Learning From Sommeliers

Learning on one’s own is tough. The pandemic is an outstanding reminder that we need guidance, practice, encouragement and criticism to make real gains when we want to learn and grow. Most go only so far when working solo, especially when siloed on a screen. For the academically inclined, it’s further validation of Vygotsky’s zones of proximal development, which conceptualizes what a learner cannot do, what can be done with help (scaffolding), and what a successful learner can do alone.

What does this have to do with asking for a wine recommendation when dining at a good restaurant? Quite a bit, as I discovered in a wickedly funny book about the quest of a journalist and amateur drinker to become an elite sommelier. Distinct from waiters, sommeliers are the wine-snob professionals who come by the table at fancy restaurants to suggest this or that wine to enjoy with your meal. And I picked up the book simply because of a recommendation that it was humorous.

Bianca Bosker, a journalist who by chance learned about a competition for the world’s best sommelier, is a fantastic writer. She’s also, as she cheerfully admits, competitive, obsessive, and a type-A neurotic. In her marvelous book Cork Dork she walks us through her development from occasional wine drinker to becoming a certified sommelier. It is a fascinating quest.

The book is a quick-witted exploration of wine, taste, and how to listen to one’s senses. Turning to experts, Bosker researches the science of taste and smell. Odor, we learn, is an extremely important part of taste. She secures a job in a restaurant, ferrying bottles of wines, learning about the field and talking with practicing sommeliers. That first spot leads to other drinking jobs, more opportunities in the wine world. She makes friends, goes to wine festivals, wine tastings, and begins to reshape her life to gain a better sense of taste. Serious sommeliers often limit what the eat and drink to sharpen their sense of taste. Soaps, perfumes, shampoos and other odoriferous parts of everyday life are curtailed or controlled. Bosker adopts the lifestyle as she drinks, tastes, drinks, tastes, and drinks some more, becoming increasingly obsessed. It is hard work and calls for time and attention. Humor, often self-deprecating, seasons her obsession as she takes us alongside her.

Cork Dork offers more than participatory journalism and a first-person account of learning how to identify and understand wines. Bosker’s text skillfully moves between personal observation, personal experience, the direct observation of others who have expertise, and more abstract history and science. Becoming a master sommelier cannot be accomplished by practice and taste alone. There is much learning from others, in the field and on one’s own. At the very top, sommeliers study how to pour a wine, the impact of the shape of the glass, what different vineyards do with different grapes in different seasons, and much more. Our senses do not function in isolation. They are affected by many factors: environment, mood, psychology, other senses – the list is endless. That means that true expertise in taste calls for a special kind of focus, practice and deep commitment.

Reading Cork Dork was thoroughly enjoyable. It was only at the end of the book, as Bosker reflects on the results of her brain fMRI and her journey, that I appreciated how much of the book was truly about learning. It is a story of how one smart and committed person learns and grows. Bosker’s trajectory illustrates how learning an happen in many places and in different ways. Further, what ring true across the board, classroom and wine bar included, are the wider benefits of learning. There are unintended gifts. Deep learning can give us more than we anticipate, changing who we are. As Bosker obtained the skills of a sommelier, she noticed that she gained confidence, appreciation of beauty in unexpected places, heightened awareness of all senses – not just wine tastings – and a significantly greater sense of attention.

That’s quite a benefit.

Please join me in raising a toast to Bianca Bosker for Cork Dork – a good read with any meal and a fine story about learning.

David Potash

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