Wednesday, July 16, 2003

"All the rules about wine have relaxed," master sommelier Andrea Immer advises. "Drink what you like no matter the price, or what others say about it."

Good wine, great fun

A rebellious sommelier
rejects elitism, advocating
the pure enjoyment of wine

KAPALUA, MAUI >> Andrea Immer is standing on tip-toes, staring up at the microphone, barely able to see over the podium. But she is clearly holding the attention of the crowd.

Immer -- 5-foot-1 "and three quarters," 105 pounds and "all muscle" -- is one of only 11 female master sommeliers in the world, which places her among the foremost authorities on wine anywhere. This is the third consecutive year that she's hosted the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival.

At this noon-time function at the Plantation House golf club and restaurant, Immer has been signing her latest book, alongside other food, wine and cocktail book authors. But now it's time for brunch.

"The time has come to eat and drink wine and let these authors do the same," Immer informs the line of book buyers in a firm but disarming tone.

"The queen has spoken," says Evelyn Perkins of San Antonio, Texas, who scampers to her table clutching two unsigned Immer books.

Immer may be best known for her down-to-earth, real-world approach to wine tasting, buying and pairing with food. Her credentials, though, are quite serious.

She began making a name for herself at Windows on the World at the World Trade Center, where for several years she served as beverage director. In 1996 she earned the title of master sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers; in 1997 she was named Best Sommelier in America, which entitled her to represent the United States in the Concours Mondial, the international sommeliers' world championship in Vienna. In 2002, she won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Wine and Spirits Professional.

She has written three books -- "Wine Buying Guide For Everyone," "Great Wine Made Simple: Straight Talk from a Master Sommelier" and "Great Tastes Made Simple."

"I like wine because wine first and foremost tastes good, and is fun, fun, fun," Immer says. "But it also brings people together in a very basic, simple way with food and conversation. Wine and food are historically connected and wine also links us to history and other cultures. Heck, what's there not to like about the stuff?"

Uh, stuff? This from a master sommelier with a home wine cellar holding 1,000 bottles -- including an $800 bottle of champagne?

"I have a lot more $4.95 bottles of wine than $100 bottles," says Immer, whose favorite wine is neither white nor red but the bubbly. "Everyone seems disappointed that I prefer champagne ... but I love those bubbles and that crisp taste. Sorry."

What has made Immer so popular is her downright rebelliousness toward any sort of wine elitism -- restaurants, manufacturers, wine etiquette and "rules" -- in part because they intimidate many people and keep them from enjoying the beverage.

"Depending on where you live in the U.S., a nice table wine should be available for $8 to $9," she says. "But (financially driven) manufacturers double that price for a couple reasons -- to make more money, of course, and because they don't believe the consumer thinks a good bottle of wine can be had so low."

Quality and low price are quite compatible, she says.

"Yellow Tail from Australia is a very good choice for an everyday wine. In some European countries they drink wine at lunch and dinner and believe me they don't buy a $20 bottle for everyday wine. They spend like $4, which is perfectly fine for that sort of occasion."

But isn't one of life's eternal questions, "What is the perfect wine to drink with ...?"

"Oh brother, to me the right wine can be as much about convenience, emotion or both," she said. "(It's as much about) whatever is handy or whatever you're excited about drinking or serving from the shop, your cellar, the wine list -- whatever -- as about what goes with what.

"Sometimes the right wine is whatever someone else is paying for. Would you say no to a world-class wine just because the rule book says it doesn't go with what you're eating?"

Wine sales have never been higher in the United States as more people indulge, especially the red varietels, Immer said.

"We're seeing three generations sharing wine at meals: grandparents, parents and their adult children," Immer said. "Wine has become trans-generational, which is something you can't say generally about beer and whiskey."

Immer regularly tries to dispel "elitist myths" about wine that have kept it "a closed society."

"The rules are, there aren't rules," she said. "Red wine, white wine can go with any kind of food, but it is true that some food and wine if matched correctly can enhance the flavor of each. But that's not any sort of absolute to enjoying wine.

"The pleasure is in the palate of the beholder. You like what you like and that, really, basically, is all that's important."

When Immer suddenly giggles you know something winely outrageous is about to be uttered. "I like a chardonnay, especially Lindeman's Bin 65, with popcorn," she says.

"The nutty, buttery qualities of chardonnay make it a natural for popcorn, buttered or unbuttered, to bring out the kernels' full flavor. Besides, it's a hoot to eat."

She adds: "Here's the deal: Don't connect wine always with an expensive meal, because that's not true. More people drink wine with hamburgers than with caviar. And who would want to eat caviar every day?"

Wannabe wine drinkers and those with little experience need a bridge between knowing what they're doing and just doing it, "between the promise of frequent wine-and-food matching, and the reality of what normal people cook, eat and spend," she said.

"That supermarket liquor section can be pretty intimidating, but you shouldn't let it be," Immer said. "Remember that cost doesn't guarantee one wine is better than another. It always comes down to taste."

The consumer should determine a general preference of grape -- red or white, and their subdivisions. "Then turn the mystery of pairing the food and wine into an everyday, useful, fun activity," she said. Use well-priced, accessible wines with easily made meals.

"I discovered that the best tuna helper comes in a bottle labeled pinot grigio and my idea of Cheez Whiz operates under the alias, chianti."

Immer mentions a wealthy Wall Street friend -- a single dad -- whose school-night menu standard is Shake 'n' Bake chicken served with a bottle of Meursault, a luxury French white burgundy.

"Here's a perfect example of one of wine's most distinguished roles: a lifeline to turn any meal into a winner," she said. "High-flying flavor isn't limited to a luxury restaurant. It can be anything from Mom's macaroni and cheese to a celebrity chef's signature lobster bisque."

And, if you really want to know, the mac and cheese goes down well with a Rioja Crianza, says Immer.

If Immer's approach already seems a bit too plebeian, well here she goes again -- this time about some winemakers starting to use screw tops instead of the traditional cork.

"Anything that makes wine more convenient, accessible and less intimidating, I'm for," she says. "A screw top will keep wine fresher and there is always the risk of cork going bad and making the wine taste like wet newspaper.

"Of course the industry will have to get the message across that screw-top wines aren't what they used to be."

In true non-elitist fashion, Immer has partnered with the nation's second biggest discount retailer, Target, to create a system to take the guesswork out of wine buying at SuperTarget and Target stores that sell wine.

Immer had her first sip of wine -- a concord grape -- at age 6 with her parents and she thought it tasted "disgusting." At 8 her parents brought home one of those giant bottles of wine for a special celebration -- a Rufino Chianti Classic -- and that, "I loved," she says.

Immer was an investment banker in New York City for two years, then quit to work in the wine industry. In the beginning that meant mailing out pamphlets to customers and cleaning out wine spittoons.

"I liked money but loved wine," she says. "I love that you can never know everything about wine, so you can never get bored."

It took seven years of study before she was ready to take the master sommelier exam. And since then, not a day has gone by that a friend or colleague doesn't ask about wine and food pairing.

"I love that," Immer says. "I like to help enjoy food and wine and sometimes they tell me a pairing they did that worked out well. ...

"All the rules about wine -- thank God -- have relaxed. Drink what you like no matter the price, or what others say about it."

Then she offers one "sort of rule: Try to drink the youngest, freshest wine you can, just like you do with food. Some wines are better aged, but not most. And have fun with wine. We're not talking brain surgery here!"

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