Photo by Anne Fishbein

Making wine is an impressive thing to do — a hundred luxurious chateaux in the Napa Valley speak to the Robb Report prestige of putting one’s name on a nice bottle of something red. But sommeliers, the guys who put together wine lists, may be even cooler these days, in the way that curators are cooler than artists and bloggers are cooler than Guardian reporters, and pop has come to be dominated by DJs who pack gargantuan clubs with their artful mixes of artists whose records blend one into the other. In the information society, a good filter outranks an artist every time. It’s all about the brand.

And in the world of sommeliers, they don’t come any more branded than Andrea Immer, who has spun her bubbly personality, her considerable knowledge and her Pepsodent smile into books, television, videos and instructional CDs, magazine columns, and gigs buying wine for half the hotel chains in the country, including Hilton, W and Marriott.

Her niche is as the anti-snob, the wine writer who will tell you that it is okay to enjoy the mass-marketed fruits of Gallo, Mondavi and Beringer. Even in a world dominated by Two Buck Chuck and Red Wine for Dummies, Immer comes across as a people’s champion or, more accurately, a living display of the glamour of knowing a little about wine. In a profession dominated by middle-aged men, Immer is a babe whose blondness is worthy of Vogue. She knows her way around a grand cru Burgundy — she was the sommelier at Windows on the World, where I drank more than one perfect Clos de la Roche presumably chosen by her — but she is quite content to recommend a wine in a box. She may be one of the best culinary marketers since the late James Beard. But it was still odd to run into her new branded wine section near the dish soap at Target the other day, to find her as the wine-bibbing equivalent of Isaac Mizrahi, Cynthia Rowley and Michael Graves.

Target does great advertising, in the White Stripes colors of red and white, and in supplements to every glossy magazine this side of Cat Fancy, it advertises its cool, its idea of high design at low prices. Still, it’s always interesting to walk people through the store for the first time and watch their fantasies of cut-rate Philippe Starck and Shabby Chic dissolve when they are confronted with endless vistas of cheap, brightly colored clothing, jumbo packs of paper towels and Rubbermaid products receding into the far horizon.

For New York media workers unable to visit a Target without crossing into parts of Queens that might as well be Vanuatu, the store is endlessly beguiling, a whiff of the exotic lands beyond the Holland Tunnel. (During the holiday season, Manhattanites actually line up to visit a severely edited version of the store temporarily housed in a ship moored at a pier on the Hudson River.) The mammoth new Target in West Hollywood, in the beating heart of the previously Target-deprived 323 area, is as crowded as Staples Center on weekends, and when the Immer line is introduced there (at the moment, it is only at the East Pasadena Target locally), her thin but almost-decent California Pinot Grigio–in–a–box will probably make it to half the cocktail parties in Hollywood.

But while Graves and Mizrahi design the products that go out under their names, or at least make gestures in that direction, Immer is dependent on wine made by others. Assembling a wine selection for a retailer like Target can’t be easy. Target is an enormous chain, for one thing, with nearly 1,200 stores, and the sorts of wines that critics tend to become ecstatic about usually happen to be expensive, hand-crafted wines from relatively small producers.

Finding the latest vintage from Marcassin or Dal Forno is even more difficult, and considerably more expensive, than tracking down the latest Cornelius release on vinyl-only Japanese import. The guys at places like Wine Expo make it their job to find great wines, usually from underappreciated French and Italian appellations, in the $8-to-$12 range; but there just isn’t enough of any single one of those wines to be available to an enormous chain. It is possible to make singular, idiosyncratic wines in huge quantities — most of the famous Bordeaux houses produce a million bottles a year or more, as opposed to the 60 to 70 cases that might be made of a great Burgundy — but at the larger quantities and Target-friendly price points, you more often see lakes of sound, clean, utterly generic wines from enormous corporations. And there has to be a preponderance of wines that are familiar to somebody who may not subscribe to the Wine Advocate: You aren’t going to sell a lot of Nero di Avola or Blaufrankisch in Muncie, or even Monrovia, no matter who’s doing the selling.

Which is to say, Target features the same inoffensive, huge-production wines from Mondavi and Penfolds and Beringer that you’ll find at your local supermarket, but given a modernist twist by the beautifully art-directed tutorial mounted over the display — oaky, sweet Chardonnays from Meridian and Kendall-Jackson; the crisply herbal New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from Villa Maria; bargain three-liter boxes of a strange California Shiraz that tastes a little like a not-unpleasant cross between Zinfandel and mentholated cigarettes; and the finest $8.99 Pinot Noirs money can buy. Each of them is shelved with a little J. Peterman–style placard featuring Immer’s breathless tasting notes: “When I first tasted this without knowing its price, I thought, ‘Yum, it must be expensive.’”

Or at least a soaring step above Two Buck Chuck.

LA Weekly