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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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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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