Crantastic: The Story of America’s Berry TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Crantastic: The Story of America’s Berry, first released on November 7, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

LINDA BURKE: These are fairly small ones but you can see. Right in there—that opening there—you can see where the cranberries are.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Don’t—I think I’m going to sit as I uh…

NICOLA TWILLEY: Oh I see, I see.

GRABER: Oh yeah.

TWILLEY: Just little. It’s not very spectacular. I hate to complain. And also I think because the bushes are so dense.

GRABER: It’s like we’re looking at just this big flat thicket of bush almost, is what looks like from here.

TWILLEY: The leaves are small and dark green. There’s nothing to know that you would… I mean, you really have to work to see a cranberry.

GRABER: In fact, we couldn’t see any cranberries at all in that thicket of dark, kind of dull green.

TWILLEY: So we were sitting there in a ditch totally unimpressed, and then we realized we were also kind of stuck.

GRABER: Cool. Okay, let’s see if we can get back without falling.

TWILLEY: I stuck my foot in the water so.

GRABER: I’m just going to inch up backwards here. Nicky! I need this on video.

TWILLEY: If there’s a cranberry bog I can fall into, I will. Close call there. Sometimes we have to take real risks in our reporting to get you the story.

GRABER: In case somehow you haven’t guessed what this episode is about yet, it’s cranberries!

TWILLEY: And for those of you who are really not following along, this is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And in honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday—holiday for our American listeners, that is—we’re taking a closer look at that hidden fruit.

TWILLEY: Along the way, we also answer some of the big cranberry questions. Like: Why do we pretty much only eat it on the holidays?

GRABER: Does cranberry juice actually prevent urinary tract infections, and when did that juice find its perfect partner in vodka?

TWILLEY: And how do cranberries even grow in all that water?



GRABER: We often have big surprises—you know, big reveals—later on in our episodes. But this time we wanted to start out with a shocking one, right up front. I had absolutely no idea that bogs are not wet!

BURKE: I think consistently the most surprising thing is that cranberries don’t grow in water. And I think people have seen the Ocean Spray commercials with Justin and Henry and they’re standing out in the cranberry bogs that are flooded with cranberries and they think that’s how they grow. And that’s obviously not the case.

TWILLEY: So that is Linda Burke, of the A.D. Makepeace Company, the largest cranberry grower in the world. It was an A.D. Makepeace bog we fell into at the start of the show. And, as you will recall, I did get my right foot wet. But that was because I put it in a ditch that ran around the edge of the bog, not because the bog was wet. The bog itself was kinda dry.

GRABER: Linda mentioned Justin and Henry. For those of you who aren’t watching TV commercials these days, Justin and Henry are the stars of the Ocean Spray commercials, and they’re usually shown up to the top of their waders in water surrounded by cranberries.

TWILLEY: I feel like 90 percent of the time, Ocean Spray ads are about Justin dropping something in the water—a turkey, a laptop, whatever. And over time, we’ve all absorbed the idea: cranberry bogs are thigh deep in water.

GRABER: I’ve certainly always pictured bogs as wet—maybe not thigh-high wet, but boggy to me always sounded like something kind of damp. But a cranberry bog actually spends much of its life dry.

JOHN PORTER: Looking in many cases similar to, say, a golf course. They’ve got ditches surrounding them which may have some water in them. But for the most part they are dry conditions.

TWILLEY: This is John Porter, head of R&D at A.D. Makepeace, confirming the shocking truth: cranberry bogs are pretty much dry.

GRABER: While you’re processing that news, back to basics. What’s a cranberry?

PORTER: It is a native North American fruit, but there are other very closely related plants can be found worldwide. I remember visiting a breeder’s greenhouse, he had gone around the world and collected the various varieties and I believe he had 6,000 different closely related varieties to the cranberries that we grow here.

GRABER: Relatives like the bilberry, whortleberry, moorberry, cowberry, foxberry, partridgeberry, and farkleberry.

TWILLEY: And a couple more that you might have actually heard of: the blueberry, the lingonberry, and the huckleberry. These interrelated berries are found all over the northern hemisphere. There’s even a species called the European cranberry, although the European cranberry gets a lot of bad press for being unpleasantly flavored and bitter.

GRABER: Not that the American cranberry tastes so great without a lot of sweetening.

BURKE: They’re fairly dry. There’s a pocket of air inside, so they’ve got this almost—if you slice one in half it’s almost like a four leaf clover design inside. They’re extremely tart. And we’ll be doing our cranberry harvest celebration next weekend and we’ll get 30,000 visitors here and we’ll usually put out a dish of cranberries for kids to try, and the cranberry face that they make is really something to see because it’s very tart.

TWILLEY: I have had plenty of cranberry juice in my time, usually mixed with vodka. I’ve had cranberry muffins, I’ve had cranberry tarts, I’ve even made a delicious cranberry curd. But I’d never had a fresh whole cranberry on its own. So we bought some and washed them. All right.



TWILLEY: You ever done this?

GRABER: No, not raw. And after our discussions about cranberries and eating cranberries and other things, I’m not really excited to taste one raw.

TWILLEY: Okay, well, me neither. Bon appetit!

GRABER: Cheers… Ahhh. It’s like the most tannic, sour apple possible, is sort of what it reminds me of.

TWILLEY: I actually don’t mind the taste. What I had a problem with was the way it kind of popped in my mouth and was like “ppp,” and then there was this “whee.” The skin is kind of tough for a berry, which I don’t like. And the inside is kind of mealy but sour and tannic at the same time.

GRABER: Yeah exactly. Texture—not great. Flavor—really intense and not sweet which, okay. Not something you want to eat by the handful by themselves.

TWILLEY: So cranberry bushes look unspectacular and cranberries themselves taste kind of bad, if I’m being honest. Why did anyone ever bother eating them?

GRABER: Most berries, like blueberries or raspberries, they’re a little squishy and they taste sweet so that they’re a super attractive, easy snack for animals. That’s how they get spread around to make more berry plants.

TWILLEY: Cranberries are not like that at all. They have this kind of tough outer layer, they are filled with air rather than delicious sweet smoosh, and as we just experienced, they are mouth-dryingly tannic and mouth-puckeringly sour. But the theory is, cranberries didn’t necessarily evolve to depend on being eaten to spread their genes. Instead, the ripe berries would fall off into the bog and when it rained or flooded, they’d float away, thanks to their waterproof outer layer and lifejacket-style air pockets.

GRABER: European colonists called them bounce berries, they’re so sturdy and light. Native Americans tribes called cranberries bitter berries, and so the Native American trick was to mix them into other foods. Cranberries were dried and mixed with sweet corn into a sort of spice cake. They were pounded with fat and dried meat into pemmican, which is kind of the original protein-rich power bar.

TWILLEY: When the Europeans showed up, they adopted this bitter bouncy berry as their own.

ROBERT COX: And the rumor, the myth, is that they discovered the cranberry through Native sources.

GRABER: Robert Cox wrote the book Massachusetts Cranberry Culture. He says that the European colonists were likely already familiar with similar tart berries.

TWILLEY: In England, we have a tradition of accompanying roast duck and roast goose with gooseberry sauce, which is super tart, or serving lamb with redcurrant jelly, which is also pretty sharp and a lovely red color.

GRABER: And then some of the Puritans migrated to the colonies via the Netherlands, where they lived first for a while. At the time, the Dutch cooked with the European cranberry—the American berry’s even tinier, more bitter cousin—and they called it the kronberre.

COX: And my suspicion is that the Puritans, who knew of these relatives in England, went to the Netherlands, heard this word kronberre, came over to North America and saw this berry that grows much like the European cranberry and it tastes somewhat like the European cranberry and it is genetically similar to the European cranberry and simply appropriated the name that they knew in the Netherlands and applied it to the American berry.

TWILLEY: So, thanks to a combination of already being into tart berries, and then the Native American introduction to the local version, early New Englanders got really into cranberries, really fast.

GRABER: People joked that if you visited a New England home in the early 18th or 19th century…

COX: … the tablecloth on the table was held down at each and every corner by big pots of cranberry sauce that were served with anything for breakfast, anything for lunch, anything for dinner.

TWILLEY: And it wasn’t just New Englanders that were into their cranberries. Because of their sturdy exterior, fresh dry cranberries actually keep pretty well, just stored in a clean jar or barrel.

GRABER: So people in Massachusetts could go over to the wild cranberries growing in the nearby bogs and harvest a big bunch of them, some for their own use, and then they’d trade others to a neighbor who would batch them together…

COX: …and trade it to a merchant who would then ship them to the Caribbean, to England, to Europe, all over the United States.

GRABER: Because cranberries were harvested in the fall, they became particularly associated with Thanksgiving. And because, as we said, they shipped so well, Americans everywhere could eat cranberries for Thanksgiving.

