How to drink wine like a sommelier

A couple years ago, Bianca Bosker became so fascinated with wine and the experts running the cellars at New York’s finest restaurants that she quit her editor job to become one herself. “To taste better is to live better,” she writes in her bestselling new book, Cork Dork, which follows her journey from civilian to sommelier (sum-all-YAY). Here, as part of our month on industry experts, we asked Bianca how to blow your mind with wine…

1. Anyone can become a great taster.
A fellow sommelier told me about a childhood game he’d play with his mom, where she’d hide different cookies and he would find and identify them by smell. Compare that to when I was little: I would sneak three dog bones in my pocket to school for a snack! I kid you not, there was zero difference between a dog bone and a granola bar to my mouth — my mom was horrified when she found out years later. Needless to say, I didn’t start with an incredible palate when I began training as a sommelier, but here I am. Some people have an innate ability to taste flavors intensely, but most of us have average tastebuds that can be cultivated with practice.

2. Wine appreciation starts with your nose.
Smell is a big part of tasting anything — especially wine, which hits your nose first. If you want to improve your sense of taste, try describing some of the smells you encounter throughout the day. Close your eyes in the shower and rattle off a few words about your shampoo’s scent. Or when you’re brushing your teeth, analyze exactly what that mintiness smells like. We aren’t used to talking about smell (or taste) as much as we are about sight, sound or touch; so it helps to develop language around what your nose experiences.

3. Sommelier training is like an Olympic sport.
There’s a reason sommeliers call themselves ‘cork dorks.’ When I plunged into the expert wine world, I had to give up all sensory distractions — perfume, coffee, mouthwash, salt, spicy foods and hot liquids. My mentors licked rocks to train their palates, worked with memory coaches to remember the names of hundreds of vineyards, took dance classes to learn how to move gracefully across a restaurant floor, trained their voices to speak in the most pleasing timbre for their guests, and studied soil types to understand the growing conditions of grapes. Sommeliers aren’t just waiters ferrying bottles from wine cellar to table — they can blow your mind by helping you find that perfect glass.

4. You only need one glass in your cabinet.
Some aficionados and fancy restaurants argue that to drink different wines properly you need seven (or more) types of glasses. But scientific research has shown that — while the shape of a glass does help concentrate the aroma around your nose — you simply need a glass that is wider in the middle and narrower at the top. Period. As long as you aren’t drinking your wine from a red plastic Solo cup, you’re doing well! Restaurants refer to the one wine glass you need as an ‘AP,’ or all-purpose glass. You can get a great one for about $5.

5. You can’t go wrong if your food and wine are from the same country.
One easy rule of thumb is to pick wine from the same country as your meal. After all, there are centuries of dialogue between a national cuisine and its wine. (For example, if you’re a winemaker in Italy, you’ll make sure your wine tastes good with the plates of pasta your family eats for dinner.) A general approach when pairing food and wine is that they should either complement each other or contrast with each other. German food, for example, often involves sausages and fried foods, and it just so happens that the wines from Germany have lots of acid.

6. Now that it’s warm, look to the Rhône.
Right now, I’m craving Viognier, the aromatic white wine from the Rhône valley in Southern France. They’re like summer vacation in a glass — bursting with white flowers and peaches and a little hint of the beach. I would wear one as a perfume if I could! A lovely one to try is Domaine Monier Perreol’s Viognier — this or this, which I have in my fridge right now. If you can’t find those specific ones, look for any Viognier from Condrieu. That region is to the Viognier grape what Paris is to croissants, or what Philly is to cheese steaks.

7. Wine can speak volumes.
When I was younger, the only thing I got from drinking wine was drunk. I used to roll my eyes when people would say wine reminded them of a piece of art or music. But wine really can be that powerful. Now I find the pleasure to be physical, emotional and intellectual. After all, smell and taste are two of the most intimate senses we have. Since becoming a sommelier, I’ve stuck my nose in a glass of wine and felt transported to my home state of Oregon. A Willamette Valley pinot noir gives me the aroma of wet leaves and dirt. And the first time I correctly identified a wine in a ‘blind tasting’ was because a sip called to mind summertime with my husband, driving along the beach with the windows down and Stevie Wonder cranked up on the radio. The wine had something to say, and for the first time I could really hear it.

8. Champagne is the Alka-Seltzer of wines.
I first heard Champagne described this way at a weeklong gathering of wine collectors, involving copious amounts of drinking and eating. When you want to refresh your palate, or wipe away the sins of a big night, go for something revitalizing with lots of bubbles. Plus, Champagne pairs with just about anything, from delicate scallops to Domino’s pizza (I speak from experience) because it’s light yet acidic enough to stand up to rich food. If you love Champagne, don’t let the the price tag of an authentic French bottle deter you. Look for the wonderful sparkling wines from other parts of France, the U.S., Germany or elsewhere that are labeled as using the ‘Champagne method,’ (or ‘méthode traditionnelle’ in French). They use the same types of grapes and taste very similar, but they’re much cheaper.

9. A blind tasting could be your new party trick.
Perhaps the most unusual sommelier tradition is the blind tasting, in which you try to identify a wine by flavor alone. It’s a feat of both physical and mental strength because you have to tune out all your cognitive biases. We all have a tendency to let price, brand or over-the-top descriptions of wines substitute for how they actually taste, so this helps you stay true to your nose and mouth.

How to Drink Wine Like a Sommelier, by Blanca Bosker of Cork Dork

Thank you so much, Bianca!. You can find Bianca’s wonderful book, Cork Dork, here.

P.S. Wine etiquette and a genius trick for choosing wine.

(Photos by Blanca Bosker/Instagram.)