"Glorified waiters with a fancy name who intimidate diners into splurging on wine." That's how author Bianca Bosker defines sommeliers at the beginning of her new book Cork Dork, the account of her journey from tech editor and wine novice to full-blown oenophile. But she quickly becomes fascinated with that cork-sniffing, glass-swirling, cellar-dwelling profession when she meets a band of New York City somms and realizes the depth of their obsession. Chief among them is Morgan Harris, a rising-star sommelier at chef Charlie Palmer's Manhattan restaurant Aureole. The lanky, rakish 31-year-old becomes the Virgil to Bosker's Dante, leading her by the hand through the hedonistic subculture of a life spent drinking professionally. "I found his passion for wine so infectious," Bosker told me. "For more than a year, I saw Morgan more than I saw my husband."
Harris' relationship with wine borders on the devotional. A great bottle at the right moment, he believes, can produce a humbling, spiritually transformative experience, like viewing a marble sculpture by Michelangelo or standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Harris' blend of high-mindedness and raw, unfiltered opinions ("Pinot from Burgundy . . . it's like the boyfriend who generally treats you like shit but shows up at the right time with flowers and chocolates") make him a memorable character. And after reading Bosker's book, it's impossible not to have a strong opinion of Harris — or at least want to split a bottle with him.
With that in mind, we caught up with Harris, on a rare night off, at Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a wine bar in Nolita. The manager poured us a Riesling from Rheingau; Lou Reed's "Charley's Girl" played on the stereo; and Harris told us about his first professional experience with wine: popping bottles of Chianti for diners at a red-sauce joint in Boston's North End. After work, he and his buddy would pool their tips and splurge at their neighborhood liquor store. With every good bottle they discovered, his curiosity was piqued. "I decided that learning a little about wine would be a good thing," Harris told me, "as I was bound to go out to a few more dinners between now and the great hereafter."
In the fall of 2011, he found himself working a wine harvest in his native Washington state. "I would spend hours a day driving a truck, thinking about life, and what's Important, with a capital I," Harris says. Previously he'd viewed wine as a luxury, something to be collected and flaunted. Now he saw it as an agricultural product, a collaboration between the Earth and the people who work it. "What's important is not the $1,500 bottle of Dom Pérignon," Harris told me, gesturing so forcefully he almost took out our glass. "I realized that all the best wines are made by great farmers — guys who would rather be hanging out in their vineyards with their dogs than sitting down to a fancy dinner." It was then that Harris decided to devote his life to being a sommelier, the link between the people who make wine and the people who love to drink it. "What I do as a sommelier is not the important part," he says. "I'm just the conduit."
Here's what we learned after a night of drinking with Harris while discussing his starring role in Cork Dork.
Great Sommeliers Drink a Lot
Not a surprise. But for the truly obsessive, it gets intense. Harris belongs to four tasting groups, each made up of a dozen or so fanatic sommeliers who bring bottles to sip, swirl, and spit at morning meetings, every Wednesday through Saturday. This "tongue cardio" has "all the glamour of a date with the StairMaster," according to Bosker, but it pays off. Not only does this training help Harris discover new bottles and vineyards, but it actually changes the brain's wiring. In Cork Dork, Bosker draws from neuroscience to explore this idea and finds that experienced tasters engage completely different parts of the brain when tasting wine than novices do — "the more critical, analytical, and higher-order parts of our brains." Does that mean sommeliers enjoy wine more than the rest of us? It's quite possible, as the results "suggest that honing the senses is a prerequisite to a fuller, deeper experience."
Take Advice from Bruce Lee: Become the Bottle
To get professional certification, sommeliers must identify wines in blind tastings, explaining what grape the wine was made from, what year it was made, and where on Earth it was grown, believe it or not, to within a few acres. To psych up Bosker for her blind-tasting exam, Harris evokes the wisdom of the martial arts master: "Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water . . . when you put water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle."
Harris practices vinyasa yoga to help him stay present, to make his mind still and receptive to the slightest stimulus, like the faintest aroma of lychee that betrays a gewürztraminer, or the "tart, lactic, yogurty" flavor that he detects in a glass of Chablis. It's only when your mind is placid and ready to react, like the surface of a pool waiting for a stone to be tossed, that "you can absorb the tiniest details of the present."
You Can't Win Wine
Like many wine professionals, Harris rejects the numbers-based rating systems of critics like Robert Parker. "The point scores smack to me of trying to win wine," he says, "and you can't win wine." When wines compete head-to-head, bottles with bigger, bolder flavors tend to score higher — but are they better? That depends on who's drinking them and why. "The idea that a 97-point Bordeaux is better than a 95-point cabernet is ridiculous. It may be better at being a Bordeaux, but if you don't like Bordeaux, it doesn't really matter," Harris says. "It's like saying AC/DC is the best rock band because they're the loudest. Or that the best car is a tank. We've forgotten the value of drinking things that are easy to drink," he says, like the cheap beer — "weasel-piss adjunct lager" — that he keeps in his fridge.
There's a tension when "modern culture interfaces with an ancient product," Harris says. At its best, wine is an agricultural product, not an industrial one. As such, it's subject to the vagaries of nature, and its pleasures are as ephemeral as those of biting into a perfect peach or watching a sunrise. But "we Americans have a desire to put all wine in boxes: How do we codify it so it's easy to sell?" he says.
There's No Bottom — So Bottoms Up!
In Cork Dork, Harris attributes his fascination with wine to his desire "to know a thing in its entirety, or as close to it as you can." The gamer community would call him a "completionist" — you know, that kid who never touches his Lego sets after they're assembled and can't stop playing a video game until every stage is defeated. (Harris was, in fact, that kid.) In wine, he found a topic "with an infinite number of expansion packs," Bosker says.
But he'll be the first to admit that you shouldn't have to share his obsession to love wine. To Harris, the thousands of books, YouTube channels, and magazine articles that ostensibly try to educate their audience — how to order wine in a restaurant, or how to pick a bottle under $25 — often give the impression that there's a wrong way to drink. "We're not told to celebrate its mystery, or that we don't need to know every last thing about it." Take a chance when ordering wine — that's what Harris does. "Curiosity and discovery — that's my reward loop," he says. "We should be happy to stumble onto ecstasy rather than worrying if we get it right. All that matters about it is that it's just fucking delicious. Wine is nothing to get stressed out about."
If Harris' philosophical ramblings came with footnotes, they would include New York Times critic Eric Asimov’s How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto, writer Terry Theise's Reading Between the Vines, and wine merchant Kermit Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Route — all good reads guaranteed to make you thirsty.