TWILLEY: In England, we don’t have Thanksgiving. But we do eat cranberry sauce once a year, with our Christmas dinner. And hearing Rob describe the eighteenth century international cranberry trade made me think: if you harvest the berries in September and October, and then you ship them by sail across the Atlantic, then it makes sense. Fresh cranberries would have been this exotic treat arriving in London in December, just in time for the holidays. Maybe that’s where the tradition came from.

GRABER: All of this international trade made cranberries super important, both as food and as a source of income, particularly for the poor.

COX: It’s a wild resource. Part of the commons of New England, if you want to think of it that way, that was tapped by everyone in the community.

TWILLEY: And actually, for Puritans, that idea—that their new home, in New England, had this bounteous native berry that could sustain even the poorest among them—that was a sign. The cranberry made New England seem even more like the right place to achieve their particular Puritan utopia.

COX: The cranberry is really a Puritan fruit in several respects.

GRABER: First of all, cranberries have this unsweet ascetic quality to them, kind of how we think of Puritans. Also, they grow in land that wouldn’t and couldn’t support any other crops. And that land isn’t good for grazing cattle, it’s not good for sheep, it’s basically good for almost nothing edible, except cranberries. And that’s just the perfect kind of thriftiness that Puritans loved.

TWILLEY: If you’re a normal farmer, the land in this part of Massachusetts is pretty terrible. It’s sandy and its rocky. The problem started a while back, during the last ice age: ice sheets covered the landscape and when they retreated, they left behind all this sand and gravel, and they also scoured the land, leaving behind little hollows where bogs formed.

GRABER: Whenever you dig around here do you hit sand everywhere? Is everywhere sandy here?

PORTER: Yes. All due to the last ice age.

GRABER: Thank you, last ice age, for our cranberries. Sandy soils are also very acidic, and so are cranberries. Those berry vines love acidic soil.

PORTER: The ideal pH for cranberry bog is somewhere between about four and a half to five.

GRABER: A little less sour than a grapefruit.

TWILLEY: In other words, if you wanted to design a landscape for cranberries, it would look like Cape Cod.

GRABER: Cape Cod’s sandy acidic bogs were good for one other thing, other than cranberries, and that’s bog iron.

TWILLEY: Bog iron is these pea-sized nodules of iron that form when dissolved iron particles in water get precipitated out as little nuggets by the acid levels in the bog. In New England, where there was no good iron to be mined, people would go digging in bogs to harvest these little iron nuggets and melt them down for use.

GRABER: And then, the bog iron ran out.

BURKE: And what we were left with was a big hole in the ground and that, ultimately, as happens on Cape Cod and in this area, filled in with sand and cranberries started taking root there. And the gentleman who started the commercial cultivation aspect of it realized that, wow, if you did this deliberately you could really make some money off cranberries. So he started the first cranberry farm that way.

GRABER: Up until the early 1800s, people just collected cranberries wild. The gentleman Linda is referring to—he was a sea captain named Henry Hall, and he was the first to have a commercial cranberry farm two hundred years ago. Most people believe Henry Hall invented cranberry farming.

COX: The problem with that idea is that cranberries had already been cultivated many years before.

TWILLEY: Rob says that it’s actually my people, the English, who got into the cranberry farming game first. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, there was a big movement to quote improve native crops—British botanists and horticulturalists were all working on how to domesticate and breed exotic species from all over the world. One of the most famous was a guy called Sir Joseph Banks, and he figured out how to grow cranberries in an artificial bed in the middle of an artificial lake.

COX: And he even estimated how many pies you could make and how many barrels of cranberry you could produce on how many square feet of land.

TWILLEY: So people knew how to cultivate cranberries, but still, commercial cranberry farming took a few years to catch on.

GRABER: But by the early 1800s, the time was finally right to move from wild harvesting to cultivation. And the reason is that, frankly, cranberries were just too popular, and there weren’t enough of them.

COX: And so we get a competition for access to the commons. And towns in Massachusetts deal with this by passing laws saying that you can’t use rakes to gather cranberries, for instance.

GRABER: There was such a rush on the bogs during harvest season that some towns restricted the dates you could harvest.

TWILLEY: And that’s the background against which Mr. Henry Hall starts his commercial cranberry farm, in the village of Dennis, Massachusetts. He starts selling his cranberries in 1816, and over the next eighty years, cranberry farming really takes off. On the Cape, boggy land that was worth nothing before began selling for astronomical sums—$100 an acre.

GRABER: We are talking about a cranberry craze. And not just in New England, cranberry farming started to spread around the country.

COX: There were a lot of fortunes made on this little tiny nondescript but delicious fruit.

TWILLEY: The cranberry bog we visited—A.D. Makepeace—it was one of these nineteenth century cranberry empires.

BURKE: The company was founded in 1854, by Abel Makepeace, hence the name, and he was a farmer on the Cape. And I think he was initially growing potatoes and then got kind of caught up in what at the time was becoming a craze for cranberries. And he became—we have a story from The New York Times from around the late 1800s where he was referred to as “the Cranberry King.”

TWILLEY: This was a brand new commercial crop. In the past, when cranberries were just growing wild, people picked them by hand—whole families, kids included.

GRABER: But now cranberry farmers needed something that would work on a commercial scale. So Abel and his farm workers invented brand new cranberry harvesting tools such as the scoop.

BURKE: I’m looking around because we usually have one of the old scoops around and I do see one out in the hallway. It’s a handheld thing with tines on the end of it. It’s made of wood and it’s got a square bottom, and it was run across the surface of the bog and the berries would get caught in the tines and fall into the pocket of this scoop.

TWILLEY: Rob says it’s kind of like picking head lice from a child—the tines sweep along the length of the vines and pull off the cranberries.

GRABER: For most of the history of cranberry farming, this is how cranberries were harvested. People walked on dry land, and used those scoops to pluck the dry berries. But today farmers mostly harvest a different way—which we saw in action at A.D. Makepeace.


TWILLEY: They look like little water bugs or something you know?

GRABER: Like floating on top of the water. I think this is as close as we can get without getting wet.

TWILLEY: This is what you’re picturing when you think of cranberry bogs with guys in waders and the pink berries bobbing around on the surface. It’s called wet harvesting. And nobody knows who invented it, but it first took off in Wisconsin.


GRABER: What are those guys in the waders doing?

BURKE: That’s called the stick man, the guy with the stick. And he is going through in advance of the machinery to make sure that there aren’t any unexpected holes or ditches or other imperfections in the surface of the bog that will cause them to get stuck up there.

GRABER: Those spidery-looking machines churning through the water were invented after World War II to make water harvesting much easier.

BURKE: What they’re doing is knocking the berries off the vines and the berries will float to the surface because they’ve got a little pocket of air inside them. And then the bogs will be flooded a little bit more and the berries will be racked, which means that they’re kind of corralled by a plastic boom and then they’re pumped into a truck.

TWILLEY: The day we were there, the skies were this gorgeous autumnal blue and it’s hard to describe how beautiful the flooded bog was. We couldn’t stop staring at it.

BURKE: We have people who come to paint. They’ll set up an easel on the side of a bog while the harvest is going on. We have photography clubs come to visit because it’s such a beautiful thing. They all like to see it at a particular light very early in the morning, which makes it just stunning.

TWILLEY: Cynthia and I were comparing the drifts of cranberries floating atop the water to a Monet water lily painting—the cranberries were like these impressionist clouds of pink. Although with an industrial soundtrack from the harvesting machines

BURKE: I think the real visual is the reflection of the blue sky in the water that’s flooding the bog and the berries looking almost like clouds on the surface of the water. Many of them are a deep dark red but some of them are a lighter color. And that’s just because they were growing under the canopy of the vines, so they just don’t have they don’t redden up as much as some of the other ones do.

GRABER: So there’s this undulation of shades of pink and red and it is gorgeous. But flooding isn’t just for harvest. Wild bogs do flood naturally—that’s why they’re called bogs, they’re low-lying and they have a dense layer of organic matter underneath that keeps the water from draining too quickly.

TWILLEY: Cranberry plants can survive a week with their roots underwater in a flooded bog—longer in the winter when they’re not growing. And so farmers take advantage of that by flooding the bog every so often, throughout the year.

PORTER: During the wintertime we will apply floods to basically protect the plants from drying out. The ground will freeze, the plants, if they’re exposed to cold drying air, they are going to be losing a lot of moisture, and to keep that from happening we’ll put the flood on.

GRABER: Floods also kill pests and weeds that would compete with cranberries. They’re an important tool in cranberry farming, and they have been since the early days of commercial cultivation.

