BUZZ: What's the deal with Japanese wine, Marnie? Is it any good? Why do they drink it in little cups?
Marnie: You probably mean saké, Buzz, which is often called "rice wine." It's a Japanese specialty and, yes, the quality can be excellent.
Buzz: Rice? I don't get it. Apple wine, raspberry wine, I get. Those are fruits like grapes. How do you make wine out of rice?
Marnie: Saké is not a real wine, in the sense of being fermented from fresh fruit. Technically, it is its own distinct category within the larger family of fermented alcoholic drinks that includes wine, beer and cider but excludes stronger distilled spirits. Based on a starchy grain, as with beer, saké production is a form of brewing that works from moldy rice instead of malted barley.
Buzz: So why don't they call it a kind of beer?
Marnie: People call it "wine" because of how it tastes, not how it's made. Like wine, saké is considerably stronger than beer and doesn't usually have bubbles.
Buzz: Stronger than beer sounds good to me. How come we don't make it in the good old U.S. of A.?
Marnie: Actually, we do. The vast majority of saké sold in the U.S. is made here, especially the bargain brands in big bottles. Those labels may look Japanese, but the fine print typically shows they're brewed on the West Coast. These are the modest sakés we most often encounter served warm in those little cups in sushi restaurants. The Japanese brands we see in Philly stores are premium styles, designed to be sipped and savored chilled or at room temperature.
Buzz: Oh. My brother-in-law made us go for sushi for his birthday once. I thought that hot stuff in the carafes was for washing your hands.
Marnie: No, Buzz, that would have been saké. If you give it another chance, try the good stuff. The real-deal Japanese sakés are subtle, graceful and expressive, and can be as complex as a fine white wine. Subaru's Cherry Blossom Festival kicks off this weekend, so there's no better time to drink Japanese-style.
Buzz: I'll have it chilled, sitting on the floor with my shoes off, served by a geisha.
Marnie Old is Philadelphia's highest-profile sommelier. Buzz's musings are interpreted by Daily News Assistant Managing Editor Gar Joseph.