How to Drink Wine Like a Sommelier

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.)

  1. Lauren says...

    In one of my favorite wine classes I’ve taken, the sommelier made a point to say – if you don’t like an $80 bottle of wine, it’s not a good bottle of wine. If you like a $6 bottle of wine, it’s a good wine. They also did a wine & fast food pairing class (sounds like bubbles is the winner there)! I love when the experts can humanize wine and make it more accessible! Bianca does a great job of it and can’t wait to read her book!

  2. Jane says...

    I love this “Industry Experts” series, especially this one! This post made me think of Somm, a documentary my husband & I watched about four sommeliers attempting to pass the prestigious Master Sommelier exam, a test with one of the lowest pass rates in the world. It is *such* a fascinating movie and one we bring up around friends wayyyy too much.

  3. olivia says...

    THIS IS SUCH A GREAT BOOK! Super fun and you’ll learn a lot. Bianca is a great storyteller and I learned sooo much about wine

  4. Thanks—I really enjoyed this, and I like how accessible she made appreciating wine sound. I remember that the first time I was ever able to really taste anything in wine was, well, the first time I went wine tasting! Simply having the intention to actually pay attention to what I was drinking was revelatory. And simply trying to talk about what you’re tasting helps to actually taste it.

  5. That last photo is hilarious!! I have her book sitting on my bookshelf — I pre-ordered it and it sounds like the perfect day to start it!! :)

  6. Kerry says...

    Love this! Just ordered on amazon! :)

  7. Elizabeth R says...

    So exciting to know about the all purpose wine glasses! I can’t even imagine how much sommeliers have to memorize! Congratulations on slaying it, Bianca, and thanks for the tips. By the way, is there a bottle of red in the 25 dollar range that is basically universally liked for dinner parties?

  8. Amanda G says...

    The best book about wine I ever read started with a prologue where the author wrote that you should just drink wine that tastes good to you, regardless of price, label, or ratings. I never even made it to the actual chapters! That was all the advice I needed.

    I’ve made my way through a lot of good wines under $20, including the screw top and boxed varieties. My most favorite, that I always have a few bottles of on hand for impromptu dinner parties or any old week night, is about $13 and 100% delicious.

    • Elizabeth R says...

      What is the name of it?!

  9. Katie says...

    Love this! I started work at a brewery this year and have learned so much! It’s fascinating how hops from different countries will provide such different character to a beer, and how 70% of a beer’s flavor comes from the yeast alone! It’s a super trivial field in the grand scheme of things, but I love being able to identify flavors and characteristics of what I’m enjoying, and know how those got there. Booze doesn’t have to just get you drunk! There are so many different beers and wines out there that everyone should be able to find something they love.

  10. Great post! (Love Viognier, and so few people drink it.)

  11. Wait – do you have to give up perfume salt and coffee forever, or just while you’re training?? Because this sounds like an awesome job but I ain’t giving up coffee.

    • Some of the sacrifices that somms make have a scientific basis, some are more superstitious–but the stakes are high enough that it’s worth it. I was giving myself a year to pass an exam that normally recommends a minimum of 3 years in the restaurant industry before you attempt it for the first time, so I was willing to try everything that might help. Don’t worry-giving up coffee isn’t mandatory.

  12. Daniela says...

    I love this so much! Wine is my favorite thing and Cork Dork is now on hold for me at the local libary. :)

    • Thank you, Daniela! I’m thrilled to hear you’re excited to dive in!

  13. It’s so true that sommelier training is like an Olympic sport… I’d highly recommend watching the documentary SOM where you follow three guys studying to pass their sommelier exams. It’s unbelievably difficult. Sommeliers are like wine encyclopedias, literally.

    We had a brilliant time wine tasting in France recently. It’s amazing countryside and such a thrill to actually meet the people making the wine while you taste it!

  14. I’ve got this book on hold at the library and can’t WAIT to read it. I’m super fascinated by the whole world of wine and sommeliers.

    • I’m so happy to hear it! Thank you Michaela! Hope you have a blast joining on my journey…

  15. Penelope says...

    This is so interesting! I have a random question though – is sommelier really pronounced like that when speaking English? I’m French, and we say it more like som-melly-yay (it’s so hard to write out pronounciations!)

    • Joanna (not Goddard) says...

      I was just about to write this! Not like Somalia, the country, but like, well, just the way you wrote it: som-melly-yay!

    • that’s so interesting you say that! I studied French and lived there for a time, and I always thought it was pronounced the French way you described above… but then when I saw the “sum-all-yay” I was like hmm… maybe I’ve been saying it wrong!! I would still lean towards saying it the French way since it is a French word, probably only because I know a little of the language. But I’m sure you could go either way. English speakers tend to adapt foreign words to make them easier to pronounce.

  16. Nina says...

    Is ‘sum-all-YAY’ really considered the correct pronunciation over there?! When in doubt, check Forvo (there are 2 English pronunciations of ‘sommelier’ there too…):

  17. Scarlett says...

    I cracked up over the dog bones.

