Richard Hemming MW: the dangers of becoming a cork dork

When you get overexposed to a smell, you no longer notice it. Anyone who’s taken wine exams is familiar with the creeping dread of repeatedly nosing an unidentified wine as the aromas only become more and more elusive. Similarly, it’s easy to become accustomed to the quirks of the wine trade as a whole. It is riddled with absurdity, yet that soon becomes normalised when you immerse yourself in the culture and language of wine. So much so that it takes an outsider to point out its bizarreness – that there’s a funny smell in the room, but you can’t detect it.

There is an entire book which does exactly that for the wine trade, providing an invaluable insight into an outsider’s perspective. In Cork Dork, Bianca Bosker spends a year infiltrating the wine trade in New York, learning its foibles and analysing its machinations. What she experiences can be lessons for us all.

For example, there is a lot of jargon we take for granted. A word such as nosing” sounds comletely weird to normal” people – not to mention the panoply of flavour descriptors that are trotted out, from apricot to zookeeper. (OK, I’ve never heard anyone say a wine smelled like zookeepers, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Maybe that’s the funny smell.)

Bosker also writes about the inconsistency of wine judging (how the same wine can garner different scores from the same person), how the perception of quality is as much to do with cultural expectation as it is with actual taste, and how wine service risks alienating some of the people it is supposed to help.

Most wine professionals would agree that they want more wine to be enjoyed more widely by more people – that’s certainly a common motivation for people when they first join the trade. But because the culture surrounding wine can easily make us blinkered, it’s valuable to be reminded of how people really see us, and how we might to do better jobs by abandoning some of trade’s more absurd habits.

The way wine professionals communicate with each other about wine is rarely useful for beginners. On The Wine Show, presenter Joe Fattorini avoids describing flavour because those descriptors don’t mean that much to most people”. Instead, he prefers discussing texture because it is more relatable. Using appropriate language is an important factor in winning over your customers. Technical jargon might be appropriate for en primeur tasting notes, but much simpler and more evocative terms are better for putting together a pub wine list.

Similarly, the ceremony around wine can be adapted for the situation. The likes of decanting and cork-sniffing will make most people feel uneasy, likewise the discussion of appropriate stemware and exact serving temperatures.

Preserving the mystique and complexity of wine is important for those who actually want it, but for most people wine is a simple pleasure. Understanding different expectations is vital to making people comfortable, and potentially encouraging them to learn more. 

So the next time you’re talking to someone about wine, ask yourself: What’s that smell?”

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