Category Archives: Sommelier

New Zealand State of Wine with Sommelier Erin Scala of the Musket Room

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If you missed my column Unscrewed last week in the Village Voice, here’s your second chance to read my interview with The Musket Room’s sommelier Erin Scala.

Erin Scala, originally from the state for lovers (Virginia), is currently having a love affair with New Zealand, especially the wines. She’s a female force on the NYC sommelier scene and has run the wine show at The Musket Room (265 Elizabeth Street, 212-219-0764), New York’s first restaurant showcasing haute Kiwi cuisine, for the last four months. In the interview that follows, Scala details how subway busking and a job making Mexican tortillas led to her career as a sommelier, and she also expounds upon New Zealand’s vinous state of affairs, strongly suggesting we start cellaring future NZ classics before the rest of the world catches on.

How did you get started in the wine and restaurant industry?

Virginia is a blossoming wine country, and as a kid, I used to run among the vines at my dad’s friends’ vineyards, so I was always in close proximity to wine, quite literally. But in high school and college I was a dedicated musician. I played drums in several bands and got to travel to pretty much every state in the U.S. on tour plus several performances elsewhere in the world.

In high school, I had to raise money to afford a band trip, so I got my first restaurant gig at a Mexican joint making tortillas. When I got my first paycheck I couldn’t believe it–$200 all for me! I was so happy I could afford new drum sticks or a cymbal! But one can barely scratch by on drumming gigs, so from then on I almost always had a restaurant gig on the side. When I first moved to Manhattan, I used to busk on the Union Square L platform, but then I got really serious as a sommelier, and it was just too all-consuming to have the time to play in the subways anymore. But I still play for fun, and I’ll take a studio recording job here or there.

Do you remember your first taste of wine and what it was?
I’m pretty sure that my first taste of wine was out of a box at a party, unfortunately. My first taste of a great wine that made me start studying, however, was Fonsalette; shortly after, I tried a killer Monbazillac. Then it just snowballed, and I became obsessed.

How long have you been with the Musket Room, and what is the focus of the list you’ve built?
The Musket Room opened in late May 2013, and I joined the team in the first week. It’s a brand new restaurant, doing something incredibly unique; we just hit our four-month mark and received a Michelin Star! Our talented chef Matt Lambert is from Auckland, and his food is “Modern New Zealand.” The wine list revolves around high-quality New Zealand selections but has plenty of interesting wines from around the world. We have help on the ground in New Zealand from Cameron Douglas, master sommelier.

How does the list complement the food?
Often in US restaurants, you’ll find cheap New Zealand wine in tandem with low-quality food. People will go to a pub or diner and expect a cheap NZ Sauvignon Blanc to go with simple bar food. But there is a whole other side to New Zealand wine, and The Musket Room wine list is a window into this world. We are doing something completely different by offering the best of New Zealand wine with inventive and inspiring New Zealand cuisine. When you drink these great wines with such great food, it presents what is happening in the New Zealand wine realm in a completely different light. I see people’s faces light up every night when I open some of these interesting bottles. Of course, the Kiwi community in NYC is already in the know, and they come in and are happy but not surprised.

Why have you spent so much of your career focused on the wines of the Antipodes, first Aussie and NZ at Public, and now NZ at the Musket Room?
I’ve always tried to grow and learn in my career. I started off working a French wine list, and then moved to an American one. When the job at Public opened up, I was curious to explore the Antipodes because it was a weak area for me. In music school, you learn that to become better at the performance of a particular piece, you must work on your weakest area until it is your best. If you approach practicing this way–be it music or wine study or whatever it is you do–you will make your base level of performance much higher.

The best way to learn the wines of a country (aside from going there) is to work a wine list predominant in those wines. I was curious and ready for a challenge in my career, so I hit the books and learned everything I could about Australia and New Zealand to prepare for the job at Public. When I left Public, my first thought was to challenge myself again and work perhaps a Spanish or Italian wine list, but then I watched a service at The Musket Room, and I knew that something very, very special was happening there, and I wanted to be a part of it. It’s been a great four months, too. There is always so much to learn as a sommelier; the pool of facts, vintages, soils, and varieties is really endless, but focusing in on New Zealand closer than I ever have before–even at Public–has been a great learning experience.

Even though I just spoke about challenging yourself with confronting weaknesses and focusing on the unknown, there is also something to be said for committing yourself to one thing and getting to know it on a deeper level. Like all great things, learning is a paradox because it asks you to both grow and reflect. At Public I was always playing the New Zealand wines off of Australia, always comparing them to Australia. Australia was always part of the conversation. But at The Musket Room, the New Zealand wines stand alone and rightly so.