TWILLEY: A lot of A.D. Makepeace’s cranberry bogs go back to those early days. Some have been in operation for more than a century

PORTER: These strangely shaped bogs, some of them can be well over a hundred years old and many of them are old iron ore pits that were filled in and then converted into cranberry bogs.

GRABER: But we went with John to see some of A.D. Makepeace’s new bogs being built.

PORTER: This is part of a 200-acre bog project which will take about 10 years to build out. These will all be the state-of-the-art.

TWILLEY: Cynthia and I were standing with John at the edge of a series of huge shallow rectangular pits. Some of the rectangles were kind of brown, but some were filled with perfectly flat bright white sand, like a beach volleyball court for giants.

PORTER: Right ahead of us we are looking at a site where they are—they’ve got about half of it built out waiting for the vines to go into it. On my left hand side as you can see they’re still putting down the organic matter and the sand.

GRABER: I never would have thought this was about to be farmland. It looked almost like an expanse of desert. John and his colleagues have put in underground pipes to pump water from below the plants, so they can can save water by using it more precisely. They’ve got underground sensors to monitor moisture and oxygen.

PORTER: And we’re also putting in a new variety here that should be producing about 600 to 650 barrels per acre or 60 to 65,000 pounds per acre.

GRABER: That’s about three times as many cranberries as the older varieties. Truly, the cranberry bog of the future!

TWILLEY: But who is going to eat all these cranberries? I mean, there has to be a limit to the amount of sauce we can spoon down each Thanksgiving or Christmas, right?

GRABER: So maybe we should all be drinking it instead. Because can’t cranberry juice help prevent UTIs?


TWILLEY: Cynthia, you and I each ate a fresh cranberry for the first time earlier this episode. But until relatively recently, that’s how cranberries came: as fresh berries. People bought them fresh and made sauce with them at home. Nowadays, though, only a tiny amount of America’s cranberries are bought fresh.

GRABER: And that is thanks to Marcus Urann, the man with a plan. He was a lawyer originally, and then he quit to buy a cranberry bog. This is at the start of the twentieth century. And almost immediately, he came up with a brand new business model for cranberries.

COX: So rather than selling dry berries to people at home who can then turn it into sauce, they actually pick berries and use them on site and create sauce that they can sell in cans. And for a grower and for a concern dealing with selling cranberries, it’s a beautiful thing.

GRABER: Marcus’s brilliant new canned sauce plan worked because there were new industrial machines available for canning all that great cranberry sauce. The other thing is that wet harvesting is starting to catch on, and you can’t sell wet-harvest berries fresh. They get moldy too quickly. You have to process them.

TWILLEY: Win, win, win. Now cranberry growers have a product that they can sell year round and that works with their new wet-harvesting technique. Marcus is a cranberry hero. But he doesn’t stop with canned sauce.

GRABER: He invents cranberry incarnation after cranberry incarnation. First is the dried cranberry.

COX: But the real blockbuster was cranberry juice, cranberry cocktail.

BURKE: It’s very popular with kids and it’s very popular with vodka.

TWILLEY: Cranberry and vodka! I remember drinking that, before Red Bull got big.

GRABER: This is quite a famous drink around my parts called the Cape Codder.

TWILLEY: It was first introduced in 1945, by another of Marcus’s inventions—a cranberry grower’s cooperative.

BURKE: Which the A.D. Makepeace company helped to found with two other growers in the 1930s.

GRABER: One of those partners was the Ocean Spray preserving company—Marcus’s company. Marcus and Abel and another partner founded this cooperative to try to cooperate and market and brand cranberries together to be more effective on a national scale. It was renamed the Ocean Spray cooperative after Marcus retired. If you’ve had cranberry juice, you’ll recognize the name Ocean Spray.

TWILLEY: And the drink—vodka cranberry—when that was first introduced, the Ocean Spray cooperative called it the Red Devil. It only started to be known as the Cape Codder in the early 1960s.

GRABER: The juice, though—like Rob says, it was really really popular, and not just because of its affinity for vodka. One of the reasons is that people thought it had medical benefits.

MANISHA JUTHANI-METHA: So why is that? If you look back it looks like it really goes back to the roots of our American heritage. So the cranberry idea really comes from the Native Americans.

TWILLEY: That’s Manisha Juthani-Metha. She is an associate professor of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine where she studies, among other things, cranberries.

JUTHANI-METHA: Native Americans realized early on that cranberries could be used for a variety of different health ailments. And they felt that for urinary tract infection it could be a potential method that could prevent or treat urinary tract tract infections.

GRABER: And what the colonists also figured out was that cranberries have a lot of vitamin C, though they didn’t call it that yet.

JUTHANI-METHA: So it was certainly used for a number of things in the seventeen hundreds to prevent scurvy, when people were whaling and on boats. But the urinary tract specific benefits started to appear in the medical literature in the 1800s.

TWILLEY: This is one of those things that I think every woman has heard: if you have a urinary tract infection, which is not an uncommon thing, then you’re supposed to drink cranberry juice. I’ve certainly done it. But is there any science behind it? Does it actually work?

JUTHANI-METHA: In the 50s and 60s there were some early reports that came out that were looking at possible mechanisms and how might it be that cranberry works. But again the idea, at least in the American literature, from the beginning was almost like a foregone conclusion that it must work because we know that it works. And there were a lot of studies that came out at that point trying to figure out how could that be, why would that be.

GRABER: Early on, scientists thought maybe cranberry juice acidified the urine and that’s why it prevented UTIs. That turned out not to be the case.

TWILLEY: The next theory was that cranberry juice was high in something called proanthocyanidins, or PAC. These are tannins.

JUTHANI-METHA: And it looked like this type A PAC prevented the binding of certain types of E. coli, which is the most common cause of urinary tract infections, to bladder wall cells. And that was really how urinary tract infections were prevented. And then there were a number of different juice studies that were done in the 90s and 2000s that had mixed results. But there were some studies that looked like they might really work.

GRABER: The problem was, in general, these studies weren’t great. First of all, there was no standard dose of these PACs. Scientists tested women of all sorts of different ages, from children to nursing home residents, so that aspect of the research wasn’t standardized either. And third, the studies followed the participants for different lengths of time. Maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months.

JUTHANI-METHA: And the fourth was that some of the cranberry juice studies that were done have a very important component, which is that juice has hydration.

TWILLEY: And hydration—cranberry or no cranberry—Manisha says that’s actually the key to UTI prevention.

JUTHANI-METHA: And so really hydrating and sort of flushing the bladder and urinary tract system altogether is the number one way that you can actually prevent urinary tract infections.

GRABER: But maybe cranberries could help! To get to the bottom of this, Manisha decided to do her own study to determine whether cranberry juice is actually effective at preventing UTIs.

TWILLEY: And she was determined not to make the same mistakes that have plagued the previous research. Everything had to be standardized.

GRABER: The participants? All nursing home residents. The dose? Standardized, in capsules. The length of time? A year, long enough to really see if cranberries help prevent UTIs. Manisha even measured bacteria in urine, the kind you have to have to have a UTI. She wasn’t relying on her patients letting her know that they felt burning while peeing or other UTI symptoms.


JUTHANI-METHA: And unfortunately it did not work at reducing bacteria and white blood cells in the urine over the course of the year. It was basically a null study between the placebo capsules and the cranberry capsules.

TWILLEY: Null study meaning cranberry capsules did not make any difference in this population, over this amount of time.

JUTHANI-METHA: You know, I think in science sometimes people get frustrated that we’re very specific about what our studies show. But the reality is we’re trying to make it as rigorous as possible for that specific population. Because otherwise we end up with a lot of contradictory studies and people say well, does it work, does it not? I heard that there was a study that said it does and I hear that there’s a study that says it doesn’t.

GRABER: Manisha feels like, looking at the flawed research in the past and what her research shows, she thinks that cranberries probably don’t help prevent UTIs at all, in any group. Although that hasn’t been definitively proven. But she does have an intriguing but unproven theory for why cranberry got its reputation for helping with UTIs in the first place.

JUTHANI-METHA: One of the things I think is that there may be something in cranberry juice that actually reduces the burning sensation and maybe this is why Native Americans came up with it in the first place.

TWILLEY: Reducing the burning sensation of a UTI sounds like a good thing, but it’s not necessarily.

JUTHANI-METHA: Now the caveat to that is I have had patients tell me that they started having to dysuria or burning when they would urinate and they started drinking cranberry juice and the dysuria went away and they thought they were better. Only to a week later have a kidney infection so the infection went up from the bladder to the kidney and they were duped into thinking that it was gone because the burning went away.

GRABER: So it seems to me, if there’s a chance drinking cranberry juice means you don’t get the antibiotics you need to treat that UTI and prevent the infection from spreading, maybe drinking cranberry juice when you have a UTI is not such a great idea.

