On a windy Thursday in Philadelphia, Marnie Old is drinking wine. A Grüner Veltliner from the Lehigh Valley to be exact. The revered beverage maven launched her taste-shaping empire as sommelier at the iconic Striped Bass restaurant back in the mid-90s, and her influence has only grown. So when we had the opportunity to sip some local wines with her at Martha, a buzzy bar in the city’s Kensington neighborhood, it was a no-brainer.
From Old’s roots working the floor at high-end restaurants, she has cultivated a career that touches on almost every aspect of the industry: She writes books, consults for restaurants and wine marketing groups, teaches classes, plans events, and writes a weekly column in the Philadelphia Inquirer. These days, her main gig is serving as “Director of Vinlightenment” for the Boisset Collection, the largest family-owned wine company in France. The thing that all of these jobs have in common is education.
“My mom was a kindergarten teacher and my dad was a geography professor,” says Old. “I inherited the explaining gene. I have that Sesame-Street instinct for how to break down complicated beverage ideas and make them stick with people.”
Over a couple of glasses of Pennsylvania wine and a platter of Pennsylvania cheese, she worked that magic on us, illuminating the special appeal of local wines, a reason to love Millennials, and her favorite PA-grown grapes.
PA Wine Land Post: How did you initially get interested in Pennsylvania wines? What distinguishes these wines?
Marnie Old: For me, exploring Pennsylvania wines started with Chardonnays from Chaddsford Winery in Chester County. Their single-vineyard and reserve-tier wines were really excellent.
As a sommelier and a professional buyer, you come at tasting new wines with a different perspective. It was clear to me that Pennsylvania wines were going to have a struggle introducing themselves to Pennsylvania customers, and to American customers in general.
Some wines are, for lack of a better word, an acquired taste. Usually the ones that are the most acquired taste are from the traditional wine regions of Europe: so French Burgundy or Italian wines from Tuscany, Veneto or Sicily; Spanish wines from regions like Rioja. They don’t always have a squeaky-clean, fruity smell and taste. And they tend to be considerably higher in acidity, often lower in alcohol, and higher in tannic grip.
New World winemakers were [initially] working in much warmer climates, where the grapes were irrigated, where there was much more sunshine, and where fruit was getting riper on the vine. So the wines tended to have a different first impression. They tended to be fruitier. Less earthy. Less complex. Less of the funky flavors that you might find in a sharp or raw milk cheese and more blueberry pie, blackberry jam kind of flavors.
Pennsylvania is kind of like splitting the difference. You have some of the characteristics of Old-World winemaking because of the cooler climate, and you had some of the characteristics of New-World winemaking because the winemakers tend to be trained in the New World and aiming at a New World audience. So you had this strange combination that in many ways could be a marketing boon — very food-friendly wines that are still clean enough to appeal to an American palate.
When you’re tasting a Burgundy or a Chianti or a Rioja for the first time, you might not love the first sip, but you know it comes from a famous wine region that people are willing to spend a lot of money for. So you give it a chance and you stick with it. The problem is when you’re a new up-and-coming wine region like Pennsylvania, that’s a hurdle you have to get over.
So how do you get over that hurdle? Is it partially about planting the right grapes?
The reality is that the Pennsylvania wine industry is still [relatively young]. We are showing that we have great potential and the ability to make world-class wine, but we are still learning which grape varieties suit our terrain and climate. And we have a huge state, so that’s different in every county and every single valley.
Planting a grape because it’s commercially successful and there’s a lot of demand for it is understandable. You’d be crazy not to pay attention to which grape varieties have the strongest track record, name recognition, and demand in the popular culture. But what if that grape variety also doesn’t have a chance of ripening properly in your climate?
If you wanted to try to compare this part of Pennsylvania to Europe’s fine wine regions, the closest thing would be southern Germany. It would not be southern France or southern Italy. We have a very temperate climate. We have a lot of moisture. It makes much more sense to look at grape varieties that thrive in cooler, cloudier climates.
