A Wine Buying Guide for Everyone

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This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the May 22, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Wine for All Seasons

Andrea Immer may be a bona fide Master Sommelier —

in fact, she is the first woman ever to attain that respected title

— but she understands ordinary American wine drinkers like you

and me. She believes we should be able to find a wide selection of

good wines for $10 a bottle; she happily drinks wine from bottles

opened two or three days previously (and stored on her kitchen counter

or in her fridge); and one of her favorite food and wine matches is

a bacon cheeseburger with cabernet sauvignon.

She will discuss this and more when she comes to Wegmans Market in

Nassau Park on Saturday, May 25, at 11 a.m. to conduct a wine and

food matching demonstration and to sign copies of her latest book,

"Andrea Immer’s Wine Buying Guide for Everyone" (Broadway

Books, $12.95), which hit bookstores on May 14.

Another recent gem in Immer’s gleaming crown of accomplishments was

added just two weeks ago, when she was named Outstanding Wine and

Spirits Professional for 2002 by the prestigious James Beard Foundation.

Immer is only the second woman to win this title in the 11 years it

has been awarded. But the crowning jewel came much early in this 35-year-old’s

career, when she became the first woman ever to achieve the rank of

Master Sommelier.

That was in 1996, four years after she became the first woman cellarmaster

at the prestigious Windows on the World restaurant at the World Trade

Center, where she oversaw about 1,000 vintages and 50,000 bottles.

From her home in Connecticut, Immer recently recalled the heady days

in 1992 when she first came aboard.

"This was just before the first terrorist attack on the trade

center," she begins. "At that time, it was not unusual for

Windows to have women in significant wine-selling roles — there

were quite a few women wine captains there, and they were the best

at selling wines. Plus, there were women working in the cellar."

She herself had been a "cellar rat," stocking shelves, decanting

wines, and updating inventory lists, for two years before Windows’

well-known wine expert, Kevin Zraly, promoted her. "Kevin has

always been a champion of anyone who is good at what they do,"

Immer says, in explaining why he didn’t hesitate to place a woman

in this prestigious position.

Zraly told People magazine in 1998 that he tapped Immer, a petite

five-feet-two who was often mistaken by Windows patrons for a customer

rather than sommelier, because "Andrea makes wine accessible.

She’s got the spunk, the intelligence, the taste buds, and the down-to-earth

approach." Her objective as sommelier, Immer says, was to put

customers at ease. "We always tried to find something a customer

would like. I would always start with questions about body style.

So much of matching food and wine relates to body style."

Immer uses milk to illustrate what is meant by body style. Basically,

she believes in matching the body of food (light, medium, or full)

with the body of a wine (delicate, medium, or rich and full). "Everyone

knows milk, right?" she asks. "Think about the different degrees

of heaviness between skim milk, whole milk, and heavy cream. You can

tell just by looking at them which is heavier. Wine is the same way:

texture and color depth will give you a big indication of the style

of wine."

A mere three months after she became cellarmaster, the first terrorist

bombing of the World Trade Center closed down Windows. By the time

the restaurant reopened in 1996, under Kevin Zraly, David Emil, and

Joe Baum, the legendary restaurateur, Immer had given birth to a son,

Lucas, now eight. She and her husband, Bob Immer, lived in Glen Rock

during that time. They have since divorced.

At the newly invigorated Windows in 1996, Immer was

given the expanded title of beverage director. She counts her time

with Windows as the most significant in her career, and it is apparent

that she still mourns what she calls her lost "family of employees

and guests." In 2000, she went on to become corporate director

of beverage programs for Starwood Hotels and Resorts. She is currently

serving on the committee for the Windows of Hope Fund, which raises

money for the food service employee families affected by the September

11 attack on the World Trade Center and the destruction of Windows

on the World.

