Getting Really Good at Wine Tasting Can Help You Learn How to Trust Yourself

Photo: Instants/Getty Images

Bianca Bosker has placed a small piece of paper napkin in her mouth, and is chewing thoughtfully. She tears off another piece and hands it to my friend Marie. “Just, like, gnaw on it for a bit,” Bosker instructs. Marie looks dubiously at the napkin, and then back at Bosker. “Put it in your mouth!” Bosker orders. “Do you think we’re doing this halfway?”

Bosker is the author of the new book Cork Dork, a chronicle of the time she quit her job — she was formerly the executive tech editor at the Huffington Post — in order to pursue a sommelier certification. This evening, Bosker is crashing my wine club, a monthly gathering some friends and I started last year to try and teach ourselves to identify why we liked the wine we liked. About half of the group were already pretty confident tasters, the types who are able to identify discrete scents in every glass: lemongrass, stone fruit, thyme, pepper. And then there is my half of the club, we who dutifully stick our noses in our glasses only to smell nothing much at all. (“I’m getting … wine?” I joke to Patty, another member of the remedial portion of the group. “I’m getting drunk,” she deadpans.) But Bosker was just like us dummies once. Maybe she can give us some pointers.

Cork Dork has been praised for being a fun, gossipy, entertaining read about the wine industry in New York and beyond, and it is all of those things. But it’s also a deeply useful guide to honing your own sense of taste. “I think we settle for other people’s descriptions, instead of tasting things and deciding for ourselves,” she said. “For me, it started with wine, but it’s extended to art, and reading.” Love what you love, Bosker urges — just be sure you know why you love it, and don’t confuse that with someone else’s opinion.

This is more difficult than it sounds. It requires, for instance, that you become unafraid of risking embarrassment; hence, the gnawed-on paper napkin. Bosker is trying to demonstrate the hard-to-describe physical sensation of tasting tannin, a naturally occurring chemical found in grape skins, seeds, and stems. “So tannins are that really drying, astringent feeling,” she explains. To Marie, who has now obeyed the order to chew on the napkin, she asks, “Do you feel like your mouth is drying a little?” Marie says it is indeed. Red wines tend to be higher in tannin; the red hue comes from longer exposure to the grape skins, which also means longer exposure to tannins. High-tannin wine has a way of sucking the moisture right out of your mouth, like the saliva suction tool at the dentist. “Think of tannin as more of a texture than a taste,” Bosker advises.

Who knew there was a word to describe the feeling of “Huh, my mouth feels kinda dry now”? Plenty of you surely did already, but if that was new to you, at least know that you are not alone. In her book, Bosker argues that one of the major reasons wine can seem so mystifying is that most of us don’t have the words to describe what we’re tasting. “We never did this when we were little,” Bosker said. We teach children language that captures at least three of the five senses: stop signs are red (sight), stovetops are hot (touch), sirens are loud (hearing). Our descriptive words for smell — and its close cousin, taste — are pitiful by comparison. How, for instance, would you describe what cinnamon smells like? What does it taste like?

Scientists once thought that smell was a skill humans lost as we evolved, but newer studies suggest that’s not exactly true. Bosker cites research suggesting that humans are better than a surprisingly wide range of animals — even, in a handful of cases, dogs — at picking up on low concentrations of odors. Maybe it’s not that we’re bad smellers; maybe it’s more that we quite literally don’t know what we’re talking about. Or, more accurately, we English speakers don’t know what we’re talking about. In a fascinating 2015 study, researchers pitted English speakers against a hunter-gatherer tribe on the Malay peninsula, asking both groups to describe certain smells. The hunter-gatherers answered quickly, each person taking around two seconds on average; their language, called Jahai, contains many words that are specifically used for describing scents. The English speakers, in contrast, flailed around, taking 13 seconds on average to answer, and the answers they did eventually arrive at were underwhelming. One study volunteer hemmed and hawed over the smell of cinnamon, giving the researchers this stream-of-consciousness gold, as the lead study author told New Scientist: “I don’t know how to say it … I can’t get the word … [It’s] like that chewing gum smell.” Finally, the big aha moment: It’s like Big Red gum!

