It's now officially Old Timers' Day! Nice to see you here.

I agree with what you say. I liked Bosker's book because she can write, and, God knows, very few wine writers can. But, as with most wine books, you come in with a set of beliefs and leave feeling you still know everything.

J said...

Great review, but some gripes re: your Annie paragraph...

>>"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."

Why? You can't just make up a list of things that are "actually important in life." That's entirely subjective. There's no special secret to happiness. Don't feel sorry for them. They're probably quite happy. Just because you wouldn't be happy in their position doesn't mean they're not happy. See: Theory of Mind. (For what it's worth, I'm not in the wine biz).

>>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."

This is unnecessarily cynical, but I guess I should expect that from this blog. If you gave Annie lots of money and sent her off to EMP to drink DRC all week, what would happen to her? Would her breath start to stink? Passion = ignorance + poverty?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

J,
Thank you for your thoughtful criticisms. God knows, I could use more.

Of course a list of what's important in life is subjective. So are opinions about books. I would hope, however, that wine, especially an obsession with wine, isn't on anyone's list of what really matters. You're right. I shouldn't feel sorry for them. And yet, I do.

Did you read Cork Dork? Annie's story is presented as a counterpoint to the others, and that gives it power. It would be "unnecessarily cynical" to ignore that. Given the chance to overindulge in wine, would Annie devolve into a version of her peers? Maybe. The issue is the difference between passion and obsession. The line is a moving target. But passion is healthy, obsession isn't usually. Annie's attitude is the healthiest of the lot.

Thanks again for being a common tater.

Thomas said...

To me, the difference between passion and obsession is like the difference between love and possession.

Winterbane said...

While I know it will only bring me a raft of shit, I stand strongly by my conservative ideology. This stance, not a wide one, does not make me a member of the alt-right. Yet, I take umbrage with the association of the right side of the aisle, no matter how far right, with natural wine! I prefer to associate these dogmatic wine nerds with the contemporary far left found on your closest college campus. You know. The crowd that seeks safe spaces when something triggers their fears. The crowd that prevents the presentation of opposing perspectives and opinions. Other than that, keep that mirror in front of us Mr. Washam. It shows us just how imperfect we are regarding this silly little subject.

John Lahart said...

OK I read it. I did skim through some of the book. There's little new so the appeal for me; a New York City enophile from the boomer generation; lies in the journey and the entertainment factor.
Bosker is a good writer. She is amusing and self deprecating without being, (praise Bacchus), snarky.
She treats the people she encounters on her path to wine wisdom with respect and let's the reader "tag along" and experience the ride with her.
For me, the problem is, anyone with some tenure as a wine lover feels like "dad watching his daughter learn to drive."

There's very little new to say about wine perhaps only new ways to say the same old things. Obsession is fun, mostly to those less obsessives who enjoy accounts of tri-athelons and climbing cliffs without ropes or climbing Mt Everest or swimming with sharks! Or running for a week in 121 degree desert heat.....or achieving an MW or Master Sommelier or...
My sense is a lot of these somms are those kids in class who when dared to eat a Mars bar lying in the gutter would scarf it down. They get off on the pain and suffering. They also grasp the concept of fame (I remember them, I doubt I am remembered at all) Like younger soup Nazis they "suffer for their soup!"

For some reason wine engenders massive amounts of mythology and oh the irony!

There are to snipes at...chardonnay! Yet Chablis is soooo cool. Good Lord how long have we been tolerating the ABC crowd.

Oddly, critics, the guys and gals we have been reading a following for decades are given short shrift. Yet the critics are the most personally experienced with wines of all the so called (many self identified) "experts" in Bosker's journey..They are dismissed by the wine world's Ministry of Silly Walks--The Wine Economists (of Princeton). Their studies show no one can ever be an expert on wine (except ...wait for it.....the wine economists!)

By the way, some innocuous natural organic and non GMO Zweigelt much lauded by the young and hip (sters) is often produced in such tiny quantities it becomes the hipster version of Romanee Conti--if you are deemed cool enough to "appreciate" it a bottle may be offered (no pushed). The same somms laugh at the billionaires lusting for the DRC. Frankly, I don't see a difference. Well...yes I sorta do.


Want some more irony? Go on line and read the wine list of the oh so cool so hip Mr Grieco! The guy Bosker ends up annointing as the true wine master! The guy who screams obscenities at anyone who dares to slight riesling!
Lots of rieslings--no one familiar with the obi wan kenobi of the boomer generation--David Schildknecht--wouldn't recognize.

An homage to Musar--a wine we have known about for ages.....most of the big time critics were hipping (not hyping) us to the Lebanese wine maker since the earliest vintages.......

There's a section of the list headed:
"Zinfandel by the MASTER BLASTER,LARRY TURLEY"

Wait....I am beginning to like this guy too. Maybe Bosker is on to something. Grieco is a wine huckster, A showman.
Maybe he's nuts (or passionate or obsessive). Like Salvador Dali (Grieco is described as sporting a less flamboyant mustache I wonder if he sports a cape!). Apparently he sells a lot of wine like gruff waiters in kosher Delis sold corned beef to the tourists.

By the way Ron. I think you may have committed a crime of passion in your comparison with obsession.