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Scala pairs New Zealand wines to New Zealand fare

Are there any recent movements in the New Zealand wine industry?
All movements in the New Zealand wine industry are recent, and that is what is so cool about it. I feel that I am watching history being made–a history to which not that many sommeliers are paying attention. Though a few people were making wines back in the late 1800s, the wine scene in New Zealand really started in the late 1970s.

Many of the answers that I search for–e.g. the sub-regions of Central Otago, the long-term ageability of Waitaki Riesling, the future of corks in New Zealand–are still being worked out. When asked about Central Otago sub-regions, many winemakers say “It is just too early to tell–our vines are only 10 to 20 years old!” For me, this is one of the most exciting parts of my job. To learn the fine details, we must all stay tuned with open minds.

There isn’t much chatter about NZ wines beyond Sauv Blanc and Pinots. Would you say NZ wines tend to be overlooked here in the States?
I think the wines of NZ are definitely overlooked–the good wines, that is. A lot of it has to do with consumer expectations and market pricing. Many people expect New Zealand wines to be cheap because of the flood of inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc in the 1990s, and a lot of wine consumers demand value; but many of the best New Zealand wines can be pricey, for a number of reasons.

People who are willing to spend $200 on a bottle of Pinot Noir in a restaurant will often lean toward the familiar and choose a Burgundy rather than experiment with an insanely good Pinot Noir, like, for instance, Rippon’s Tinker’s Field. But there are plenty of values out there, especially if you are willing to spend between $20 and $30 per bottle in a wine shop, or $60 to $80 in a restaurant. We’ve watched emerging wine regions earn respect in the past–California, then Oregon. New Zealand is right there.

I think in 15 to 20 years, I will laugh at this interview because these great wineries that are buzzing just beneath the global radar, like Rippon, Millton, and Fromm, will be collectors’ items by that time. It’s funny–I’m pouring some of these great wines by the glass every night, and I think, “I hope people realize what they are drinking!” I think they do. I can see it in their faces.

Outside of Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, what other grapes are, or could be, important to NZ?
This is a tough question for many reasons, and it cannot be addressed solely by addressing grapes. Why? Because within each category of grape variety lies a collection of different clones, making the answer to “which grape” complex. Additionally, clones develop differently in different regions, and in the hands of different producers. To be true to my sommelier beliefs, I cannot just gloss over all of these issues and spit out grape varieties that are doing well in New Zealand. There are many international grape varieties that grow well there. But, as I mentioned, New Zealand is only a part of the equation. I think a grape variety will do well in a suitable climate and make a great wine only in the hands of a dedicated and thoughtful producer.

What capable and thoughtful producers are working with alternative varieties in New Zealand? I can definitely name a few. Nick Mills (Central Otago) at Rippon is making amazing Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Osteiner. James Millton (Gisborne) bottles some of the most sublime Chenin Blanc I have ever had. He also makes great Viognier. Ostler winery (Waitaki Valley) has Pinot Gris and Riesling that never fails to amaze me. Want a big red that will make your head spin? Try the Syrah from Dry River (Martinborough) with some age on it. For ethereal Pinot Gris, take a trip to Ponui Island and see what Man O’ War winery (Waiheke Island) is making. There is so much more–I could write a book!  [Editor’s note: For further expansion on these topics, visit Scala’s blog.]

What can you recommend from your list that gives customers either a good value and/or a sense of place of the regions from which they come? 
I have plenty of recommendations. From Gisborne, you must try James Millton’s Chenin Blanc before you die! Period. It’s by the glass at The Musket Room, so stop by and cross this must off your bucket list.

From Marlborough is Fromm’s La Strada Pinot Noir with some age. From Martinborough, I suggest Dry River’s Gewürztraminer and Syrah and the Ata Rangi Pinot Noir. Out of Waitaki Valley, look for Ostler anything! A few from Central Otago include anything from Rippon, Terra Sancta’s Pinot Noir, and Quartz Reef sparkling wine. From Canterburry, anything from Pyramid Valley. Finally, out of Waipara, I like Pegasus Bay “Bel Canto” Riesling and Mountford Pinot Noir.

Moving beyond the NZ wine scope, have you noticed any consumer trends over the last few years?
Pinot Noir is mind-bogglingly popular. It’s always the top selling wine by the glass and by the bottle at every restaurant I’ve ever worked in.

What are your personal drinking habits off the job?
Beer. At the end of a 12- to 15-hour work day, there is nothing else that compares to an awesome, cold, frothy beer, and the alcohol is lower, so it’s better for your liver. I’m addicted to Lagunitas IPA.

Do you regularly keep any specific wines at home?
There is always a bottle of Campari. But I change up the wine. I like to ask the people at the wine shops to put together a case for me–wrapped up–so I can blind taste the bottles. Last night I blind tasted a Sicilian Frapato, and it totally blew me away.

Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing?
I love pairing Gewürztraminer with dishes that have a lavender element. I like Tempranillo with pizza and Cabernet Franc with tacos. Botrytis wines with panna cotta. Old school Rioja with dishes that have a dill element. Funky Poulsard with mushrooms. Chablis can be magical with caviar. Crazy, awesome Riesling pairs best with a book on Philosophy.

If you could be traveling anywhere right now, where would you be?
I would be on a boat somewhere, eating some fresh grilled fish, listening to Bach, and washing it all down with something local and delicious.

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Sommelier Yannick Benjamin Works the Floor on Wheels

Yannick Benjamin

If you missed my article on the Village Voice, here’s a second look…

A bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin saved Yannick Benjamin‘s career; wine saved his life.
On October 27, 2003, Benjamin had a car accident on the West Side Highway that left him a T-6 paraplegic for life. He wasn’t drinking, he didn’t break any laws, nobody else was injured. Benjamin instantly knew something was wrong: “I felt a pulling in my body, the way a magnet is drawn to a refrigerator.” That night was the first of many in a decade long journey to mend his body and spirit, and return to the career he almost left.
At the time of the accident, Benjamin, only 25, was hitting his stride in the sommelier world. Born and bred in Manhattan, Benjamin had been working his way through the ranks of New York’s finest restaurants. “Growing up, I dreamed about owning my version of Cheers,” he says. “I wanted a fun place with a good group of people, simple food, and wine. I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Benjamin’s accident left him in a wheelchair. At first, he was confident he’d return to work. “I was so naïve, thinking I was going to come out of the hospital and start working the floor,” he says. But the positivity ebbed and flowed. For Benjamin, the hardest part came when a nurse finally explained that certain activities, specifically catheterization to go to the bathroom, would be forever. “‘This is your life,’ she told me. The gravity of that hit me, and it was depressing.”

After the ICU, Benjamin spent several more months in rehab before returning home in January 2004. “I remember that night; my dad brought me home,” he says. “We opened a Joseph Roty Gevrey-Chambertin from 2000. This was the first wine I tasted after my accident, and it was my first sip of something that wasn’t water or juice. The wine just hit me in the way an orange bursts in your mouth and the flavors taste electric. All this nostalgia came back, memories of working on the floor, being with wine friends. That experience changed my life and cemented my decision to get back out there no matter what.”

Convincing restaurants to hire him proved enormously difficult. “I can’t even tell you how many places I applied to that first year,” he says. “But nobody knew who I was, and I came rolling into the interview in a wheelchair. Yes, of course, rejection can make you strong, but after a while, it was also discouraging.”

As time passed, Benjamin was introduced to Jean-Luc Le Dû, the former sommelier at Daniel. Le Dû, had just opened his eponymous wine shop in the West Village, and without a moment’s hesitation, hired him, allowing Benjamin to continue working in wine. The job gave him stability. He began adding to his list of achievements, finishing college and entering tasting competitions. His highest goal was to sit for the Court of Master Sommeliers exam.

MS candidates are required to simulate wine service by carrying, decanting, and serving. Benjamin spent hours online trying to find someone working a restaurant floor in a wheelchair. “I looked up ‘wheelchair sommelier,’ and absolutely nothing came up,” he says. “I guess I am the only one dumb enough to attempt it.” To take the exam, Benjamin needed a tray. After various models, Benjamin finally settled on a custom wooden tray he designed with Jean-Paul Viollet of Atelier Viollet.

Last spring, Benjamin passed the service portion of the MS exam in Aspen. But he still felt a deep emptiness: “I didn’t care if someone paid me five bucks or nothing, I just wanted to get on a restaurant floor. I needed it.” A week later, he heard about an opening for a sommelier at the University Club. He had previously participated in competitions there in which, unknown to him, general manager John Dorman had been a judge. “When I went in and applied, he said he knew who I was.”

Benjamin was hired fuss-free and has been working as a sommelier nearly five months now, using his custom tray. At first he was nervous, worrying that the staff and customers might not accept him, but instead found the opposite. “They have been unbelievably helpful and gracious,” he says. “I think they feed off my energy.”

Reflecting on the past 10 years, Benjamin acknowledged that wine served as a life jacket during his recovery: “Wine, for me, isn’t just about drinking it; it’s a bridge to many different things—people, places, stories. I don’t know that if I didn’t have wine in my life, I would’ve been able to get through these difficult years.” Benjamin hopes to visit Joseph Roty in Burgundy. “I thought about writing a letter,” he says, “but I want to tell them in person how much that bottle meant to me. How that bottle saved my life.”

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