TWILLEY: But if it helps you, Manisha says, go ahead, as long as you still get the medical treatment you need. And I fully endorse having a little bit of cranberry juice with a vodka every now and then. It’s really quite a lovely drink.

GRABER: Cranberry juice really took off in the 60s and 70s and became pretty much the main way people consumed cranberries throughout the year. But what about Marcus Urann’s other invention, the dried cranberry?

TWILLEY: Rob Cox told us that dried cranberries had a brief moment of glory during the Second World War—they were included in soldiers rations and they became a pretty popular sweet treat. But they didn’t become mainstream until the invention of the Craisin.

COX: 1993. So they were—the Craisins came along in 1993 and they’re a marketing invention.

GRABER: This is Ocean Spray’s invention—or, maybe reinvention—once again. They have a fruit in search of a market.

COX: And they began creating this sugar-rich, delicious snack that is a parallel to raisins. They call them Craisins.

GRABER: And, like cranberry juice, Craisins are a success.

TWILLEY: Nowadays, John Porter told us, the majority of cranberries that are harvested become Craisins. In fact, these days cranberry juice is a side product of the Craisin-making process.

GRABER: Craisins’ popularity is even changing the shape of cranberries.

PORTER: There’s new varieties coming out of the universities or private breeders that are being developed through traditional breeding methods that have much higher yields, larger shape, and are very good for turning into Craisins.

TWILLEY: It’s true: Cranberries are being bred for enhanced craisinability.

PORTER: Any of the berries that have been wet-picked will be processed into Craisins or juice or sauce and that’s about 95 percent of the total crop industry-wide.

GRABER: As we said, wet-harvested berries go moldy too quickly to be sold fresh. These days 95 percent of cranberries are wet-harvested and then processed.

TWILLEY: The other five percent—the dry-harvested ones—those are the fresh ones you buy in bags in the fruit and veg section of the supermarket, for just a few weeks of the year, around the holidays.

GRABER: Cranberries are grown all over these days, from New Jersey to Wisconsin to Washington State, and from Chile to Canada. And the cranberry bogs are far more productive than in the past, so there are more than enough cranberries out there. Maybe too many. Because there’s a problem.

TWILLEY: In a way, the cranberry’s early seasonal success has doomed it.

COX: We very early adopted cranberry as one of the most important condiments at the Thanksgiving table in New England. And so cranberries—seasonal to begin with—become doubly associated with the season because they are doubly associated with Thanksgiving.

TWILLEY: Marcus Urann, and nowadays Ocean Spray: they’re fighting an uphill battle to get people to eat cranberries outside of the context of a holiday turkey dinner. They’ve been fighting that battle for a century now.

BURKE: I can tell you that we have some old ads in the basement that were developed by Ocean Spray and they were trying to get Americans interested in adding another holiday to the cranberry palate, if you will. And they wanted to have people establish this tradition of having a chicken, a roast chicken with cranberry sauce for Father’s Day. And it didn’t fly.

TWILLEY: In fact, Ocean Spray mounted a year-long advertising campaign about a chicken that was in love with cranberry. They eventually married at the 1948 Massachusetts Cranberry Festival. As part of the ad campaign, the chicken wrote romantic poetry to its cranberry love interest. I have a small sample to share: “What butter is to biscuits, what honey is to a bee, what syrup is to pancakes, cranberry is to me.”

GRABER: This might be the best love poetry I’ve heard. It’s too bad the chicken’s poems weren’t quite powerful enough—Father’s Day just doesn’t have any good tradition at all.

TWILLEY: Still, John Porter is a fully signed-up supporter of the cranberry-chicken union.

PORTER: My family will not eat a poultry dinner without having cranberry sauce available. If we don’t have any, I’ve got to run to the store to get some.

TWILLEY: Linda and John both work for one of the biggest cranberry growers, so this is not surprising, but they are big fans of thinking beyond the turkey.

BURKE: We all have cranberries in a Ziploc bag in our freezer. And I will, if I put pork in the crockpot, I’ll throw in a handful of cranberries. I put cranberries in a smoothie in the morning with other fruits.

GRABER: Cranberries: they’re not just for Thanksgiving.

TWILLEY: Or Christmas. Or turkey sandwiches.

GRABER: Or even vodka. To Linda, cranberries are super versatile. Which leads me to something that’s kind of always bugged me—we collectively go nuts for the latest berry from some exotic distant country, like goji berries and acai berries and all that.

COX: They’re exciting, they’re coming from outside. They may not have anything on the cranberry but they are new.

TWILLEY: Rob is obviously a cranberry fan. He wrote a book about cranberry culture, for heaven’s sake. But even he admits the cranberry is not always the easiest sell. It’s not new and shiny. And it’s totally tied to turkey in our minds. And it’s no blueberry, that’s for sure.

COX: The cranberry is tart and a little hard to love at first.

TWILLEY: But it’s worth it, Rob says. It’s a berry we can all be proud of.

GRABER: You can grow it in poor soils. It’s super versatile. It’s also just as good for you as any of those other exotic berries. When it’s sweetened enough, it’s really tasty. And it’s ours.

COX: So for me the cranberry is sort of the signature American fruit. It’s the bald eagle of fruits.


TWILLEY: And on that patriotic note, I will wish a very Happy Thanksgiving to our American listeners!


TWILLEY: Thanks also this episode to Linda Burke and John Porter of AD Makepeace company, Manisha Julani-Metha of Yale School of Medicine, and Robert Cox, author of Massachusetts Cranberry Culture. We have links to their bog, their papers, and their book on our website,

GRABER: Where you will also find all the details on our shareathon: It’s your chance to help us grow and recommend us to your friends and win glorious swag for doing so!

TWILLEY: We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a new episode! Till then…

Crantastic: The Story of America’s Berry

It's nearly Thanksgiving, which, for most Americans, marks the one time a year their dinner table is adorned with jewel-like cranberries, simmered into a delicious sauce. But hundreds of years ago, cranberry sauce was a mainstay of daily meals, all around the U.S. How did this acidic, tannic berry, so hard to love in its raw form, become one of the most popular fruits in America, and how did it fall so deeply out of fashion? Meanwhile, as cranberry sauce was relegated to Thanksgiving, cranberry juice became a popular drink—and mixer. But why is the juice so widely believed to combat urinary tract infections, and does science support that claim? Join us this episode for all that, plus a tour of the cranberry bog of the future. …More

Cork Dork: Inside the Weird World of Wine Appreciation TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Cork Dork: Inside the Weird World of Wine Appreciation, first released on February 28, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

BIANCA BOSKER: Robitussin, freshly molded dildo, peppered raspberry, white raspberry, red raspberry, black raspberry. I don’t know what the difference between all those things are, if they even exist, but they evoked it for someone. You get burnt hair, plum, cow shit…

NICOLA TWILLEY: I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I actually have a good sense of what freshly molded dildo smells like. Maybe I need to live a little.

CYNTHIA GRABER: I’ve been stuck on that since Bianca mentioned it in her list of wine descriptions she’s heard. Yes, those are all words people have used to describe the flavor notes they’re getting in a glass of wine.

TWILLEY: And the Bianca in question is Bianca Bosker. She’s the author of a new book called Cork Dork.

BOSKER: A wine-fueled adventure among the obsessive sommeliers, big bottle hunters, and rogue scientists who taught me to live for taste. I did just read that subtitle off of my book cover because I wanted to make sure I remembered it.

GRABER: What is a cork dork, you might ask?

BOSKER: If you are the type of person who licks rocks to train your palate, if you’re the type of person who may divorce your spouse so you can spend more time studying wine flashcards, or if you’re the kind of person that calls what you do a blood sport with corkscrews, you are a cork dork.

TWILLEY: Bianca is a cork dork. But she wasn’t originally. And so she is the perfect person to demystify this whole wine business. Because really? You’re tasting wet dog and Band-Aid in your $300 dollar bottle of Bordeaux? I mean, come on. Isn’t this whole thing kind of B.S.?

GRABER: That’s what we’re going to find out this episode. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode, Bianca is going to help us understand what a sommelier is and does—and how you too can navigate a wine list like a pro.

GRABER: She’ll also help us understand whether expensive wine is actually better than cheaper—whether it’s worth it to shell out all that money.



BOSKER: I was a total wine ignoramus when I started this. So, you know, I think there are people who spend their Saturday nights agonizing over the choice between wine from Burgundy and Bordeaux. I spent my Saturday nights agonizing over the choice between wines from a bottle and a box. I mean, I thought perhaps one was better than the other but I just couldn’t be sure. So I, you know, I have to be honest, like, that actually didn’t bother me for a very long time. But then I discovered this world of elite sommeliers who treat wine less as a job than a way of life, and I was just mystified by what it was that fixated them about wine.

