Cork Dorks and Big Lunchers: Wine and Words

It’s fascinating how things converge. I’m reading two very different books, written by people who couldn’t be more different, with very different aims and styles, and yet both arrive at a point of agreement – that of the inability of language to express what exactly it is we taste and experience when we drink wine. Needless to say, for me as a wine writer this subject is endlessly fascinating, but I’d guess it’s also of serious interest to anyone who enjoys wine and has ever tried to explain to civilians what it’s all about.

One book is Bianca Bosker’s Cork Dork, her account of how wanting to find out if there was any real content behind wine pros’ descriptions of wines led her from an established career in journalism to one as a sommelier at Paul Grieco’s Terroir, a New York City wine bar/bistro/restaurant.

The other book is Jim Harrison’s A Really Big Lunch, the poet and novelist’s posthumously collected writings on eating, drinking, excess, his love of hunting and fishing, his dislike of Dubya, his dislike of book tours, his fondness for Bandol, and just about anything else that occurred to him.

Both are well written – Bosker’s straightforward, rigorous, disciplined, Harrison’s the opposite: like his novels often lyrical and moving but equally often unorganized and self-indulgent. The style really is the man, and apparently in this case the woman too. (Disclosure: I knew Harrison very briefly, decades ago, when he was a young poet who had not yet published a novel. I liked him. I have never met Bosker, but I suspect I’d like her too.)

Bosker’s book is top-flight journalism, an almost-relentless investigation – by way of her rigorous preparation for the Master Sommelier’s Exam – of the folklore and science of wine knowledge and wine tasting. She trains herself to discern different scents (yes, you can do it, with sufficient devotion) and tastes. She travels to UC Davis to find out what is known scientifically of the different chemicals that contribute to wine aromas and tastes and how we perceive them. She even has a brain scan to find out how a professional’s brain responds to a wine as opposed to the way a civilian’s does.

And all the time she’s doing these things, she’s tasting wines – which doesn’t mean just drinking them. It means paying attention to what is in one’s mouth. Just as any athlete’s training of his or her set of necessary skills makes them better, stronger, and surer, attentive tasting makes one taste more – more elements, more complexly, more intensely. As she puts it at the close of her book, “Feeling something for wine and unleashing your senses begins by just paying attention. And applying yourself with gusto.”

I felt a great personal vindication in reading Cork Dork, because that is exactly what I (and not just I, to be sure) have been preaching for lo! these many decades. You taste only with your own mouth, so pay attention to what’s going on in it. And certainly do so with gusto.

Harrison arrives at that knowledge intuitively, not through methodical training or rigorous investigation but by immersion, by diving into the sheer pleasure of the moment and relishing every scent and taste that a meal and its wines allow. He is as suspicious of wine criticism as he is of art criticism, and very sensitive to the way wine is written about.

There are marvelous semi-comic aspects to the problem. Wine magazines and the wine press in general offer tip sheets like those you buy when entering the grounds of Aqueduct, Churchill Downs, or Santa Anita. . . . The furthest thing from my own aesthetic judgments is the world of numbers, let alone price. I am admittedly an outsider, a mere consumer, but wine simply can’t be graded like a teacher grades term papers.

Need I say, Amen!

Harrison’s treatment of wine is anything but systematic. Most of his comments occur in the course of accounts of meals that range from wonderful to awesomely gluttonous. Probably the best way to give the flavor of his remarks is simply to quote a few:

We drink wine with our entire beings, not just our mouths and gullets. Temperaments vary…. I have it on good authority that both Dionysius and Beethoven drank only red wine while Bill Gates and a hundred thousand proctologists stick to the white.

I’m fairly sure that the numerical system of rating wines was not devised as a marketing tool but that’s what it has become. The truly great Russian writer Dostoevsky insisted, ‘Two plus two is the beginning of death.’ Aesthetic values are decidedly non-digital and can no more be fairly applied to wines than to a thousand or so ‘top’ books a year.

How can humble grapes produce something so delicious with the cooperation of human alchemy? Drinking wine is beyond the vagaries of language and numbers and finds its essence, like sex, totally within the realm of the senses.

Those last two sentences, intellectual and at the same time repudiating the intellect, are pure Harrison, apparently miles away from Bosker’s rigorous intellectual pursuit of the what-ness of wine, but that too led her past the mind and into the intense sensuality of the wine experience. Fascinating, isn’t it?

I think I’ll give Harrison the last word here, because he has a single sentence that sums up a lot of what all we winos feel: “Wine crawls in the window of your life and never leaves.” It’s a good idea to always leave a window open.






11 Responses to “Cork Dorks and Big Lunchers: Wine and Words”

  1. evanbdavis Says:

    I read that Harrison post on Kermit Lynch’s website a while back and was endlessly fascinated. Likely Cork Dork will be a satisfaction to my hungry eyes.

  2. bianca bosker Says:

    Hi Tom,
    I wanted to thank you for your thoughtful (and thought-provoking!) review. I love the juxtaposition of CORK DORK and A REALLY BIG LUNCH–the two compliment each other in surprising ways that you beautifully tease out. Thank you for taking the time to dive into my book, and for sharing it with your readers. Cheers!
    P.S. I suspect I’d like you, too 🙂

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      You’re welcome: I genuinely enjoyed your book. I’m sure we’ll meet on the wine trail sooner or later: The NY wine world is a pretty circumscribed place. And I have a theory that there are really only a few people in Manhattan: Most of those you see are just holograms.

  3. Jennifer Lee Says:

    For a wine civilian (I like that term) this post was especially interesting and a new, different way to look at wine and wine tasting. It’s good to be reminded that “many roads lead to the Tao (in this case, wine)” thank you!

  4. fromthefamilytable Says:

    I have never had a brain scan. Perhaps that explains my complete lack of skill at discerning wines. I do know what I like. I agree with your jaundiced view of rankings (for just about everything). On the other hand, ranking colleges is the only reason US News has survived, so l guess the numbers are good for something.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      I’m surprised that someone with as good a palate as you obviously have should be stymied by wines — or are you just being modest? Certainly, if you know what you like it means that you are tasting some differences, so acquiring wine skills should just be a matter of building from there. Try it and see what happens: That can be your next project, when you finish everything else you’ve got to do.

  5. Jonathan Levine Says:

    I too liked Cork Dork. have not read the other but will now have to.

  6. aileen142 Says:

    This is one of my favorite of all your blog entries; personal but objective, with relevant quotes and a sound comparison of divergent personalities and styles. Ultimate test: made me want to run out and buy both books. Bravo, Tom!

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