Fact-checking & ‘Cork Dork’

8 April 2017

This is not an essay reviewing Bianca Bosker’s Cork Dork (although I read it last week). It doesn’t actually fact-check Cork Dork. It’s not even really about the New York Times op-ed, “Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine”, which is excerpted/repurposed from the book’s seventh chapter, “The Quality Control”, and has occasioned a lot of consternation, thought, and response from people who care about wine. This is because the op-ed is, to put it mildly, not very good, and also bad.

What I want to do instead is talk about something a little to one side of the larger questions being grappled with by the rest of the wine internet, something near and dear to my withered heart: fact-checking.

One of the big potential virtues of a book by a journalist & writer who is willing to quit their day job and spend a bunch of time immersing themselves in (to be clear, mostly a very specific, New York wine-service professional version of) the wine world is that the result will be that rare combination of industry knowledge & outsider research, something more granular & textured than the usual hey-don’t-be-intimidated-by-wine-here’s-five-rules book but less insider baseball-y than an importer’s memoir.

And indeed, there’s something to be said for, you know, reporting. Most people have a pretty dim sense of wine additives and manipulation, and actually gaining entrance to one of the large companies that pumps out the sort of industrial grape beverages that control the majority of the market, going to a trade show for those products, etc is effective & important. Thinking about where the grapes come from and looking at herbicide runoff and water use would have been a good step, too.

Reviews of Cork Dork, which is hitting bestseller lists & is worth talking about because it will become a conversational entry point for the people I serve wine to at night, are going to invariably use the phrase “deeply researched”. The Times book review at one point calls it a “compendium of facts”. Because of all of those things—original research being something the book brings to the table that a lot of wine books don’t; praise for said—it’s worth evaluating the reporting in and of itself. In the midst of all of the other responses to “Ignore the Snobs” (which are all good in their way, even if they are often spirited defenses of #realwine that have been ably trolled by the headline), one aside in Alice Feiring’s post made my ears prick up.

“As a trained sommelier”, Bosker writes in the op-ed, “I spent long days studying the farming practices that distinguish the Grand Crus of Burgundy and learning to savor the delicate aromas of aged Barolos from organic growers in Piedmont.”

Feiring rightly observes that this is a kind of expertise word salad meant to establish bona fides—and also that everything about it is slightly wrong. At most, generously, you could say that the appellation laws for a Grand Cru AOC in Burgundy like Bonnes Mares might mandate, like, slightly lower yields than those for the 1er cru “Les Fuées” it borders (I just checked, pointlessly: it’s 42 hectoliters per hectare versus 48). And yields imply stuff you would do, as a farmer? But actually, no; farming practices have nothing to do with what distinguish these little special postage stamps of land we call ‘great growths’ in Burgundy, and anyways the vines within a given Grand Cru are owned by a whole mess of different people, all of whom are farming slightly differently.

(I’m trying to show my work. Feiring, much more gracefully, does the above in a sentence: “Farming practices do not separate the Grand from the Village, geology and micro-climate do.”)

Same obviously for aged Barolo = organic growers, since the further back you go (what are we talking about here, the ’70s?) the more likely it is everything in the Piedmont is just doused in chemicals. You’d have to keep going until you got a bottle old enough that it predated the invention of conventional agriculture, cutoff for which would be around the Second World War. Or talk specifically about the rare exceptional growers who didn’t adopt herbicides & synthetics.

I am being as joylessly pedantic as possible here and probably sound a little like an asshole, especially to those of you who tuned out right around the time the phrase “appellation laws for a Grand Cru AOC” was deployed. The language is charmless, I admit. But this sentence (not in the book) is, in a very ideal world, the sort of thing that would get underlined in pencil and then be subjected to a few minutes of consideration by a similarly pedantic third party. (By the way, by all rights an evaluation of Bosker’s work shouldn’t hinge on whether or not she’s a wine expert, since that would be impossible to accomplish in 18 months. What she’s offering is research, reportage, letting experts turned characters have their say, voice, style, a certain amount of personal involvement, organizing and deploying all of that in a coherent narrative—you know, writing.)

Anyways. I wondered, when I finally sat down to read Cork Dork, how many and which bits of the book had been fact-checked. The chapters divide nicely into setpieces that could be pitched separately as features to a variety of outlets. (To Bosker’s credit, if you compare the tasting notes chapter, “The Ten Commandments”, to the New Yorker piece “Is There A Better Way to Talk About Wine?”, there’s nothing too obnoxious about the recycling; everything’s been rearranged, rewritten, and expanded for the book. This is less common than you might imagine.) And so at some point, some of the stuff that’s related to what ended up in the book probably ended up on a fact-checker’s desk.

Sometimes books are checked  by a third party with the same rigor & care as a New Yorker feature. Usually not, though. And given the number of people I know who were mildly suprised to find themselves in its pages, I don’t imagine anyone was on the receiving end of the sorts of phone calls I used to make to quoted—even anonymously quoted—sources.

I’m not saying that the book is riddled with factual errors or anything, by the way. (Although, opening it at random to chapter six right after I write that sentence, I can’t help but notice an almost-right but actually wrong technical description of malolactic fermentation.) This is more in the line of professional curiosity—how did this thing get made?

Because I am the kind of person I am, I took a paragraph and pretended I was checking it while I was halfway through reading the introduction a couple of days ago. Looking at a piece of writing through a fact-checker’s eyes partly means grappling with the question, ‘what is truth?’, always a fun one, but mostly means being as obtuse as possible:

“Spend enough time in the wine world, and you’ll find every connoisseur has a story about the bottle that launched their obsession with wine. Usually, their Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment arrives via, say, a 1961 Giacomo Conterno Barolo sipped in a little restaurant in Piedmont, Italy, overlooking the Langhe hills, the beech trees swaying as a gentle fog curls up from the valley floor. It’s something of a formula: Europe + natural splendor + rare wine = moment of enlightenment.”

First question, is this a fictitious example or (just as likely) something that a particular person said in an interview? If so, who was the person, and is this accurate? Do they remember the name of the restaurant? Let’s call them and find out.

‘Every’ is hyperbole but root around google/stack of books for a few more wine people who have stories that follow the formula.

Check Saul, Damascus.

1961 Giacomo Conterno Barolo. Okay, estate founded in 1920, so they were producing wine by 1961. Most famous for Monfortino; did they bottle a regular Barolo back then as well? Would it have been labeled ‘Riserva’?

Yes, yes; the acquisition of the great single vineyard the estate is famous for in Serralunga, Cascina Francia, was not until the ’70s. An auction catalog image search turns up a picture of a bottle of ’61 Giacomo Conterno Barolo, no cru or reserve designation appended.

the beech trees swaying as a gentle fog Would they be beech trees?

Searching a catalogue of trees common to the Langhe turns up a taxonomy of truffle terroir, with truffles in Alba attached to three types of tree, oak, beech, or cedar, yielding differences in color and aroma.

The oak trees likely growing alongside the beeches are probably too big to sway.

Can we find video of the fog in the Langhe?


One Response to “Fact-checking & ‘Cork Dork’”

  1. rachel Says:

    interesting take!

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