What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style? “Waitaki Valley! It’s awesome! This new region in New Zealand has limestone soils and the rieslings and pinots that come from here are pretty profound; try Valli Waitaki Pinot Noir or Ostler Waitaki Riesling.”
Erin Scala, Head Sommelier at Musket Room, New York
In Medieval Provençal times they were saumaliers, animal pack drivers who evolved during Middle French kingdom to become court officials charged with transportation of supplies. So what does a modern day Sommelier actually do? Well, Wikipedia outlines as such, “A sommelier or wine steward is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, normally working in fine restaurants who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food matching. The most important work of a sommelier is in the areas of wine procurement, wine storage, wine cellar rotation, and expert service to wine consumers.”
A reasonably accurate job description although perhaps a little parched as our new-age sommelier has evolved to a higher learning with a wine Jedi cognizance and a seventh sense that can psychoanalyse a diner, marry the person, the dish and the wine in seconds. They are now the gateway to wine discovery equipped with clairvoyance in food and wine trends, inspiring thirst around the world.
Feared by winemakers, loathed by wine distributors as the arbiters’ of wine lists, the restaurant patron should embrace their knowledge, skills and talent as they are hopelessly and passionately obsessed with wine and will take you on journey of gastronomic enlightenment. And our new-age sommelier is no longer confined to fine dining and can be found in casual eateries, wine bars, gastro-pubs, winery restaurants, wine stores and you’ll even bump into an air-sommelier at 30,000ft these days. Some have hung up their waiters-friend and metamorphosed to the wine trade as brand ambassadors, distributors or consultants, but once a sommelier, always a sommelier.
This column explores the gustatory and olfactory manifestations of sommeliers all over this planet. We take a cross section of the sommelier’s stomach and intestines to reveal what and where they eat. And we dissect their taste buds and dopamine receptors as they relent to the Wandering Palate narcosynthesis and confess to their personal vinous pleasures and closely-held secrets – this is The Sommelier’s Palate.
Erin Scala DWS, United States of America
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
The Musket Room (SoHo, Manhattan, New York). I also do opening segments for Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink to That podcast (illdrinktothatpod.com) and I write a blog about wines, beers, cocktails, and teas at www.thinking-drinking.com
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
Eleven Madison Park- I went there for my 2nd anniversary dinner and was blown away by the food, drinks, and service. It was an inspirational meal! Jeff Taylor picked the wines and made the service extra special.
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
Patrick at Pearl & Ash has a jaw-dropping wine list that makes every sommelier drool! I’m lucky it’s just a block away from my stomping grounds! I love going to Ten Bells late at night; their wine list is written on chalkboards that line the entrances. They have great glass pours and small plates, and I think they must be friends with the NYC cheesemongers, because they always have the most delicious cheeses.
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
When my now-husband and I went on one of our first dates he took me to Blue Hill at Stone Barns soon after they opened. I had an amazing dinner and I’ll always remember this “Face Sausage” made from a pig’s head (!!). Then, a couple years ago on his birthday we had a crazy dinner at Del Posto – Ougly champagne, table side burata, coffee service in a brass pot with whipped sugar, petit fours in a jewellery box, live piano music… It was pretty memorable.
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
I’m a simple tapas girl—give me a cheese plate & some papas bravas and I’m a happy girl! I love frequenting all the cool tapas joints in Manhattan– my favourites are Boquaria and Tertulia. But the places I frequent most often: I work right next to Tacombi, a taco place that makes tacos in a VW bus. Am I a regular here? You bet. A block away is Prince Street pizza—once the owner yelled at me for throwing out the crust “Don’t throw that away! We brush it with fresh olive oil!” Now I eat the crust, every single time! And late night there is the Prince Street deli—the guys there make me a delicious cheese sandwich when I need sustenance on the way home. But if it’s 2am and you need oysters, it’s Blue Ribbon—I love it there; it feels like you’re in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and you always meet the most interesting people.
