Calling sake rice wine, as many people still do, is inaccurate, since it's actually brewed from a grain. On the other hand, calling it rice beer, while perhaps more technically correct, doesn't do anything for sake's image either. After all, we usually expect beer to be fizzy, relatively inexpensive, and good with pizza. Quality sake is none of these.
The culture of Japan often seems impenetrable even to fairly sophisticated travel mavens, and sake suffers from the general public's confusion when it comes to anything more traditionally Japanese than the latest Sony Play-Station gadget. Appreciating sake is nearly as difficult for your ordinary hamburger-munching American as understanding Noh theater or properly pruning a 300-year-old bonsai. (Then again, the culture barrier probably works both ways: I somehow can't imagine a Japanese audience sitting through an episode of The Osbournes.)
Another reason sake is misunderstood is because much of the sake served in the U.S. is low-grade stuff, the quaff of Japanese chain restaurants and noodle parlors. If the sake you order is served warm, you're probably getting swill fit for Godzilla. High-end sake should be properly served chilled, and the best sakes have a complexity and subtlety that matches (some experts would even say surpasses) that of the finest wines.
WAKATAKE DAIGINJO "ONIKOROSHI" ($38)
Onikoroshi, I'm told, means "demon killer." The term originally referred to sake so atrocious it would kill a banshee at one gulp. But, as with certain beers whose macho names really advertise how good they are, Onikoroshi has now become a positive attribute, signifying a sake of superior prowess. If there are demons around, they're probably lining up to be slain by this stuff.