TWILLEY: At the time, Bianca was a tech editor at an online publication.

BOSKER: I spent all day every day at a screen writing about things that happened on screens. I mean, just to give you an example, I actually made someone do a slide show called “How to take a vacation on Google Street View,” as if somehow scrolling through pictures on the slide show was the same thing as sitting in Maui with a mai tai in your hand.

GRABER: And then she met some cork dorks, and what they did seemed almost like magic to her.

BOSKER: I mean, these were people who could stick their nose into a glass of wine and tell you all these stories about it, right? Who made it, when, how, where, in like some tiny corner of the planet half the size of Central Park. And it made me just realize how sterile my life was, how I was really ignoring two of the five senses that we’re given to make sense of the world.

TWILLEY: And because Bianca is pretty type A, it wasn’t enough to just watch other people be cork dorks. She wanted to see whether she could do it herself.

BOSKER: Could I do what they did, could I hone my senses? And what would change if I did? And also would I figure out once and for all what was the big deal about wine—like, why do otherwise rational people spend all this time and money on something that eventually becomes expensive pee?

GRABER: She quit tech journalism and trained to be a sommelier. So what exactly is a sommelier?

BOSKER: I mean, you can give it a really basic definition. I mean, they are the people who are in charge of selecting wines for a restaurant. And then pairing them with the guests who come to that restaurant.

TWILLEY: Sommelier is a fancy French word for a very old job.

BOSKER: We’ve had some version of a sommelier for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians had their version of sommeliers, also sometimes called cup bearers. And what’s interesting to me is when you trace back the little-known history of the sommelier you find that basically since humans have been drinking wine we’ve had a dedicated person to serve it to us.

GRABER: And sommeliers have actually always had a kind of privileged position in the servants’ world. The pharaohs’ cup bearers didn’t just carry the wine to the table, they were also in charge of storing it and selecting it. They were experts.

TWILLEY: The ancient Romans had dedicated wine servers too, for their legendary banquets. Although Roman sommeliers apparently also had other duties as assigned…

BOSKER: And they were of particular interest to the guests because oftentimes hosts would pair the most attractive young sommeliers with the most distinguished guests, which is where the very—I would say the downside to this job comes through, which is that many sommeliers were also expected to not only serve the wine to the guests but later accompany them to the bedrooms to take care of their more carnal and lustful appetites.

GRABER: Thankfully sommeliers today do not live by the rules of the Roman elite.

BOSKER: Things got somewhat better for sommeliers after that, yeah.

GRABER: But Roman sommeliers also had more practical responsibilities.

BOSKER: And they were, you know, more winemakers of a sort. I mean, they would actually—like, they could fix flawed wines by adding oyster shells or chalk or boiling them with different things.

GRABER: In the past, sommeliers might have needed to prove their skills at doctoring wine with oyster shells, or entertaining Roman aristocracy in the bedroom. Today, there’s a different kind of test. Bianca decided she wanted to take it.

TWILLEY: The exam is called the Court of Master Sommelier.

BOSKER: Which is the gold standard of sommelier degrees, if you will.

GRABER: The test is divided into three sections: there’s a part on service, on theory, and then there’s those magical blind tastings.

BOSKER: What’s kind of challenging about that is there’s no class that you can take to pass that. It’s really something that requires you to learn that information on your own. So I set about to train as a sommelier, which involved trying—basically doing stages in restaurants, which is a fancy way of saying apprenticeships or acting as unpaid labor.

TWILLEY: So what does a sommelier do? Well, the first thing is some basic profiling. Yes, your somm is judging you. They’re sizing you up before they even say hello.

BOSKER: Who are they eating with? Is it a date? Is it a business outing? They’re eyeing the jewelry, they’re eyeing the bags, they’re eyeing the shoes. How much money do these people appear to have? What do you think they want to spend? What’s the dynamic between the guests? Who’s really making the choices about the wine? Is it the guy with the list in his hand or the boss next to him? Is it the wife who’s giving her husband the evil eye, or is it the high roller you know flipping through the expensive Burgundies?

GRABER: They do this for a reason—it’s not just to figure out how much money you’re going to drop. They also want to know what you want out of the wine, what you’re expecting from the meal.

BOSKER: A good sommelier also understands that pairing a person with a wine is not just about giving them a good-tasting alcoholic beverage to drink. It’s about delivering an experience that satisfies the psychological need that they have that evening.

TWILLEY: All of those subtle, psychological, people-reading skills—that’s something that sommeliers are evaluated on in the test. But there are also a lot of more esoteric etiquette things that the somm has to do right. Things you or I would never even think about.

BOSKER: It just seems very simplistic, right? Bring the bottle. Open it. Pour. That’s it, right? How much can go wrong? What are you actually judging in a competition about pouring wine? A whole lot, as it turns out. When you approach the table, sommeliers should walk clockwise only around a table. They should find the host. You have to present the wine a certain way using a serviette. If you open a bottle of sparkling wine, you should be in a particular place relative to the table. It should only make a tiny little sound. The terminology that I was taught was it should be no louder than a nun’s fart or the Queen’s fart. You should pour exactly the same amount of wine for every glass in one turn around the table. You should pour open handed. Do not under any circumstances backhand someone—that is considered extremely rude and poor form.

TWILLEY: I feel relatively sure that I have back-handed people basically every time I’ve poured wine.

GRABER: I have to admit, I’m having a hard time imagining what it’s like not to backhand someone. I’m totally going to watch the somm next time I’m out to dinner.

TWILLEY: This part of the whole somm training turned out to be one of the most challenging for Bianca. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a ballerina of the restaurant floor. If there was a way to screw up service, she did.

GRABER: As part of her training, Bianca entered one of the oldest sommelier competitions in the U.S.

BOSKER: I will say that the service part of the competition had not gone superbly up to this point in time, but here was my final chance to redeem myself. And so I go over the table, I stand on the correct side of the host. And they ask me to bring them a bottle of Bordeaux.

TWILLEY: Bianca’s feeling good: she knows this Bordeaux and she’s doing her whole spiel: presenting it to the host, describing the region, who owns the estate, what the weather was like that year.

BOSKER: So I begin to open the wine. And I’m feeling very confident. I’m trying to make conversation with them and sure they’re having a good time. These are my my mock guests. and I failed to notice a kind of sickly sounding PLUFT. Red wine everywhere exploding over me dripping down my white shirt dripping off my mascara running dripping off the guests. It’s on the tablecloth. It’s on the floor. It looks like I’ve been shot. I mean there’s just red wine oozing all over the place.

GRABER: You’re saying this was not a nun’s fart.

BOSKER: I mean this was a nun with a serious case of food poisoning. It was not pretty.

TWILLEY: What happened? Did the cork just kind of slide its way out without you noticing?

BOSKER: So I later talked to this is aspiring master sommelier, this guy named Morgan Harris who’s been my mentor, and he gave me—you know, I describe what happened and I was like shocked. I mean, I was convinced that, like, there’d been an earthquake, like some force of nature had caused this to go wrong. He had a very rational explanation, something about differential pressure, that basically had to do I think with removing the cork too quickly. I’m really not sure. I’m still convinced that it was some fluke micro-natural disaster that happened in that bottle of wine. But needless to say I did not win the competition. And I was rated DNPIM, which is apparently wine judge score for: Do not put in mouth. So I was basically the equivalent of a completely inedible spoiled wine when it came to service.

GRABER: That’s the service section of the test. Then there’s the theory.

BOSKER: There is no wine fact too small to be tested on. So prepping for the test requires, as a starting point, memorizing the characteristic grape varieties for certain countries, for certain subregions within those countries, for the subregions of the subregions within those countries. You have to memorize signature producers. What are they best known for, how did they make their wines? What kind of grapes do they use? What are their aging styles? You know, there’s a huge amount of geography that you have to memorize. What are the distinctive geographical landmarks in these countries, in these regions, in these subregions? The rivers, the climates, the mist. What kind of soil grows in these places?

TWILLEY: People make flash cards. Bianca had more than a thousand by the end. It’s completely insane.

GRABER: Think of all of the wine producing countries in the world, from Chile to South Africa to Italy, Croatia, New Zealand, but you have to know all the vineyards, too. It is—just to say it one more time—it is absolutely insane.

TWILLEY: Plus there’s all the wine-related information. Like the names of the bottle sizes, from Magnum, which is two normal size bottles, all the way up to Nebuchadnezzar, which holds twenty normal size bottles. Bianca shared a good mnemonic to help remember that order, from smallest to largest: Michael Jackson Really Makes Small Boys Nervous.

GRABER: Okay, here goes: Magnum, Jeroboam, Rehoboam, Methuselah, Salmanazar, Balthazar, Nebuchadnezzar. Until now I’d only heard of magnums. Clearly I’m not drinking enough wine.

