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 V.14 No.46 | November 17 - 23, 2005 

Tasteful Reads

Andrea Immer Robinson's Wine Made Simple: Straight Talk from a Master Sommelier

An immersion course on mastering the juice

Andrea Immer Robinson
Andrea Immer Robinson

Farty old wine snobs be warned: There is a new sommelier in town, and she's here to deliver the next generation of wine drinkers from the perpetual hell of Sutter Home White Zinfandel.

Andrea Immer Robinson's newly revised and updated book, Great Wine Made Simple: Straight Talk from a Master Sommelier, offers a fresh perspective and some down-to-earth advice about drinking, choosing and serving wines of all types and prices.

Robinson is a sommelier (which, in layman's terms, means professional wino with class). Her extensive knowledge of wines has earned her the enviable job of Dean of Wine Studies at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and she is one of only 14 women in the world holding the title of Master Sommelier.

But don't let the credentials fool you. We're not talking about some prissy, uptight wine debutante. This woman chucked her successful Wall Street career for a Eurail pass and a backpack. She started her educational journey by going for broke and touring France's infamous wine country. The experience seems to lend a hand in her approach to teaching about the world's oldest alcoholic beverage, because her language is easy, understandable and more than a little fun. She begins the book by listing several fears of new ’winers,' such as pricy bottles that don't deliver, snobby wine waiters, cryptic labels and wine lists the size of War and Peace.

Wine Made Simple: Straight Talk from a Master Sommelier
Wine Made Simple: Straight Talk from a Master Sommelier

She states in the book, "I am convinced that scholarly books are the reason legions of open-minded readers, drowning in jargon but still helpless in wine stores and restaurants, fall out of love with wine."

Is she right? Many younger wine drinkers and amateur connoisseurs could probably attest to being snobbed out by waiters and store help. But if knowing is half the battle, then Robinson is selling an arms package perfectly tailored to wannabe winers.

She first covers the basics, or in her words, "the wine buyer's toolbox." This includes short and understandable explanations about body styles, flavor words and the big six grape varieties—complete with phonetic pronunciations--which are Riesling (REES-ling), Sauvignon Blanc ( Sow-veen-yone BLANC), Chardonnay (Shar-duh-NAY), Pinot Noir (PEE-no NWAR), Merlot/Cabernet (Murr-LOW, Cab-uhr-NAY), Syrah/Shiraz (Suh-RAH, Shuh-RAHZ).

In chapter one. titled "The Big Six," she guides readers through their first tasting and gives a short but comprehensive list of wine choices from each variety. But more importantly she touts brands that are inexpensive with the same enthusiasm as the pricier bottles. She writes that buyers should expect more if they are paying more. But price is not necessarily indicative of quality.

"Supply and demand, marketing hype and brand recognition also figure into pricing," she writes.

Robinson also serves as a wine myth-buster, dissecting such ambiguous but common terms such as fruity, sweet and dry. She says that describing a wine as fruity means different things to different people, and that some people tend to use the term when they actually mean sweet, and are often afraid to admit that they would prefer a sweeter selection.

"Since the typical time-starved millennium wine drinker can't be bothered with cellaring wine or studying it, their taste is for here-and-now, easy-drinking, accessible wine styles—’fruity' has become a catch-all term for these," she writes in chapter two.

She is also a staunch defender of the sweeter-tasting wines like Rieslings. In a segment aptly titled "I Am an Acid Freak," she praises the acidity in wine as being a perfect accompaniment to food.

Great tastes aside; it is her attitude and sense of humor that makes this book truly great. She never fails to keep it real with quotes like, "Would you rather do some serious shopping for wine, or go to the dentist? I haven't conducted an official poll, but I'm willing to bet the dentist ranks pretty high." Even the sidebars have charmingly witty names like "Over-the-Top Oak," "Jug Burgundy," and "Wine List Hell."

All the technical stuff is here, but it's presented in an uncomplicated way. Using the Robinson flare, she tackles tough topics like how to navigate a wine label, how wine is made, regional and climatic differences with regard to taste, quality and marketing, and the differences between the wines of the "old world" (Europe) and the "new world" (America, Australia and Chile).

By the end of the book, interested and curious readers will have learned how to differentiate between every style of wine, how to taste and savor aroma and body, how to choose wines, how to pick personal favorites, how to pair foods and wines, and how to host your own wine tasting.

My only quirk regarding this book was its cover. After reading it, I felt that the cover did not quite do justice to the contents. It features a friendly looking, yet ultra-conservatively dressed Robinson, holding a glass of wine and standing in front of a vineyard scene. I think that in order to capture the book's funny, down-to-earth and fresh approach to wine exploration, the author should have chosen a younger look with a more original background and less rigid pose.

Despite the cover, the book is very well-written, amateur-friendly and offers winers the ultimate antidote: It takes the fear and frustration out of the wine experience. When I finished the book, I felt like I could stare down the snottiest server, decipher the seemingly impossible codes on the wine labels and impress my friends and family with top-notch selections, all the while staying well within my meager budget.

Great Wine Made Simple is a master stroke from a master sommelier. Any nouveau winer who buys it will be armed and ready to enter the wine world with guns a blazin'.

Great Wine Made Simple: Straight Talk from a Master Sommelier (Broadway Books, hardcover, $27.95)

Available at major bookstores or online at www.andreaimmer.com

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