Accomplished sommelier to lead Maui festival
By Brenda Smith
Special to The Advertiser
Kapalua Wine & Food Festival
July 5-8, Kapalua Resort
Tastings, seminars, winemaker dinners
Four-day admission pass, $500; individual prices for specific events
Information or registration: Go to www.kapaluamaui.com/ activities or call 1-800-KAPALUA
At 34, she is young for her resume (former wine talk-show host, former beverage director for Windows on the World and the Starwood Hotel chain). She is a woman in a male-dominated industry (one of only nine female master sommeliers in the world). And there is not a snobbish bone in her body.
So Immer has the credentials for her latest venture, as the new host of the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival on Maui, which this year is celebrating its 20th anniversary July 5-8 with a new name (they dropped the stuffy "symposium") but the same philosophy of serious information delivered in an unserious atmosphere.
Something else distinguishes Immer: She has interrupted an upward-bound career path in wine to return to school, seeking a professional credential from the prestigious French Culinary Academy in New York. Though many chefs have successfully sought the entry-level wine certificate in the master sommelier program, very few wine experts have come up through the food side.
Speaking by phone from her Connecticut home, Immer said that after years of working with chefs to match food and wine, she wanted to back up her experience with the technical knowledge. This is in part because she's working on her second book, "Great Wine and Food Made Simple," (her first was "Great Wine Made Simple"), due out in the fall.
Immer has been gratified to find that the principles she has learned and taught in wine enjoyment have only been strengthened by her experiences in the kitchen.
One idea she has employed in matching food and wine is the universal attraction of the human palate to sweetness. "The fundamental truth in my opinion is that foods in their peak condition, whether it's a raw shrimp or an ear of corn or a grilled onion, share a certain sweetness. When you think of it, the same is true with wine," Immer said.
She is quick to explain that she doesn't mean sugary sweetness, but a clean-tasting rightness that is revealed when a food is at the peak of its flavor and ripeness, and properly prepared.
"The degree to which those characteristics are pronounced in a wine can be matched to the degree in the food, as well," she explained. Another principle is layering: The winemaker begins with the flavor of the particular grape or grape picked at a certain degree of ripeness, adds the character of oak (or doesn't) and, at every stage, seeks to concentrate and enhance the flavor, layer upon layer. In making a classic sauce, you start with a stock and then reduce it and then add ingredients and so on, layering the flavors.
On Maui, Immer and her fellow presenters winemakers and chefs from the United States, Australia and Europe will be discussing this layering process in a series of presentations including one on how to pair Rhine- and Rhone-style wines with Pacific Rim foods, a tasting aimed at recognizing the difference between Old- and New-World wines and a dinner in which the wines served will be "Anything But Chardonnay & Cabernet."
What are the hot topics that will come up as wine lovers congregate for the Kapalua Festival events?
Immer outlined three:
Corks and closures, meaning the continuing debate over real cork vs. synthetic materials or even screw caps. Cork, though beloved by the traditionalist, can become tainted, ruining a costly bottle of wine. And cork is growing more expensive and more scarce.
Her bottom line: "If you do see a synthetic cork, don't sweat it," she said.
The shift toward "new varietals" and away from an almost exclusive concentration on chardonnays and merlots. "It's not to say they're not still the most popular, but people are starting to be interested in other wines and I think it's fascinating because, from a historical perspective, this is pretty quick. We were a Blue Nun and Cella Lambrusco culture for a lot longer than we've been drinking chardonnay and merlot," she said.
Among the wines that she's excited about: shiraz (syrah in France), zinfandel (not to be confused with white zinfandel) and sauvignon blanc.
And prices. Mostly, how ridiculously high can they get before consumers turn off? "When the dot-com stock market silliness was at its peak, a lot of wineries felt they couldn't even put a wine on the market for less than $60. Never mind that it had no track record," Immer said.
Her hope is that wineries will be "brave" enough to introduce wines at reasonable prices to entice buyers to taste different varietals and blends, and cease to price wines steeply as a means of making them seem desirable.
Immer is particularly looking forward to some European-style winemakers' dinners at Kapalua, in which they're adopting the practice that's followed at post-harvest dinners in Europe. Winemakers gather for a festive dinner, each bringing select bottles from their cellars. During they meal, they casually hand the bottles around, circulating them between tables, taste and talk.
"This is in keeping with the distinctly Island flair that we want to maintain at this event," she said. "Nobody's taking themselves too seriously ... That makes a lot of sense to me."