The Sommeliers Who Lick Rocks to Train Their Palates

A history of wine obsessives

A man pours wine into the hand of a woman as she sits in a hot bath in Hakone, Japan.  (Thomas Peter / Reuters)

“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 10 a.m. tasting sessions as “tongue cardio,” and who can name not only the grape and region in which any given wine was produced but can 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 tells the story of 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!

This article appears courtesy of Gastropod.