What are some of your favorite Pennsylvania varietals?
If you has asked me that question 20 years ago, I would have said, hands-down, that Chardonnay is the best grape we make in Pennsylvania. The Chardonnays are still excellent. But the most exciting wines that I’ve been tasting in Pennsylvania in the last five years have been white grape varieties from cooler regions. Grapes like Riesling, which can be made sweet or dry. Grapes like Grüner Veltliner, which I’m drinking right now. It’s more of a Sauvignon Blanc customer’s kind of wine — a little herbal, unoaked, and high in acidity. And the other one that keeps surprising me is Albariño, a grape originally from northern Spain.
You talked about the power that legacy wine regions have over consumers. Are younger drinkers more willing to try new things?
What we’re seeing is that Gen X started to get a little bit more experimental — they were tired of paying through the nose for blue-chip grapes like Cabernet and Chardonnay. They started to look for value by looking outside of the top grapes.
And from what we’ve seen in market patterns, Millennials really like wine. They like drinking. They’re shameless pleasure seekers. Thank goodness! But they have zero loyalty to a style, a brand, or a region. They just want to put something in their mouth that tastes good. They also do not follow a lot of the strictures that previous generations of drinkers followed. For instance, for a long time there was a perception that wine that had any sweetness to it was, by definition, low rent. It’s understandable that consumers would have associated sweetness with bad wine — it’s a very quick and easy way to hide bad winemaking. But it is also possible to make world-class wine that has some sweetness in it.
Do you have any tips for someone who is looking to explore Pennsylvania wines?
Pay attention to the appellation — where the wine is from — and look for “Pennsylvania.” At a place like Martha, which champions local wines, we can choose local white, red, sparkling, and everything in between. But in many bars, even if they want to showcase local, they might only have one or two options. Don’t be afraid to ask for a sample. If something is available by the glass, the bottle is already open. And they would much rather you order something that you really like.
Any other directives for how to navigate a wine menu?
A lot of people go to a restaurant, maybe it’s a husband and wife, and they’ll order a bottle of wine. Well, if you’re sharing the same wine, the only thing you’re going to remember tomorrow is whether or not you liked that wine.
Try ordering more than one wine at a time. Get a half glass of two different wines. Or each get a glass of wine and split them with the two different foods you’re having as appetizers, then do the same thing again with the entree. And then if you’re feeling up for it, the same thing again with dessert. The more different wines you taste side-by-side, the faster you learn.
And you’d be amazed what you can learn just by surfing online or asking questions in a wine bar like this one. They’d be happy to share a little background on these wines.
Another way to do it is to take cooking classes or wine classes. I have a great book [Wine: A Tasting Course] designed for people who want to learn at home. Each chapter has a little tasting at the end. One lesson is designed to show you what barrels do. Another lesson is designed to help you understand the conversion from grape juice to Moscato to dry wine.
Or you could visit a local winery where you can taste a whole array of grapes and blends side by side?
The wine trails in Pennsylvania are really handy for this. You can organize a Saturday or weekend with friends to go and visit more than one winery. And if you organize it properly, you bring along a designated driver.
The great thing about winery tasting rooms is that you’re not committing to five ounces of each wine. And for people who are getting more serious, like trying-to-get-into-the-business-level serious, I recommend not only doing those kinds of tastings but learning to spit. I know this sounds crazy but there’s a reason why all winery tasting rooms and major wine events have buckets on every table. If you keep swallowing everything, you’re going to impair your own judgment fairly quickly. I need to walk into a tasting and taste 20, 30, 40 wines. The only way to do that is to not swallow them.
Any final tips?
Don’t feel like you need to suspend the rules that normally make you happy. If you’re normally a white wine drinker but you don’t recognize the grapes in a Pennsylvania wine, go ahead and try it. What’s the worst that can happen? We have this tendency to make wine decisions feel like they’re fraught with social meaning and implications about our sophistication, which is total BS. This is a substance that is designed for human pleasure. That’s really the only work that you have to do: Taste it and decide whether or not you like it.