Good news for anyone who’s ever felt like a complete dolt when it comes to tasting wine. If you can’t detect the notes of wild blackberries, turpentine and baby bumblebees that were promised on a wine menu, it’s not just you.
It turns out no one is born with a talent for these things, not even sommeliers. Wine-tasting expertise is something you must ― and can ― develop with practice.
Let’s repeat that: You can become definitively better at tasting wine by drinking more wine. This is sounding good, right?
In her New York Times-bestselling book Cork Dork, author Bianca Bosker takes a high-speed journey from wine plebian to certified sommelier in just a year and a half, tasting her way through an unimaginable number of wines, eventually training her brain to think like a legitimate sommelier.
Bosker, who used to be the executive tech editor at HuffPost, started off like most of us ― barely able to tell the difference between a red and a white without looking. But by the end of her training, she could wear a blindfold and tell you she was drinking a chardonnay from Burgundy with a 2013 vintage.
She passed a sommelier certification test at the end of her journey, but Bosker wanted to prove her expertise in a completely objective way. To do that, she let science prove how her brain had changed.
“A lot of skeptics think sommeliers are at best, delusional, and at worst, frauds,” Bosker told HuffPost. “There are all these studies that show if you give wine experts a glass of white wine and a glass of white wine dyed red, they fall for it.”
“That doesn’t look good for sommeliers. It’s embarrassing,” she continued. “I wanted to know, was there such a thing as wine expertise? What does science tell us wine expertise looks like?”
After her extensive training, she took a spin through an fMRI machine to find out.
“Following the design of two iconic experiments, I took an fMRI test in which they compared my brain to the brain of an amateur wine drinker,” Bosker explained. “And in fact the pattern of activity in my brain was the same as the pattern of activity of these trained sommeliers in previous landmark studies.”
“Having looked at the scans, there’s a visible difference between people who’ve gone through wine training and amateur drinkers in the number of areas of the brain, and the location of the areas of the brain, that light up in response to flavor in wine,” she explains. “Essentially, in the amateur drinker, the brain is just not as active ― it activates the emotional part of the brain. But with training, we respond to that same flavor stimuli by engaging the parts of our brains involved in memory, reasoning and decision making.”
“I think a lot of us have this idea that with taste and smell, we’re either born like bloodhounds or we’re not. And that’s not true.”
It wasn’t easy for Bosker to reach that level of expertise. Under the direction of trained professionals who could provide her with guidance along the way, she deprived herself of things like scented detergent, raw onions, perfume and even coffee to clear the way for an elevated sense of smell and taste. She also tasted more wines over 18 months than most of us will taste in our entire lives ― eroding her tooth enamel in the process. She studied thousands of flashcards, and many days she was drunk by noon, all for the sake of retraining her brain.
“I think a lot of us have this idea that with taste and smell, we’re either born like bloodhounds or we’re not. And that’s not true; it’s more like a muscle that we can improve and strengthen with training,” Bosker said.
But how can those of us who can’t dedicate a year and a half to intensive wine-tasting training learn to develop our sense of smell and taste? Bosker explains that we need to embrace the practice of sense-fulness.
“A really key first step is to develop a library of smells that you know and can recognize,” Bosker says. “One of my mentors gave me homework to label the smells of everything I encountered over the course of the day. When I was in the shower, that meant calling out the olfactory notes of my shampoo. ‘It smells like passion fruit with a little bit of artificial apple.’ When you’re cooking, take a moment to sniff the rosemary before you put it in the pot, and say the word ‘rosemary’ and try to describe it ― even the color that it evokes or the shape that comes to mind. It’s the same process as learning a word. If you have the capacity to learn words, you have the capacity to develop a fantastic sense of smell.”
Even if you’ve never yearned to possess sommelier-level wine expertise, Bosker’s book makes a more general point about the way we experience food and drink. She illuminates an interesting flaw in our culture:
“This whole experience made me aware of this paradox in foodie culture, which is that we settle for secondhand sensing,” Bosker said. “We spend all this time and money and effort chasing down food that tastes better, but we rarely take the time to teach ourselves how to taste well. The result is that we let price or label or flowery menu descriptions substitute for our own self experience.”
“Wine has the ability to take us places, to make us wonder about the world, to help us travel through time. And much of that happens via the smell. But it’ll only happen if you’re primed to pay attention.”
When our parents told us that practice would pay off, we never imagined it would apply to drinking wine. It sounds like we should’ve listened.
Pick up your copy of Cork Dork, published by Penguin Books.