TWILLEY: Think big, Cynthia. So you have the service, you have the theory section, and then the third part of the test is the blind tasting—that’s the part that originally got Bianca hooked.

BOSKER: When I saw blind tasting for the first time, I thought that these people had to be freaks of nature. I figured that these were the oenological equivalents of Michael Phelps, right? Or Serena Williams. Like, they just were, you know, in a league above the rest of us when it came to their abilities to taste and smell. As it turns out, that’s not true. I mean any of us can learn to do it.

TWILLEY: A blind tasting is not just drinking with your eyes closed.

BOSKER: Basically, a blind testing is you’re given a glass of wine you don’t know anything about it. Can you figure out what it was made from, where, and when?

GRABER: This isn’t just guessing random wines, hoping you land on the right one. Bianca talked us through exactly what those blind tasters are doing—everything that she learned to think about in order to come up with the right grape and producer.

BOSKER: So the first thing you do is you’ll pick up a glass of wine, and you look at the color. So if it’s a red wine, you know, if it’s a little more purple, you might be thinking Zinfandel. If it’s a little more brick red, you might be thinking pinot noir. If it’s lost some of its color, you’re thinking older wine. If it still has a lot of color, you’re thinking younger wine. So already, even before you put it in your mouth, you can pick up a good amount of information.

TWILLEY: Then you smell the wine.

BOSKER: Different grape varieties have a signature smell imprint. See, when you put your nose in the glass, you’re looking for distinctive aromas that will begin to tell you again whether you’re thinking this is a Cabernet Sauvignon, in which case it will have maybe some more kind of green bell pepper, raspberry, cranberry notes. Or whether you’re thinking, man, this smells like peach yogurt—Zinfandel! To me, Zinfandel usually smells like peach yogurt. You’re also looking for clues to see whether it’s been aged in oak—that’s going to begin to tell you what part the world it could be coming from, how it’s made. And then eventually you are actually tasting the wine. You are putting it in your mouth.

TWILLEY: Finally. I was getting thirsty just listening.

BOSKER: And then you’re also looking for elements of the wine’s structure. So how high is the alcohol? That could tell you about the climate. Was it—did it come from somewhere really hot or somewhere that was a little cooler? You’re looking for the tannins. Cabernet Sauvignon is generally much more tannic, it dries out your mouth more than pinot noir. And so you’re piecing together all of these clues to reach some conclusion about what kind of grape you’re drinking, when it was made, where it came from.

GRABER: Bianca talked herself into special underground tasting groups where this is what they do. They sit around and test themselves on blind tasting wines.

TWILLEY: She called it her Tuesday morning tongue cardio.

GRABER: Some of the somms Bianca trained with lick rocks to be able to distinguish mineral flavors. They give up salt, spicy foods, even coffee. They make sure that any hot food or soup is not actually hot, just tepid, so they don’t burn their tongues. Bianca stopped wearing perfume and switched to scent-free laundry detergent.

TWILLEY: One guy Bianca trained with would always bring his own granola to competitions so he would have the same flavor baseline in the morning, guaranteed.

GRABER: As part of her training, Bianca even tested herself on precise dilutions of alcohol so that she could distinguish between what 12 percent alcohol tastes like as opposed to 13 percent.

TWILLEY: But she also told us a trick: if you look at the trails the wine leaves down the side of your glass after you’ve swirled it, the more defined and longer lasting those trails are, the higher alcohol your wine. And higher alcohol wines are often New World, so you have yourself a pretty good clue there.

GRABER: Bianca herself stops eating or drinking two hours before a blind tasting. Because she wants to be able to find that hint of bell pepper to know that the wine might be Cabernet Sauvignon.

TWILLEY: This is where we get into that whole world of winespeak. Oh I’m getting notes of raspberry jam and birdshit, you know? But what’s interesting is that we haven’t always talked about the flavor of wine that way.

BOSKER: The lexicon of tasting notes as we now know them is really only as traditional as television. I mean, this is not something that has gone back centuries, right? I mean, when you look—when you think about some of the great wine connoisseurs through history—Louis XIV, Thomas Jefferson, the Pharaohs—they weren’t sitting around trying to figure out whether they were smelling dried pomegranate or cranberry. What’s interesting is people have been drinking wine for thousands and thousands of years, but, in general, the way that we talk about it has been very terse and really just focused on kind of good or bad, without going into the tastes and smells in the glass.

TWILLEY: As wine critics and wine writing became a thing, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, people started to grasp for something more—a way to describe the qualities they saw in different wines. They used the same vocabulary people used to describe character: refined, graceful, charming, honest.

BOSKER: When we look at the history of the tasting notes they use to describe wine they tend to reflect whatever values we happen to prize at that particular time. So, you know, at the turn of the century when class distinctions were more important, good wines were classy, they were noble, they were aristocratic.

GRABER: In the 1920s, the era of Hemmingway, an early critic praised a red Hermitage—he called it “the manliest French wine I ever drank.”

TWILLEY: And all these vegetables and fruit and dirt words that we use today—those date back to precisely 1974, in Davis, California. But before we tell you the origin story of today’s wine language, we want to tell you about a couple of sponsors this episode.


TWILLEY: OK, so first we described wine as tasting good or bad, and then as manly or graceful, but then, in the 1970s, we started describing it as tasting like fruit and vegetables. What’s the story there—how did that happen?

BOSKER: The creator of the modern tasting note is a woman named Ann Noble, who is professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis. And she’s a sensory scientist, and she showed up to teach a class that was on sensory evaluation of wines that was required of all aspiring winemakers in the wine school. And these winemakers were being asked to go round and sniff and taste the wines and describe them. And she realized that they had no words to do so.

TWILLEY: They were grasping—they had no shared language to describe what their noses were experiencing. No vocabulary they could use to communicate what they smelled.

BOSKER: So Ann basically decided that people needed to undergo what she called the kindergarten of the nose. Which essentially makes a lot of sense, because most of us don’t really learn to put words to smells, right? We identify colors and sounds but rarely do we ever learn to actually put words to smells.

GRABER: Ann decided to do something about this. Her kindergarten of the nose—it trained the wine makers on 150 different smells.

BOSKER: She rounded up all these things that most of us have in our homes and are familiar with, everything from apple to pear to Band-Aids, and basically put them in front of these students to smell, so that they could come up with some alphabet of smells that they could use to communicate with each other when they made wine. And that ended up really growing from there. She published on this and it ended up being a lexicon not only used by winemakers but obviously by wine drinkers and critics and writers. And it’s become this kind of international language to help people communicate the flavors in a glass of wine.

TWILLEY: Ann’s vegetables changed the world of wine. But there’s a new language of tasting notes taking over now.

GRABER: Based on science.

BOSKER: You know, I think we’ve entered an era where we want to quantify every part of our life including our hedonism, and that has given rise to tasting notes that are really based off of the chemical content of the wine. So, for example, when I was in my tasting groups with sommeliers, instead of saying that a Cabernet smells like green bell pepper they would say that has notes of pyrazines.

GRABER: That’s right—the chemical name that sommeliers are now using to describe that signature green bell pepper note in Cabernet Sauvignon—that is actually the same chemical in real green bell peppers.

BOSKER: That actually tells us two things. One is that we’re obsessed with science and that’s shaping our tasting notes. But it also tells us that the traditional tasting notes are not total bullshit. You know, when we say that a wine has notes of green bell pepper, it kind of does! Because it has the same chemical compound that’s present in the vegetable.

TWILLEY: So some part of this wine appreciation stuff is not B.S. But how about the idea that you can train yourself to appreciate and pick out those notes? Is that legit?

GRABER: There’s some conflicting research here.

BOSKER: The caveat is that there seems to be a cap on the number of different smells in the mixture that humans can detect. No matter how much you study or try, you can probably only pick out like three or four really. Which seems to suggest that most of wine is bullshit.

TWILLEY: So when a sommelier describes a wine as seven different fruits and vegetables… well, some of that must be B.S. Because we can only really separate out three or four smells. Then there’s a study done at the University of Bordeaux. A group of students were asked to describe the smell of two wines, a white and a red. For the white, they used words like grapefruit and lychee. For the red, they said things like blackberry and prune. Both, as it turns out, were the same white wine, but one had red food coloring in it.

BOSKER: I think that that study certainly does wine experts zero favors. It doesn’t look good for them.

GRABER: There are two reasons, though, that that finding might not be quite as bad as it looks. First, these were students. They hadn’t spent quite as long training themselves on wine. And a second reason they might have failed the wine tasting test…

BOSKER: Is because we tend to trust vision over smell.