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
Yes! My husband and I get pretty serious at home when it comes to cooking. Our kitchen is set up like a restaurant pass, and we can do 10 course dinners without ever repeating glassware or plates. We make all of our own ice creams and sorbets, we have a wall of salt that features different salts from around the world, we hand make ravioli once a month and never repeat the flavour, we have “pizza” night where we practice throwing the dough and compete with friends to see who can make the best topping combination, and we have a dehydrator so we can harvest and preserve all the herbs and fruits that we grow in the summer.
My favourite thing that my husband makes is, ironically, pretty simple: pan-seared maitake mushrooms with ricotta—when he’s cooking these, the greatest smell on earth fills our house. And I have perfected the buckwheat-chocolate chip cookie—I make these by the hundreds.
Do you have a favourite wine bar?!
Ten Bells! But I also love visiting Pascaline Lepeltier at Rouge Tomate and having one of her interesting cocktails or something off her lovely and always-changing by-the-glass list. She also has a section on the wine list called “Chenin Chenin Chenin!,” which makes it easy to get a Chenin Blanc fix when you inevitably need one.
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
Camille Riviere is the gateway to some of my favourite producers! And her vivacious personality and infectious enthusiasm for wine and life is like an electric shock! I also really enjoy working with the thoughtful Michel Abood, founder of Vinotas. His portfolio has some of the most delicious wines I’ve sampled across the board. Victor O. Schwartz is another favourite—he is the founder of V.O.S., a music & art lover, and he has a really interesting palate and an open mind for welcoming good wines from newer regions. He’s a pioneer. And Christian Troy (founder of Indie) is brilliant. He’s #1 on my speed dial for any wine questions if I were a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. His palate is precise and discerning, and he’s put together a very unique and special portfolio. And I want to read the memoirs of David Weitzenhoffer, founder of Acid Inc., quite possibly the most interesting wine guy in the world.
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue you wine obsession?
Yes! Years ago it was a sip of Fonsalette. Then, a taste of Montbazillac. Today, an inspiring wine can strike at any moment—the key is staying open to it even at unexpected times. And they tend to sneak up on you when you’d never expect it. Some wines that have recently prompted insight and revelation are: Bourgois-Diaz champagne, Rippon 2009 Emma’s Block Pinot noir (Central Otago, NZ), Val Cerasa, both the red and the white, from Mt. Etna (Sicily).
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
Waitaki Valley! It’s awesome! This new region in New Zealand has limestone soils and the rieslings and pinots that come from here are pretty profound; try Valli Waitaki Pinot Noir or Ostler Waitaki Riesling.
Tell us what is your ultimate wine bargain discovery in terms of price/quality rapport? (i.e. does not have to be cheap but over-delivers in quality for the price)
If I told you, all my colleagues would steal my allocations… *wink wink. These are well kept secrets, so you’ll just have to come visit me to find out: But a few teasers: Prat Sura Vacqueyras (Rhone), Simian Chateauneuf du Pape (Rhone), Dirty & Rowdy Mourvèdre (Napa), Millton Viognier (Gisborne, New Zealand)
Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that has you have experienced recently.
Our chef makes a salmon dish with matsuma purée, crispy freeze-dried mandarins, and a vanilla-olive oil gel. I’ve been pairing it with James Millton’s Chenin Blanc from Gisborne, New Zealand. It’s magic.
What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?
Well, hiking up the Urziger Wurzgarten in the Mosel was pretty stunning! I was there during spargle season (white asparagus) and I just loved all the white asparagus with the wines. And once I drove to Montalcino at night. I couldn’t see a thing but the headlights on the road. In the morning, when I opened my window shades and saw the sun-dappled hills and vineyards it took my breath away. But I have to say, I’ve been blown away by hiking the hills around Lake Wanaka in Central Otago and the views from Emma’s Block at Rippon.
Select a six pack of wines that you think are absolutely outstanding and inspirational, and that will set people on a journey of vinous discovery and enlightenment.
Millton Chenin Blanc 2007 (Gisborne, New Zealand)
Schafer-Frohlich “Felseneck” GG Riesling 2012 (Nahe, Germany)
Brundlemayer “Lamm” 2011 Gruner Veltliner (Austria)
Rippon “Emma’s Block” Pinot noir 2009 (Central Otago)
Linden “Hardscrabble” red 2006 (Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia)
Laurent Cazottes “Sweet Cherry Wine” (France)