  18. L says...

    I’m sorry, but saying that actual Champagne and other sparkling white wines using the same method taste “very similar” is just not true… At least not for my palate (and I did a few blind “champagne / non-champagne” blind tastings)! It is true that you can find some really good cheaper options though, and I would have preferred those suggestions. Blanquette de Limoux is a good option for ex :)

  19. Loribeth says...

    This is so helpful! But the dog treats??? I snorted and laughed all at the same time!

  20. What a fun read! I’ve always been intimidated by wine and wine experts, so this is like a breath of fresh air! The blind taste test is my favorite! We do that with our kids to see what apples are the best, cheeses, ginger cookies. We’ll have to keep doing that! Thanks!

  21. Lora says...

    But what was the Stevie Wonder wine?!

  22. Celeste says...

    This was such a fun interview. More wine, please!

  23. Brianna says...

    I don’t drink for myriad reasons, but this was an interesting read. What a cool job to have. Imagine being the person tasked with picking just the right wine for a marriage proposal or some other equally momentous occasion.

  24. George says...

    The piece of wine advice I’ve got is – drink what you like and enjoy (not necessarily what you get recommended). I only really like light-bodied red wine (e.g. Pinot Noir) and have never really enjoyed the fuller reds like Merlot and Shiraz. Whilst those are considered more natural fits with big, chunky flavours like steak, I’m not going to enjoy those just because they ‘match’ food more than wine I know I enjoy the flavour of! Recommendations are just that – if you need a steer. If you know you don’t like a certain flavour, don’t drink it!

  25. Amy says...

    Great post. You’re killing it this week, Cup of Jo.

    So great to see a down-to-earth, smart, woman as a sommelier.

  26. OK, Bianca is charming and I would totally trust her to assist me in a wine choice. I wonder about organic vs non- organic in terms of added sulfites and headaches?

  27. As a woman in the wine industry it’s great to see female Somms and merchants being focused on more, thank you! I encountered so much resistance when I first started my wine career. I look much younger than I am, which whilst a huge bonus in most of life was a hurdle in my career because people just didn’t want to take me seriously, and I had to work harder than my male counterparts to make my voice heard. But it’s an amazing industry to be in, incredibly hard work but also incredible fun. I recommend it for anyone who loves wine and wants to take the leap.

    And yes, fizz with anything! Best food pairing trick and makes any take-out pizza night feel like an occasion.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Rebecca. I appreciate hearing about your experience in wine. I wrote about my own experience of being a woman in what has traditionally been a good-ol-boys club of an industry here (–Id be curious to know what you think and how your experience compares/compared. A cheers to bubbly! ;)

  28. Lizzie says...

    What a fun read! We’re hosting a wine tasting party in a few weeks, complete with a blind tasting challenge, and I’m thinking Cork Dork would make a great prize for the winner.

  29. Kaitlin says...

    I’m so happy to hear from a woman somm! I watched the Somm documentary last year and was so annoyed and discouraged by what seemed to be the very strong male domination of the field. I’d love to hear more from Bianca on her take of the field and whether Somm is an accurate portrayal.

  30. Hannah says...

    I love wine and reading these tips from a professional sommelier was so interesting – especially that part about champagne (mhmm champagne!).

    Just for the record, though, German food is not all about sausages and fried food. It totally differs from region to region – from the fish-heavy northern dishes, to “green sauce” with loads of fresh herbs from Frankfurt, moussels (and, okay, fried potato pancakes) in the west, pickles and stew in the west and ham hock in the south. Also, there’s loads of different wines in Germany – even good red wines! There’s velvety smooth pinot noir to be found. And I know from experience, because my boyfriend has a small vineyard. That said, I love me some dry Riesling.

    • Stephanie says...

      Thank you! I came down here just to say this myself. German food (and wine, often) gets a bad rap, but it is so varied and delicious!

    • Claudi says...

      Thanks Hannah. I live in Hamburg and am still dumbfounded by the misconception of “German Food”. We have so much more to offer than just “Haxe” at Oktoberfest. We might still eat the typical potato here and there, but I hardly eat any meat and still eat German Food everyday. It`s become so versatile and fun. Glad the old days of meat and potatos are long gone.

  31. Ooh this is so timely! Looking for a bottle of wine for a birthday gift and now I’ll be armed with useful info instead of basically picking one because the label is pretty.

  32. Rebecca says...

    Any excuse to drink more Champs!

    • Word.

  33. Katherine says...

    Love this post! And the idea you can develop your palate. I think I would be terrible at blind tasting but maybe I just need to practice more ;)

    • I promise you, it’s just practice :) And the skills that you learn blind tasting are applicable far beyond a glass of wine. I found that developing my sense of taste gave me more confidence in my taste in all things. My blind tasting mindset is something I now bring to just about everything–sniffing the subway, analyzing music, reading a short story…