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 Gastropod.com. 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!