Bosker delivers this chewing-gum punch line as she’s preparing a blind tasting for our group; we’re going to see if we can differentiate between old- and new-world wines of the same varietal. She explains that acquiring wine expertise is a lot like learning a new language. “If you don’t speak a language, it’s just sounds, right?” she says. “And once you actually learn to associate meaning to those sounds, they can tell you a poem. They can tell you a story.” Likewise, one of the first steps toward gaining wine expertise is building a bigger wine-related vocabulary.

What this means in practice is being a big weirdo who smells anything you can get your nose near: produce like grapefruit or honeydew in the grocery store, or herbs and spices like thyme or cardamom in your kitchen cabinet. (Early on in the book, Bosker meets a sommelier who encourages her to start licking rocks.) The point is to then start associating those smells and tastes with those words, so you have names at the ready when they show up again in your wine glass. And like learning a language, or anything else, the best way to learn is often by getting things totally wrong. “The way you get better is you have to take a guess, and then use that feedback,” Bosker said. “Think it through, and then stake a claim.”

And yet isn’t there the tiniest chance that all of this is bullshit? Consider, for instance, a recent study in which experimenters gave experts two glasses of wine — a white and a red — and asked them to describe the scents they were getting. For the whites, they used typical words like floral, apple, and grapefruit; the reds, in turn, got classic red-descriptor words, like raspberry or prune. The catch: Each glass held the same white wine, only one was dyed red. Other studies have suggested that wine experts are fooled by the mere suggestion of prestige, believing that a humble table wine is of higher quality if they’re told what they’re getting is something fancy and expensive. To Bosker, findings like these are simply another reminder to trust your own taste, and ignore everything else. “Even being aware of those influences helps,” she says.

In order to blind-taste skillfully enough to earn a sommelier certification, “you have to have so much confidence in your own felt experience of the world,” she says. “You have to be like, I’m not going to be biased by price. I’m not going to be biased by the descriptions. I’m not going to be biased by what I think you might have brought.” Instead, you have to learn to listen to your own judgment. It’s a self-assuredness that’s spilled over into other parts of her life: art, literature, food. “For me, learning to blind-taste was an experience that made me feel like I could be more true to my own perceptions in everything,” she said.

She pauses. “Okay. This is kind of embarrassing. But, like — I love Domino’s pizza,” she said. “And I’ve never wanted to admit that … But after all of this, I felt like I had, first of all, the language and sensitivity to smells and flavors and taste to be like, I can analyze why this is so delicious.” It was an unexpected consequence of spending so much time developing the discipline to blind-taste. “Because when you’re blind-tasting for real, no one is there to help you,” she said. “And if I can do it there, then, goddammit, I can do it when I’m looking at a piece of art, I can do it when I’m reading a poem, I can do it when I’m listening to music, I can do it, um …” She trails off. “When you’re eating Domino’s pizza,” I supply. “When I’m eating Domino’s pizza! Yeah,” she says. “And no one’s going to shame me, because I can tell you why I like it.”

Bosker spent two hours sometimes coaching, sometimes peer-pressuring us — “Wait, you guys, force yourselves to say the smells you’re getting” — to trust our own judgment. (“I’m getting a kind of … footy-ness,” my friend Shyang says at one point. “Is anyone else getting that?”) After Bosker left, the rest of us refilled our glasses, and then refilled them again, which led us away from the characteristics of cabernet sauvignon and toward drunken demands for mid-2000s musical nostalgia, delivered via Spotify. Eventually, one of the women confessed that she was dying to see Michelle Branch’s comeback show, but had been too embarrassed to ask until now: Would any of us want to go with her? I am not saying this is entirely Bosker’s fault, but I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of us decided in that moment to trust our own taste. We said yes.

Getting Good at Wine Tasting Can Teach You to Trust Yourself