It was also in 1996 that Immer became the first woman to be awarded

the title of Master Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Even now, she is one of only nine women in the U.S. and 10 in the

world to hold that title. (Currently there are 47 masters from the

U.S.) Asked why no woman before her had earned the title, Immer replies

in her characteristically upbeat manner, "I imagine they didn’t

have so many candidates back then who were women. If only guys show

up to take the exam, what can you do?" The next year she went

on to win a competition for "Best Sommelier in the United States."

Andrea Immer is well known to the general public for her appearances

— more than 100 at last count — on television’s Food Network,

including "Cooking Live Primetime" and "Hot Off the Grill,"

as well as her own show, "Quench." Her energetic, articulate

style and genuine enthusiasm for her subject are hallmarks of her

presentations. When she came to Wegmans in Princeton last November

she was equally comfortable chatting with wine dabblers and connoisseurs

alike. Among the latter was Larry Laskey of Haddonfield, who works

for a wine wholesaler. "I know Andrea from her TV appearances.

I think her work is very informative but not in a dumbing down kind

of way. On the other hand, it’s not geeky, either. She hits just the

right note."

When asked by several people about her own wine preferences, she happily

shared, with her brown eyes twinkling, a weakness for Champagne and

a penchant for pinot noirs, especially those of northern California’s

Russian River Valley.

In March, 2002, Immer left Starwood to become dean of wine studies

at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. Before accepting

the position, Immer became a student in its grueling 610-hour professional

culinary program, from which she graduated with honors.

"This was a really big thing for me, one of the hardest things

I ever did," she says. She decided to accept the post as dean,

"because I have such respect for the school." Over the years

Immer has lectured at most of the major culinary academies, such as

Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island, and has come to the conclusion

that wine education is often hit-and-miss. "I saw the missed opportunity

in culinary schools. You know, wine sales are the one area that are

profitable for restaurants, and given my interest in food and wine

pairing, I really wanted to do something about it," she says.

In fact, she has a book coming out in the fall on just that topic.

Her first book, "Great Wine Made Simple: Straight Talk from a

Master Sommelier" (Broadway Books, 2000), was a James Beard Award

nominee and is among the most successful wine books ever. It has been

widely praised for its ability to make complex ideas easy and for

its fun, hands-on tasting lessons. In it, Immer elaborates not only

the concept of "milk tasting" but also expounds on what she

calls the Big Six: the six grapes from which 80 percent of the top-selling

wines are made.

"If you learn to focus on the names and body styles of the wines

made from those grapes, by great luck and convenience you then know

so much of the quality wine market," she explains. The big six

comprise three whites (riesling, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay) and

three reds (pinot noir, merlot, cabernet sauvignon).

"I don’t teach wine by the book, I teach it the way I learned

it, by the glass," Immer writes in the book’s introduction. She

didn’t learn about wine growing up. She was born Andrea McKinster

in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Her mother was a home health nurse and

her father, a manager for Pillsbury, was transferred often in his

job, so Andrea and her brother grew up in Florida, Texas, and Indiana.

Her parents didn’t drink wine back then, but little Andrea did enjoy

creating odd cocktails for her mother, who dutifully drank them. Her

parents have since graduated to wine-in-a-box. In her typical unsnobbish

way, Immer says she is pleased that they have made wine part of their

daily lives.

It was while she was earning degrees in finance and

economics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas that Andrea Immer

first became interested in wine.

"On a fluke, I took a wine tasting class," she reports, saying

that her first choice, a course in car repair, was already filled

up. "From the very first I was completely bitten by the wine bug.

I just followed it from there." Well, not directly. After graduating

in 1988, she went to work on Wall Street with Morgan Stanley, which

she says, "was good, but not as much fun as wine." During

her two years there, she volunteered at the International Wine Center

and the Windows on the World Wine School, where, among other things,

she washed glasses, emptied spit bowls, and got to know Kevin Zraly.

After leaving Wall Street, she worked for a short time for a wine

importer, but was advised by Zraly to spend time in Europe in order

to get an in-depth knowledge of the wine industry. Immer approached

this objective with the discipline and drive of an investment banker,

which she was. She got herself a Eurail pass and spent the next six

months staying in youth hostels while visiting winemakers and vineyards

— even picking grapes during one harvest in Bordeaux.

