Train, train, train. Ever competitive, Andrea Immer is at it again. “The initial impression is of earthy, dead leaves,” she tells her husband and coach Bob, as she plunges her nose into one of the wineglasses on the dining room table before her. “I’m getting some cedar, some pencil lead, a little bit of…[sniff] maybe leather.” With that, she sucks up a mouthful, swishes it about and hoicks it unceremoniously into a plastic spittoon.
Granted, as training goes, slurping a good red hardly rates as a marathon effort. But Immer, who last year was judged the best sommelier in the U.S. by the Sommelier Society of America, is preparing to do battle in perhaps the only competitive event that can truly be won by a nose. In June, she’ll represent the U.S. at the wine Olympics: the triennial Sommelier World Championship in Vienna. To win, Immer will have to identify five different wines from anywhere in the world—down to their region, vintage, grower and grape—plus a mystery liquor (in 1995 it was a lingonberry liqueur from Lapland). All by taste and smell alone.
It’s enough to make the most experienced wine buff spit and run. But as the beverage director of two of America’s top-grossing restaurants—New York City’s Rainbow Room, in Rockefeller Center, and “Windows on the World, in the World Trade Center—Immer has had plenty of practice. She oversees not only the selection of some 800 wines but also the quality and quantity of every libation served, from tea to Taittinger. And when she’s not concocting new cocktails for the Greatest Bar on Earth, as Windows calls its panoramic lounge, Immer cohosts the beverage show Quench on the Food Network cable channel. “It’s very MTV,” she boasts (or, at least, as near to hip as the Food Network gets).
One of the youngest of the 37 Americans certified as Master Sommeliers by the international Court of Master Sommeliers, Immer spouts such technical terms as “awesome,” “bogus” and “yucky” to describe a mouthful. “Most people think of a sommelier as an older guy with a French accent and a naughty attitude,” says Bob, a former wine salesman who quit work earlier this year to care for the couple’s 4-year-old son Lucas. “But Andrea communicates in a way that’s fun and relaxing.”
It’s tough to complain about a job that involves drinking wine daily, shopping rare-wine auctions on a $40,000 budget and jetting off on R&D trips—such as a recent mission to scout new cocktails in London—that amount to high-class bar hops. “There’s never any boredom,” Immer says. “You could spend your life drinking wine—which is half the fun—and never master the topic.”
Immer’s head start in the wine field may benefit the industry as much as her own career. “Everyone in the business is concerned that generation X doesn’t drink wine,” explains Kevin Zraly, 47, who hired Immer as a 23-year-old rookie at Windows and now manages the restaurant’s wine school. “But Andrea is making wine accessible. She’s got the spunk, the intelligence, the taste buds and the down-to-earth approach.”
Not to mention the element of surprise. Whether stocking the cellar (she was the only young female bidder in the room at a recent Christie’s auction) or helping diners select a bottle to match their meal (“I thought you’d be taller,” one once remarked to the 5’2″ whiz), Immer defies expectations. “When I go up to a table and ask someone how their wine is,” she says, “they usually look at me like I’m a customer from a neighboring table.”
Wine wasn’t always Immer’s beverage of choice. A native of Dallas, she took her first sip at age 6 at a fondue party hosted by her parents, David McKinster, now 56, a forklift driver, and Sharon, 56, a home health nurse. It was hardly a hit. “I swallowed it,” she recalls, “then went for the root beer float instead.”
At high school in Floyds Knobs, Ind., where her father was transferred for work, she was out to refine the tastes of her family and friends. “While everyone else was experimenting with generic beers,” she recalls, “I would make fancy frozen drinks and punches.” It was while studying finance and economics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas that Immer developed a passion for the good grape. After attending a wine-tasting course at night, Immer began hosting dinner parties for friends at which “she’d try to teach us how to swirl our wine and sniff it properly,” recalls pal Melissa Steinmetz, 31. “She was living in this teeny-tiny attic apartment, but the wine she’d buy to go with our Indian food was really good stuff.”
After a two-year stint as a Wall Street financial analyst, Immer eventually landed a more satisfying job managing the wine school at Windows on the World, where she had volunteered as a pourer two years earlier. Having met through friends, she and Bob were married in 1992. Later that year, Immer was promoted to cellar master—just months before the terrorist bombing that shook the World Trade Center in February 1993. When smoke started to seep through the elevator shafts that day, Immer helped guide restaurant customers down 107 flights of stairs in total darkness. “If I’d known we were going to walk all that way,” she says, “I would have rescued some champagne for the trip.”
By the time the restaurant finally reopened in June 1996, Andrea had given birth to Lucas. She was back at work for another group of New York City restaurants when Zraly says he “cajoled her” into returning to Windows. “Anybody can work in this business,” he says, “but not many people have her passion for it.” Immer, who still enjoys hosting frequent dinners for family and friends, is equally passionate about wine’s ability to strengthen social ties. “Wine brings people together,” she says. “Bottles of wine are meant to be shared, so if you have wine with meals it forces you to gather at a table, which is kind of a dying tradition in this country.”
Some people’s expectations, on the other hand, aren’t dying as quickly as Immer might like. Not long ago, she received a call from the office of an ambassador in Europe who was looking for a sommelier to organize a tasting for a Manhattan party. Immer offered her services. “But couldn’t we speak to a man?” came the caller’s response. Attitudes—like good wine—mature slowly.