TWILLEY: So this is not looking good for the wine experts: there’s a cap on how many smells we can distinguish, and we’re liable to be confused by visual cues.

GRABER: But there is actually science showing that sommeliers can train themselves to be better at tasting wine than the rest of us.

BOSKER: More specifically, you can become better at identifying smells—like, putting a name to them. You can become more sensitive to more subtle smells. You can become better at picking up nuances between smells. So when something is present in big amounts, small amounts, in distinguishing between two smells, so telling something like coriander from clove.

TWILLEY: And all that training, it actually ends up affecting your brain.

BOSKER: So there’s a landmark study that basically found that sommeliers’ brains look very different than novice drinkers brains when they experience wine.

TWILLEY: In 2005, scientists in Italy put seven sommeliers and seven amateurs in a fMRI machine. They gave them a bunch of different things to drink—red, white, and sweet wines, and an odorless glucose solution. And the fMRI allowed the scientists to see what was happening to the flow of blood in their brains—their brain activity, basically—as the subjects drank these different liquids.

GRABER: When the amateurs tasted wine, not much happened in their brains. The images showed just a few pinpoints of light, showing blood flowing and brain activity. But when the sommeliers drank the wine? Their brains went nuts. Their brains lit up all over. The non-experts only lit up in emotional processing, but the experts lit up in cognitive processing, memory, planning, and reasoning. Their training had literally changed the way their brains responded to wine.

BOSKER: And so my hope was to essentially put myself through that same study to understand whether my brain looked like a sommelier’s brain.

TWILLEY: Bianca went to South Korea, to a neuroscience lab.

BOSKER: They stick me in like toast in a toaster. I basically have a little straw in my mouth that this neuroscientist outside the fMRI machine used to squirt in red and white wines. And my job was to basically process these wines, basically to taste them. And he asked me some questions about the wines. And then I came out. And then the question was what had happened to my brain while I was experiencing the flavor of those wines.

TWILLEY: And she aced it. Bianca’s brain lit up like a sommelier brain.

GRABER: And there’s another thing: lying in the fMRI machine, without being able to see a thing, not the color of the wine, the body, nothing, Bianca called the grape, the region, and the year for both a red and a white wine. She completely nailed it.

TWILLEY: So this seems to show that wine expertise is real: you can train yourself to distinguish the taste of tannins and the flavor of Froot Loops or whatever in wine. And that training will change your brain in measurable ways. It will also make your wine taste better—richer, and more exciting. But here’s my question: Is it really worth spending your hard earned on the fancy stuff? Or is cheap wine just as good?

GRABER: First thing to know: the price can actually influence your enjoyment of wine, just by setting up your expectation. Remember that professor in Italy? He also had his students taste two different wines, one they were told was cheaper table wine, and one they thought was a bottle of the good stuff. They called the expensive one “excellent” and “complex” and the cheap one “feeble” and “flat.” Of course, they were the same wine.

BOSKER: First of all, price is a spice. So if we think wine is expensive, studies have shown we’ll think it tastes better.

TWILLEY: More recently, scientists have again used an fMRI machine to repeat these findings. Subjects were served five bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, ranging in price from $5 to $90. They were told the prices as the wine was squirted in their mouths. And their brains’ pleasure centers lit up for the $90 bottle, much more than for the 10 buck bottle. But the scientists were lying. That $90 bottle was the same $10 wine—the exact same wine. The pleasure was in the price.

GRABER: But again, there is some nuance here. Wine experts look for three key aspects of higher end wine: balance, complexity, and finish. One flavor shouldn’t elbow out everything else, it should keep delighting you as you drink it, the flavor should linger. And Bianca says people, even non-experts, they know cheap wines from the better stuff. She had non wine-expert friends over and opened a $40 bottle of Australian Shiraz and an 8 buck bottle of Yellowtail. Her friends could pick out the cheap one quite easily.

TWILLEY: I have drunk plenty of Yellowtail in my time. And I’m not alone. The average price Americans pay for a bottle of wine is just under $10. According to the wine economists Bianca spoke to, that’s just too little to cover some of the basic inputs that go into making a really good wine. A single barrel of French oak? That can cost a thousand bucks. An acre of Napa Valley real estate, where the climate conditions are just right to make wonderful wine—that’s $300,000.

BOSKER: You can think of it as in three big tiers of wine quality. So, you know, bottles up to, say, $20 or so, they’re likely to have been made with some additives. They’ve been cutting a couple of corners in order to make the wine. And those are going to be different from the ones that are, let’s say, $40 to $100 where the inputs have been better. You know, they cost a little bit more because the products used to make them are higher quality and more expensive. And then there’s a price point beyond which the price is less a reflection of the chemicals and quality in that bottle and more reflection of the scarcity of that wine or the brand.

GRABER: At a certain point, an expensive bottle of wine isn’t necessarily dramatically better tasting, but it can still be more of an experience. You know you’re drinking something that very few people can get a hold of. And it also can be an investment. These $500 dollar bottles of wine are collectibles.

TWILLEY: So there is some economic logic to the price of wine. But, actually, there’s an irony when it comes to wine pricing today. Bianca quotes a British wine writer called Jancis Robinson. She points out that, in the twenty first century, the difference in price between the best and worst wines is bigger than it has ever been. Meanwhile the difference in quality is smaller than ever before.

GRABER: Wine used to be not just maybe cheaper and a little rougher, but quite literally bad. Bottles turned into vinegar because they’d been exposed to too much oxygen, or the wine stank of rotten eggs because of too little oxygen. They could have gotten messed up in any number of ways. Not today.

BOSKER: Basically, the new technology that exists for winemaking makes it possible to eliminate a lot of the flaws and faults that used to plague the less expensive bottles of wine. There’s been this technological revolution in the winery. Such that there are now all of these different tools, techniques, and ingredients that winemakers can put into their wines to control everything from the smell and the texture to the color. You name it—I mean, there’s really like a dial that they can crank up and down nearly every attribute. So those include MegaPurple, it’s a grape concentrate that, you know, can solve a multiple multitude of sins from the color, to the tannins, to the sweetness.

TWILLEY: MegaPurple ends up in about 25 million bottles of red each year—Bianca says almost every bottle that’s under 20 bucks uses it, even though no one will admit to it. It’s one of more than 60 additives that can basically fix anything that might be wrong with cheap wine.

GRABER: Apart from how sweet it is, that is—but, actually, the sweetness is on purpose. The people who make cheaper wines are deliberately engineering them to taste good to lots and lots of people, and that means designing them to be sweeter than most of the more expensive wines.

BOSKER: Which makes sense because a lot of us have, you know, been raised on a diet of soft drinks, and pumpkin spice lattes, and things that are sweet.

TWILLEY: Right, those quote bad wines are actually carefully crafted to taste good to lots and lots of people. But what if you want to learn how to appreciate something more complex? All the wine appreciation stuff—it is intimidating. Both in terms of price and in terms of knowing where to start. I mean, I feel pretty lost in front of most wine lists, and I know I am not alone there.

GRABER: Here’s where a sommelier can help.

BOSKER: My advice? One of the most striking things I found was the more that people know about wine, the less specific they are with the sommelier. What sommeliers often do when they go out to eat is they know that the sommelier at the restaurant knows that wine list better than they ever could. And so they put themselves in their hands and they give them two pieces of information. One, how much they want to spend. You should not be nervous in discussing this. You can also give a range under 100 or something like that, or you know under 50 or whatever.

GRABER: This is for a bottle, of course, not a glass.

BOSKER: And, secondly, what do I feel like drinking.

TWILLEY: If you know about wine, you can get as specific as you like here.

BOSKER: But if you don’t know a lot about wine it’s just fine to say that you tend to like Sauvignon Blanc or you tend to like Cabernet Sauvignon. And from there the sommelier can direct you to something similar that will suit your taste and budget. It’s really nothing to be scared of.

GRABER: Basically, Bianca has three pieces of advice. First, trust your sommelier. And be honest with them about how much you want to spend. And then finally tell them about other wines you’ve liked, similar to ones you’re in the mood for that evening. And then there’s my favorite strategy, personally—

BOSKER: When in doubt, choose the most esoteric thing on the list that you’ve never heard of. Because, in general, if there’s some really weird offbeat wine there, it’s there because the sommelier loves it. It’s there not because it’s easy to sell because it’s certainly not. It’s often there because there’s really something special about it that earned it a place, even though it’s sort of a headache to get into people’s mouths. So to take a risk.

MICHAEL IRELAND: Have you guys looked at the list or no?

GRABER: No. We’ve no idea.

TWILLEY: We’re tasting blind.

TWILLEY: All this talking with Bianca made us thirsty. So we decided—and remember Cynthia and I are total novices, apart from obviously the gallons of wine we’ve drunk in our lives—we decided to see whether we could overcome our fears and do this blind tasting business.

