"From the start, I wanted to approach wine education from the student's perspective."
Marnie Old knows a thing or two about wine. When she's not teaching wine classes, she is either writing about it in Philadelphia magazine, producing her web series Philly Uncorked, or consulting with restaurants across the country. But she pulled in her "dream team" of experts to collaborate on her new book, Wine Secrets, Advice from Sommeliers, Winemakers and Connoisseurs. While she was in town to share her latest project with the locals, Marnie took some time to answer a few questions for Serious Eaters (and drinkers).
Name: Marnie Old
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Occupation: Sommelier, author, wine educator
How did you decide to make it the focus of your career? Working in restaurants. The first few times I tried wine, I thought I didn't like it. But as I moved into fine dining service positions, it became part of my job to know something about wine. At The Fountain at the Four Seasons Philadelphia, I discovered that there were wines I liked after all. And finally, when Kevin Zraly taught his Windows on the World Wine Course at the hotel in 1994, I served as the leader of the volunteer staff. That's when I got the idea to pursue wine as a field of study.
When did you start teaching and what do you enjoy about it the most? When I was hired as sommelier for Striped Bass in 1996, I had to begin training my own staff. I have always been a good public speaker and soon discovered that I was especially good at identifying barriers to understanding and breaking them down. I soon got involved with a non-profit wine education project with other Philadelphia wine professionals, a group that eventually became the American Sommelier Association, for whom I served as founding education chairperson from 1998 to 2001.
From the start, I wanted to approach wine education from the student's perspective—developing a course that started at zero wine knowledge and helped the student learn enough about how the wine world works to navigate with confidence. I've always been energized by helping people get more comfortable with wine, by unlocking doors and exposing people to such a fascinating, delicious and healthful drink.
What advice would you give to Serious Eaters who are just starting to explore the world of wine and pairing it with food? They need to get a handle on how sauces, seasonings and preparation methods are far more important than the type of protein when it comes to pairing. Forget fish or meat, my first question about any dish is whether it's more salty or sweet. Salt minimizes our perception of wine's acidity—very flattering for classically dry wines. Sugar, however, is dry wine's worst enemy—it makes wine taste more acidic and less sweet. This effect can be severely unpleasant (a la toothpaste and orange juice) and is responsible for far more bad pairings than artichokes or asparagus.
Anybody can see how this works at home with just some wine, some salt and some honey. Taste the wine before and after a pinch of salt. You'll notice the wine seems far less acidic on the second taste. Wait for 30 seconds to let the palate recover. Then do the same again, but before and after a dab of honey. The wine will seem far more acidic and much drier.
Did you learn anything new from your collaborators? Absolutely. In many cases, they helped me understand the 'why' behind something I had observed but hadn't truly understood. For example, Ronn Wiegand's fascinating discussion on preserving open wine by freezing it, Ann Noble's insights into the sensory science behind scents and Jancis Robinson's brilliant distillation of how to determine whether a wine will improve with age.
Are there any must-eat or drink stops for you in NYC? 'Ino for asparagus bruschetta and truffled egg toast, The Doughnut Plant for the deadly Tres Leches doughnuts, Aquagrill for oysters, Caffe Dante for the killer Cafe Fantasia with cocoa and orange peel (minus the whipped cream), and Casa Mono for Razor Clams and Oxtail-stuffed Piquillo peppers.
Any hidden gems in Philly that we should visit if we're there for the weekend? Zahav in Old City (modern fine-dining spin on Israeli cuisine), Parc on Rittenhouse Square (retro French bistro), Vietnam in Chinatown—best spring rolls on the planet.
Best late-night eats, both out and at home after a long night? When I'm out in NYC, Bulgolgi at Kang Suh / 24 hour Korean BBQ at 32nd and Broadway. Not simply delicious, but wildly entertaining—both for the hilarious menu photos and because you never know who will show up. Borscht at Veselka 2nd Ave at 9th Street. Ukrainian-style, it's more like a beef/beet stew. Plus, any soup made with this much pickle brine will appeal to a 'sourpuss' like me.
Are you visiting any New York restaurants or wine bars while you're here? Yes. post-book-party, we're heading over to DBGB for oysters and sausages. plus, I've been meaning to get to Le Bernardin for years, so we're going Tuesday night with friends to celebrate.
Guilty pleasures? Kraft Mac'n Cheese topped with crispy fried Spam—flashback to childhood and damn tasty. Fried Chicken. Lindt peanut butter chocolate truffle balls... possibly the world's most perfect mouthful, these are to Reese's cups as Champagne is to Cava.
What's in your fridge that you'd be embarrassed to tell us about? Sweetened condensed milk—a staple for the coffee and tea that I got hooked on when we used to live in Chinatown. It's magical stuff.
Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant/bar recommendations. Who's yours? For NYC it's Fred Dexheimer—formerly sommelier for the BLT restaurants, and yes, he's in the book too.
What's the best recommendation he/she has given you? Bierkraft in Brooklyn.
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