Cork Dork: Inside the Weird World of Wine Appreciation

“There’s the faintest soupçon of asparagus and just a flutter of Edam cheese,” says Paul Giamatti in the movie Sideways. Believe it or not, he's describing pinot noir, not quiche. The world of sommeliers, wine lists, and tasting notes is filled with this kind of language, prices seemingly rising in step with the number of bizarre adjectives. It's tempting to dismiss the whole thing as B.S., but listen in: this episode, author Bianca Bosker takes us along on her journey into the history and science behind blind tasting, wine flavor wheels, and the craft of the sommelier. You'll never feel lost in front of a wine list again.

"Cork dork" is the name given to the most obsessive sommeliers: the kind of oenophiles who lick rocks to train their palate, who refer to 10am tasting sessions as "tongue cardio," and who can name not only the grape and region in which any given wine was produced but also tell you the weather during the year it was grown. Cork Dork is also the name of Bianca Bosker's new book, available in stores on March 28. It follows her transformation from wine novice to pro, as well as diving deep into the neuroscience of smell training, the economics of wine pricing, and the history of the sommelier, from Roman sex slave to today's cellar rats.

Along the way, Bosker tells the story behind the invention of the wine flavor wheel in 1974, and introduces us to the mysterious additive MegaPurple, a grape concentrate that covers a multitude of flaws in cheap wine and that shows up, unadvertised, in about 25 million bottles of red each year. We learn the correct sound for cork release—no louder than a nun's fart—and the right way to pour, but also the very real sensory pleasure that lies beneath the pretentious language of contemporary wine appreciation. If you've ever wondered why otherwise rational people spend significant amounts of time and money on something that eventually becomes expensive pee, this is the episode for you!

Episode Notes

Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste

Award-winning journalist Bianca Bosker's first book is fascinating, funny, and deeply enjoyable: you'll want to pick up a copy for yourself and another for anyone who's ever been curious about wine.

High Treason, San Francisco

Michael Ireland's wine bar in the Inner Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco is casual, comfortable, and serves an amazing list of wines by the glass, making it the perfect venue for our impromptu blind taste test. (The menu of small plates is pretty delicious, too: check out the porcini brown butter popcorn.) Drop by next time you're in town and let Ireland and his team introduce you to your next favorite wine.

Science News

This episode of Gastropod was made possible in part with grant funding from Science News, your source for surprising and important science reporting. This week, learn how cold plasma can put the chill on foodborne pathogens and find hope in a big genetics study that’s blazing the trail back to tasty tomatoes.

Tasting List

In case you're curious, Michael Ireland kindly sent over a list of the wines he poured for us for our blind tasting at High Treason—all of which were very delicious indeed!
Taste Test One
Le P'tit Paysan, "Claret," Santa Clara Valley 2014 (less expensive)
Raphael et Fils, "Estate," Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll, Napa Valley 2012 (more expensive)
Taste Test Two
Domaine Gros Frères et Soeur, Hautes Cotes de Nuits, Burgundy, France 2013 (pinot noir)
Georges Descombes, Morgon, Beaujolais, Burgundy, France 2014 (gamay)
Olga Raffault, "Les Piscasses," Chinon, Loire Valley, France 2011 (cabernet franc)


For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.


  1. You guys should check out the movie ‘Somm’ on Netflix, it’s a documentary about a group of friends going through the Master Sommelier testing, you really get a sense of the passion and obsession this kind of career requires. Plus you get a guy using the fun smell names, my favorite being “cut garden hose”.

    • Adding it to my Netflix queue now! And while I wait, trying to imagine what “cut garden hose” actually smells like…

    • Have you seen “SOUR GRAPES?” A less flattering view into the world of wine connoisseurship, but a very compelling, whodunit documentary about Rudy Kurniawan’s massive wine scam.

  2. I once attended a convention at which the evening meal was hosted at a major wine establishment. (The convention was not wine-related.) There was an educational area where you could smell some of the classic wine odours and learn their names. I recorded the ones that appealed to my mood that evening, and I really wanted to order a glass that evening by showing that list to the person behind the counter and asking them to make a selection based on it.

    But I didn’t. I could have, but the queues were so *enormous* that evening that I felt it would be selfish to take any longer over ordering a wine than was strictly necessary. So I let someone else order for the table and missed out on that opportunity.

    Don’t judge me too harshly.

    Incidentally, while listening to this podcast I decided to pour a glass of wine, selected on the basis that it’s what’s open in the fridge. It’s a 2011 Shiraz that, according to the label, “is filled with fresh ripe berry fruit characteristics balanced by soft toasty oak”.

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