Immer has stated repeatedly that one of the things she loves about

wine is that there is always more to learn, and she seems to especially

enjoy sharing what she has learned. This fall she will launch her

wine and food matching classes for consumers at the French Culinary

Institute and oversee the publication of her third book, "Great

Wine and Food Made Simple." She is currently working on a television

series for PBS on the same subject.

Meantime, she shares her wine recommendations in her regular column

in Esquire magazine and on her website, www.greatwinemadesimple.com

Among this month’s choices, under the heading "You Gotta Taste

This," are two California wines: Meridian Sauvignon Blanc, which

can be found for $12 a bottle or less ("For the money, I’ve always

found this wine high on the yum factor"), and Au Bon Climat Pinot

Noir, which she describes as "exciting — perfect, subtle balance."

Descriptions that could equally apply to Immer’s style: exciting,

with a perfect, subtle balance between formidable knowledge and approachable

good will.

Andrea Immer, Wegmans Food Market, 240 Nassau Park

Boulevard, 609-919-9300. Demonstration and book signing for "Andrea

Immer’s Wine Buying Guide for Everyone." Preregister, free. Saturday,

May 25, 11 a.m.

Top Of Page
A Wine Buying Guide for Everyone

As master sommelier Andrea Immer sees it, the problem

with getting more people to make wine a part of their daily life is

price, pure and simple. But one of her mantras is that price does

not equal quality, and she believes there are many decent choices

at $10 a bottle or even less. Which is one reason she wrote her newest

book, "Andrea Immer’s Wine Buying Guide For Everyone" (Broadway

Books, $12.95). In it, she showcases 400 of the most popular and available

wines on the market. She attempts to answer the two most common questions

she gets asked: What are the good, cheap wines? And which wines are

really worth the splurge?

Taking an approach similar to the Zagat Survey, for which regular

people rate restaurants, Immer surveyed thousands of wine consumers

about their wine preferences. She went Zagat one better, though: she

also polled her vast network of wine professionals, including retail

and restaurant buyers, sommeliers, hoteliers, chefs, waiters, importers,

and distributors. Everyday consumers count for more than half of the

responses, which were culled over a six-month period in 2001. Immer

intends to update the guide once a year, although the first revision

won’t appear until fall of 2003.

Each wine is placed in a price category (from $, which equals $12

or under, to $$$$, $35 or above) and is rated separately by taste

and value for the money, on a graduated scale from 0 to 30. Like the

Zagat Survey, tasters notes are included, as are often those of Immer

herself.

But the guide goes beyond these detailed listings, with discrete rosters

for best of the bargain-priced wines, top values for the money across

all prices, and the most popular wines that reflect both taste and

value. She even rates wines based on how well they hold up after opening,

in the fridge or on the counter. She systemically tasted open wines

over a period of two or three days. "Far more often than you’d

think," Immer writes, "the good wines stayed that way for

days. Even more astonishing, some of the wines that were initially

underwhelming actually came around… after being opened for a while."

Immer has a knack for targeting just what the average wine drinker

wants to know, like in the section she calls "The Top 50 Wines

You’re Not Drinking." These are her personal "write-ins,"

and include candidates such as Freixenet Brut de Noirs Non-vintage

Cava Rose from Spain, Pepperwood Grove Viognier from California, and

Navarro Correas Malbec from Argentina.

She gives tips on how to order wine in restaurants, including how

to avoid having to announce in front of your date, clients, or guests

the price range you had in mind. She lists wines — all widely

available at wine shops across the country — that she recommends

for such things as impressing a date (one "hip wine" is Bonny

Doon Pacific Rim Riesling) or impressing a client (try Jordan Cabernet

Sauvignon). Immer also offers a list of 10 wines she calls "Unimpeachable

Bottles to Bring to Dinner." There are sections on food and wine

matches, and even a mini-course in wine tasting based on her first

book, "Great Wine Made Simple."

— Pat Tanner


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