Originally created 07/21/98

Champion wine-sniffer isn't your father's sommelier

NEW YORK -- Decanting a bottle of red wine, Andrea Immer swills, sniffs and takes a sip. Then, she hawks it up into a plastic cup.

An old-time wine expert might pronounce it "full-bodied," or "firm yet fleshy," or "amusingly presumptuous." But not Mrs. Immer.

In her '90s wine parlance, this wine is "not awesome, but good." She saves "awesome" for a superior bottle. A bad wine might be termed "bogus"; a really bad one, "yucky."

As the U.S. champion sommelier, or wine expert, Mrs. Immer, at age 31, is part of a new breed of industry authorities pushing to make wine popular among a generation more apt to pop a beer top than a wine cork.

One of 37 master sommeliers in the United States -- more than one- third of them under age 35 -- Mrs. Immer combines conservative attire with a fringe Generation X upbringing.

"Typically when people think of a sommelier, they think of someone who's a bit arrogant, maybe a little ... snobby," says Sara Moore, spokeswoman for the International Court of Master Sommeliers in Napa, Calif. "Andrea has all the ... pedigrees behind her to act that way, but she doesn't."

The Wine Market Council, a trade association, says consumption is down among people in their 20s and 30s. But groups such as Wine Brats of Santa Rosa, Calif., are dedicated to reversing the trend.

"You should see how fast the eyes glaze over when you describe wine as earthy, full-bodied," Mrs. Immer said in a recent interview. "Why would anybody want to drink something described like that?"

Wine Brats, which has 11,000 members, targets the beer crowd, and director Joel Quigley says wine is slowly making inroads -- partly because of people like Mrs. Immer.

She sniffs out the world's best for some of New York's trendiest -- restaurants such as Windows On The World and the Rainbow Room. Last year, she was named U.S. champion by the Sommelier Society of America.

Mrs. Immer fits none of the stereotypes. She reads wine encyclopedias while she works out on a Stairmaster. She admits to buying and drinking cheap wine.

"Hardly anybody in the wine business is going to say a $7 bottle of wine is cool," she says. "But in all the European countries, wine is a peasant drink. It's part of everyday life -- something you can drink with mac-and-cheese."

Mrs. Immer's inclusive approach reflects a change in the industry, a willingness to expand the business beyond just the well-to-do, says Samantha Shields, a consultant for the sommelier society in St. Louis.

"They are not as stuffy as they used to be," she says.

Mrs. Immer, who majored in finance in college, started out as an investment banker 10 years ago. Then she took a wine appreciation class.

"When everybody was having keg parties, I was having dinners, serving ... chicken and wine to my friends," she says.

After two years on Wall Street, she decided to follow her nose. She worked as a wine server in restaurants, took classes at cooking schools and worked in public relations for a wine import company before landing an apprenticeship at the Windows wine school in 1992.

She defines her master status, which takes years of study to attain, as a "Ph.D. in wine."

It's a degree that allows her to shop at rare wine auctions on a $40,000 budget.

"I get to taste great wine and get paid," she jokes.

Her husband, Bob, quit his job as a management consultant earlier this year to stay home with their 4-year-old son in part so she could continue her wine endeavors.

"I wasn't a real big wine drinker when I met her. I liked beer," he says. Now, they are working together on a book, a wine guide.

Mrs. Immer's nose for wine took her to the triennial Sommelier World Championship in Vienna in June. One of 30 competitors from around the world in the blind taste-test, she had to identify region, vintage, grower and grape. She finished among the top five competitors.


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