Cork Dork, Bianca Bosker

9 Aug 2018

When we opened Somerset back in '86 we were completely BYO. The Liquor Licensing laws didn't change until 1989 I think it was, and back in those days you were either licensed or you were BYO. We remained BYO only, even after the new laws come into effect, because our efforts to go licensed were stymied by requirements that the Council tagged onto our application around various building alterations that were beyond what we could afford at the time.

We had allowed complete BYO - wine, beer and spirits in the early days. An concept that was effectively killed one preChristmas period when we belatedly realised that our appeal to some of the work do's we were getting  and who were horrible to deal with, both for us and other customers, had nothing to do with the food we were serving, and rather everything to do with the fact they could arrive with huge chiller bins of booze bought cheaply elsewhere at wholesalers, and then commence to use our premise basically as a facility to get pissed. It wasn't fun, and it wasn't what we wanted to become.

So we stopped all other BYO except for wine - which meant for a period people couldn't drink beer or spirits at the restaurant, and that riled a few.

We were very aware though, that a bit like espresso machines, which were very much coming into fashion back then, a license was a fact of life who's time had arrived, and as soon as we were able we moved to get the license. That first wine list was very small - 1 bubbly, 3 white wines, 3 red I think from memory, and I was able to claim a tiny fraction of shelf space in Ricks then very small coolstore to store the wines.

The predominant amount of our business continued to be BYO - but gradually over time we instigated changes, partly fuelled by business practicalities, and partly because of where our own interests started heading. I ended up with my own wine dedicated chiller - a marvellous extension of space that I very rapidly filled up!

The more money we invested in wine and drinks the more we sold, and growth was rapid, although we did retain the BYO aspect of the business even though our business advisors were strongly recommending we didn't. I felt it was important to offer people choices and because people were used to bringing their own wine, to effectivley stop them doing so would generate too much negativetly.

That is a logic I have maintained steadfastly 20 years on, even in the face of some challenging behaviour on the behalf of customers who go out of their way in what can be very unpleasant manner to save a few dollars on their evening. It's a logic I totally fail to understand. But that is because I always tailor our personal dining out experiences to how flush I'm feeling at the time. If cheap and cheerful is where we're at, then  that is the style of restaurant we will choose to go too. But if we've decided to go somewhere more formal, then I am going to relax and enjoy the experience, and that includes analysing and choosing from the winelist that the restaurant has put together. I learn new things all the time, from what others are doing.

But that isn't an approach that others always use when they come to us, and sometimes we do find it taxing, especially given the time and effort and expense that goes into sourcing the now considerably more extensive winelist that we provide to all customers. But one lesson you learn very early on in the hospitality business, is that everyone is different! And what is happening naturally over time, is the very concept of BYO is fading, and we note especially amongst our younger clientele that it simply doesn't occur to them to turn up at the door with a bottle of wine tucked under their arm. So the percentage of BYO diminishes with every trading year, and will I suspect, continue to do so.

I have been on a massive learning curve with wine in the time we have been in business, A curve reflected in the exponential growth of the NZ wine industry  over that same period and the range we now have available to choose from, and in addition, the opportunity to travel overseas to Old World wine countries and observe and taste and learn from their wine history. I love everything about that process, and have great pleasure in expressing what we are discovering on our winelist. That leads to many, many discussions with customers who are equally passionate about wine, and is a huge part of our business.

In fact my biggest limitation these days is one I place firmly on myself, and that is that I won't allow the wine list to grow any bigger than it currently is. I won't let myself  add a wine unless I take one off, because these massive lists - novels really - that we've encountered in so many overseas restaurants are just too over the top for our requirements. And it is very easy with wine, as anyone who is establishing even a home cellar, would be acutely aware, for the kind of dollars tied up in stock, to grow very quickly. Shockingly so!! We have other things we need to spend money on!

So wine and drinks are a big part of our present day business, and a subject matter around which I continue to learn all the time. Just now I've flicked through the latest edition of a trade magazine Drinks, and as a result have made a couple of notes of things I want to follow up - a NZ based non - alcholic gin; a company in Marlborough making bitters; a collaboration between Whittakers chocolate and Garage Project with a beer - all avenues I'll explore and possibly list, simply because I enjoy supporting NZ based initiatives, because we need a range of non- alcholic drinks ( and I have a few cartons of Yuzu tonic, sitting in the chiller that I want to match with something), and because craft beer afficionado's are always looking for something new.....

All of which is by way of background to this book - Cork Dork - a wine fuelled journey into the art of the sommelier, and the science of taste. A book I started reading expecting to be somewhat irritated by, because as much as I love the wine industry, I do find that some of the affiliated pretension can be exceedingly wearying. There is many a wine tasting we have attended over the years, where I have been forced to listen to the most ridiculous over the top and wildly varying descriptions of wine. And the very name sommelier makes me twitchy because of it's french connotations and associations.

The author is a journalist - who embarked on the  immense challenge of passing  a Master Sommelier  exam ( an American version of the English based Master of Wine accreditation) to see if someone, with no previous experience in wine could achieve it. To do so she works in top New York restaurants,revealing fascinating insights into the wine programmes in some of those places - and making the amount I have invested in our cellar seem distinctly paltry by comparison!! - along with other wine events and sommelier tasting groups. She also flies around the world to interview top scientists in the fields of taste, to see how recent advances in the ability to image the brain has advanced what we know about how we taste. And then she studies the  concepts of traditional notions of wine making which is about terroir and allowing nature to take its course  - wine crafted by artists - alongside the most modern winemaking techniques, when batches of grape juice are tweaked in a laboratory to produce exactly the predetermined flavour profile and alchol content determined as desirable by tasting panels of amateur drinkers. Polar opposite worlds.

Can the wine produced by those different techniques by fairly judged as different - or is expensive wine a con. A clever marketing ploy to seperate wealthy people from their money, while convincing them that they are showing fabulous taste in being able to afford bottles of legendary French Grand Cru. It's a private club that very few of us can join, because the prices per bottle  are so exhorbitant. Does the taste of those wines warrant the price tag?

You could say this entire book is a discussion around this question. Which by implication is far from simple because of the amount of value judgement that needs to be attached to it.

Her journey of learning is fascinating - both in terms of her appreciation of what makes wine special, but equally in her increased understanding of how we, as a species taste, and are influenced by past experiences and a whole host of other non consious constructs. 

She's witty, and never takes herself too seriously, whilst doing some pretty serious research. I've been recommending the book to any of my favourite people attached to the wine industry that I've come into contact with recently, in the hope that they'll enjoy it as much as I did.

I noted wryly recently that the NZ chapter of Master of Sommeliers is notifyling people that places are available for those who want to enter this years competition. Would I be tempted to challenge myself? Not even remotely. I see no need to put myself through such an intensely pressure cooker process of learning ( and retaining!) all sorts of escoteric bits of information about the world of wine beyond and above what I already have accumulated and  needing to pass a series of practical and theory exams, all to prove what exactly?  Really don't need a certificate for the wall.

Maybe for those looking for employment in the competitive world of serious restaurants in  the worlds top cities, then an MW or Master Sommelier after their name can make them stand out from other applicants, but for me in my own little corner of the world, I am comfortable accumulating knowledge on an ad hoc basis, without the need to prove anything to anyone. Kind of prefer it that way....





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