GRABER: I thought this sounded like a great idea, and I was also totally sure I’d get nothing right. We were together in San Francisco to perform with Pop-Up Magazine, and we decided to head over to a wine bar.

IRELAND: So my name is Michael Ireland, I am co-owner and wine director of High Treason Wine Bar in Inner Richmond, San Francisco, California. What we have here, we have two wines that are of similar varietal makeup at radically different price points. And so the idea is to see if you can tell which one is more expensive or less expensive.

GRABER: I’m a little nervous.

TWILLEY: I’m very nervous.


TWILLEY: Wine number one down the hatch.

GRABER: OK. So that was delicious.

TWILLEY: Right. Number two. I’m going to go on the smell alone, this is the expensive one.

GRABER: That’s what I was thinking too.


TWILLEY: Hmm. Actually I was more confident on the smell than I am on the taste.

TWILLEY: He’s laughing.

GRABER: I’m having the same reaction as you are.

GRABER: We went back and forth for a while, second guessing ourselves. Nicky finally decided that the second was more expensive. I had originally thought so too, based on the smell, but the smoothness of the first one made me go back on my original hypothesis.

TWILLEY: Can you put us out of our misery?

GRABER: Can you tell us?

TWILLEY: Michael told us what the wines were—both cabernet-based, one a blend and one from a single vineyard in Napa. One cost less than $15 a bottle, he said, and the other cost about $40.

GRABER: And which one is the more expensive one?

IRELAND: The Raffael from Napa for sure. For sure.

TWILLEY: So the one on the right is the more expensive one. Yeah!

IRELAND: And the one to the left is actually out of a keg. It’s on tap.

TWILLEY: Oh yeah! I was totally right!

GRABER: Okay, okay, you won round one. To be fair, Michael loved both the expensive wine and the kegged wine. I happened to love the cheaper one. My point here: just because a wine is expensive doesn’t mean that you will like it better. I genuinely preferred the less expensive wine.

TWILLEY: Time for the next test: more of a traditional blind tasting.

IRELAND: So we have three red red wines, all classic varietals from classic regions. So there’s no curveballs here. It’s all—these are all super classic.

TWILLEY: Do you want us to name the grape?

IRELAND: I’d love it if you’d do the grape and the region.

GRABER: Oh, would you now?

IRELAND: The grape and the region, yeah, would be awesome. Start from the visual aspect of the wine.

GRABER: They’re all really pretty. They look great. OK. The one on the left is the lightest, the clearest, which I feel like kind of in general is a pinot noir thing.

GRABER: And then we took a deep sniff of the wine.

TWILLEY: This is embarrassing but it feels very European. It feels more like an Italian.

IRELAND: When you’re trying to ascertain if it’s new world versus old world, there’s a couple things you can look at, right? One, ask yourself the question: who’s driving the boat, is it fruit or is it earth? Fruit: typically a little more new world, okay? We just get more sunshine, more ripeness, more fruit. Earth would then be European. Then when we taste the wine, look at the structure of the wine, okay? How’s the alcohol level? How’s the acid? You know, does it make your mouth water a lot? If so, it comes from what? Less ripe grapes.

GRABER: So that’s European.


TWILLEY: I said it was European.

IRELAND: Yeah, I think you’re right. Which is cheating because I know what the wine is.

GRABER: You think she’s right, do you?

IRELAND: I’ll give you another hint. These are all three from the same country.

TWILLEY: I think these are all French. I feel really comfortable saying that.

GRABER: I totally do too. These are definitely all French.

TWILLEY: This got a little painful because, really, we just started saying the names of grapes we’d heard of. But we did finally guess, even though I felt like a complete idiot saying my guess out loud. I said pinot noir, Cynthia said gamay.

GRABER: Once again, I second guessed myself. My original guess, based on the color, was pinot noir. I have to pay attention to my wine instincts here. Because, of course, Nicky was right. Again.

TWILLEY: And both of us got the region wrong. Unsurprisingly. But onwards to glass number two. Which tasted completely different.

GRABER: I’m going to guess grenache. I’m glad you’re getting it.

IRELAND: It’s not a bad guess.

GRABER: Wait, can you say that again?

IRELAND: It’s not a bad guess.

GRABER: I just wanted to get it on tape. I need something here.

GRABER: The second wine was a gamay. Michael gave me some credit here because grenache, it was a good guess because it’s actually a really similar grape. And, depending on the production, they can make really similar wines. So, half a point?

TWILLEY: Sure whatever you need for your ego not to be completely crushed, Cynthia. So we’ve had a pinot noir from Burgundy, a gamay from Beaujolais. Time for number three.

TWILLEY: All right. This is like pure no fruit on the nose.

GRABER: Yeah it’s really, it’s really earthy.

TWILLEY: Is it a Cab Franc?


GRABER: Wow, look at you. You going for your sommelier?

IRELAND: Where in France do we find Cabernet Franc?

GRABER: I have no idea.

TWILLEY: Yeah, I haven’t studied for the theory part.

TWILLEY: Guys, I’m totally giving up this podcasting thing. Court of Master Sommelier exam here I come. Clearly I was born to do this. I mean, just raw, natural talent.

GRABER: Nicky, I am going to leave the master sommelier thing to you. I loved being able to really focus on the difference in the grapes—Michael said if we used those three glasses as benchmarks, we’d always be able to recognize pinot noir, gamay, and cabernet franc. But when you get down to all the crazy details Bianca needed to learn? I have no patience. And clearly not Nicky’s raw talent. Or copious wine consumption.

TWILLEY: So this was fun. And the wine was delicious. And everyone should go to High Treason in San Francisco because it’s the best and Michael is wonderful, and they have so many delicious wines by the glass. Plus the smoked mussels we had as a palate cleanser—seriously good.

GRABER: But you can also give this a try at home. Think of it as some homework, perhaps more fun than the school kind. Buy a few different bottles of wine made from different grapes or from the same grape but different regions, put the bottles in brown paper bags, have someone move them around so you don’t know which one is where. Gather some friends together, sip some wine. You don’t have to guess which is which—just, what do you taste? Can you pick out any differences?

TWILLEY: I found it kind of addictive actually. That kind of detective work, picking up clues from the color and how viscous the wine was and its aroma—it was fun.

GRABER: But before you all get super buzzed, back to Bianca’s book, Cork Dork, and her experience learning to be a sommelier. First, we’re not going to reveal the ending, whether she passed the exam or not. You have to read the book to find out…

TWILLEY: And you should read the book, because, as you may have guessed by now, it is totally fascinating but also very funny and charming.

GRABER: Overall, Bianca told us that this crazy rabbit hole she fell into—it made her appreciate wine on an entirely new level.

BOSKER: It used to be I would smell a glass of wine, and on a good day, I could tell you it was wine, but really I got very little out of the experience. After all of this, you know, when I smell a glass of wine now, it tells me a story. It’s pleasurable, and not only on a physical level but really on an emotional and intellectual one as well. I mean, I find that I can travel through time and space in a glass of wine, which I think is amazing.

TWILLEY: For Bianca, training her nose like this, and really focusing on her senses—that’s something that has transformed her daily, lived experience too. Wine or no wine.

BOSKER: And for me what was a particularly vivid example of that was when I was actually driving back from meeting with Ann Noble at her home. And I had been with her and one of her students who’s blind and he had described how one of his greatest pleasures was driving on the highway with the windows down and taking in the olfactory landscape. And I hadn’t really thought about that or ever doing it. So I actually took his advice. And when I drove home that day from Davis back to San Francisco, I kept the windows down. And I was just shocked at the way that I could smell the landscape changing. As it got later in the evening, I started—went from sort of smelling the woods and the forest and the hay as I was in these more rural areas, to starting to smell dinners being made, to eventually really smelling what I can only describe as the smell of the city as I crossed over the bridge into San Francisco. And it was just this invisible part of the world that has so much richness and information that I, at least, you know, had spent my whole life basically ignoring.


TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to 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. The book comes out at the end of March, and you can pre-order it on our website. It’s a great gift for any wine-lover in your life, or for anyone who wonders what the whole wine thing is all about.

GRABER: Thanks also to Michael Ireland, the co-owner and wine director at the bar High Treason in San Francisco. Michael was so generous with his time and expertise, and we absolutely loved the wines. And the food.

TWILLEY: Don’t forget, if you enjoy Gastropod, you can help support the show on our Patreon page, or at We’ve got a lot of new Patreon supporters lately—thanks to all of you! And there are other ways to support the show if you can’t do so financially—write us a review over at iTunes. It helps new listeners find us. And finally, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at gastropodcast.

GRABER: In two weeks, we’ll be back with an episode about how our sense of taste works, and how we can trick it. Til next time!