WELCOME TO Cheap Buzz, where we eavesdrop as sommelier Marnie Old attempts to teach the joys of wine and fine spirits to Buzz, a guy with no sophistication and not much money. Here's their latest conversation:
Buzz: I was reading the notes on the wine signs at the State Store and, boy, are they crazy!
Marnie: You mean the tasting notes?
Buzz: Yes. One wine tasted like "leather." Another was "grassy." The worst was the one that was "chalky." though. Who the heck would drink a wine with chalk in it?
Marnie: Oh no, Buzz. Those aren't ingredients — wine is made with grapes alone. They're "descriptors," terms used as metaphors by experts and critics to sketch a wine's aromatic profile.
Buzz: Oh yeah? I've drunk all kinds of wine, from MD 20-20 to pink Chablis, and the only time I tasted leather was when I passed out on the back seat.
Marnie: Well, experts can get overly creative when describing wine. Terms like those make sense among professionals, but I don't recommend them for the general public. I try to compare to things that are food-related — so I might say a Chianti reminds me of beef jerky, not leather, or that a Chablis tastes a little like oyster shells, not chalk.
In the biz, "grassy" is a common term for the distinctive leafy scent of sauvignon blanc, but I think it sounds much better to call it "herbal."
Buzz: I think wine writers just invent stuff to make it sound more exotic.
Marnie: Yes and no, Buzz. Wine critics taste hundreds of very similar wines and do stretch their vocabulary in order to reflect the shades of differences in aroma and flavor. But, it's also true that the winemaking process adds all sorts of unexpected flavors and scents to wine that we wouldn't find in fresh grapes.
Buzz: So you won't admit that it's all spin?
Marnie: Much wine language is advertorial — designed to make it sound interesting and desirable. What's more relevant than how a wine smells, though, is its framing characteristics — sweet or dry, light or full-bodied, oaked or unoaked, and so on.
Try to focus on more concrete terms like these when you're shopping.
Buzz: I'll stick to my routine, thanks. The best prices are always on the shoe-level shelf.
Marnie Old is Philadelphia's highest-profile sommelier. She has designed wine lists for restaurants like Parc and Bar Ferdinand. Her latest book, "Wine Secrets," is a collection of wine advice shared by top wine professionals. Marnie consults for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and is an adviser to the beverage trade. Check out her blog at sauceblog.marnieold.com. Buzz's musings are interpreted by Daily News City Editor Gar Joseph.