049 – Erin Barbour Scala, Petit Pois and Fleurie

erin-scalaWine Work. Sometimes in my travels, I meet a person whose excitement and passion for what they do is so all-encompassing I decide I must talk with them immediately. Meet Erin Scala, sommelier at Petit Pois and Fleurie restaurants in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I met Erin during an incredible and completely unplanned experience at Fleurie during the Virginia Festival of the Book. Chef Nora Pouillion, Gail Hobbs-Page, and Martha Stafford invited me to dinner, so of course I said yes. When I observed Erin’s enthusiasm for pairing wine with food, I asked her to be on the podcast right then and there.

Erin came to the wine world unexpectedly when she started working in restaurants to support a burgeoning career as a drummer. Which ultimately brought her to Fleurie. One day she overheard the chef talking with the distributor about a wine that smelled of olives. This created a spark of interest. After tasting this wine paired with a tapenade, a passion was born. Soon after she was spending all of her extra time and money buying wine, reading about wine, learning and living the world of wine.

Her approach to pairing is unique and fascinating. The Washington Post agrees. As a sommelier, Erin observes her customer closely. What do they order? Is it meats or a light salad? Are they trying to impress a date or client? Do they butter their bread heavily or not at all? Do they drink their water without ice? What cocktail are they enjoying? Only after gathering this information does she make her suggestions to give the diner perfect synergy between food and wine. She keeps records of what wine they ordered last time and whether or not they enjoyed it. This kind of attention to detail ensures excellent customer service.

It’s a challenging skill to create a wine list. You must choose ones that taste good, are a good value, but still meet your bottom line. How does she make her selections? By not padding it with popular selling varietals instead choosing carefully, making sure each wine pairs well with the food served in each restaurant. She pulls from her past experience as a musician to “compose” every pairing, using music-related words to describe the wines to folks who might be intimidated by the numerous choices.

It’s worth it to put your trust in the sommelier if the wine list looks good. They took the time to create it and know it better than anyone. Pro tip: doing a bit of research on the sommelier and learning what wines they’re passionate about prior to visiting can enhance your dining experience. What is Erin’s “passion point”? We talk about it. Above all, don’t be intimidated by the sommelier. Talk to them frankly about your needs, likes, and dislikes. They are there to guide you, not make you look stupid. Trust them.

Although you don’t need certification to work as a sommelier, in the current era of booming demand the profession is becoming more academic by the minute.  An entire industry onto itself. New programs are springing up everywhere, a huge change from the past when this knowledge was passed down informally to each succeeding generation. What are the effects of the business becoming credentialed and maybe at times, dogmatic? We talk about that as well as the special challenges with regard to the drinking age in this country. Erin is currently working toward her Master of Wine (MW) degree. There are fewer than 300 of them in existence. Consider it a PhD in wine because as a pre-requisite she completed all three levels in The Wine and Spirits Education Trust and was awarded a Diploma of Wine & Spirits (DWS) degree. No small feat!

We also talk about the Winemaker’s Research Exchange in Charlottesville. The first group of its kind in the world! Wine makers, sellers, distributors, and sommeliers getting together to learn from each other doing research on grape varietals, experimenting with all sorts of different kinds of wine and comparing results. That’s what I call a community connection!

Why does riesling get a bad rap? Are wine consumers different in New York than they are here? How did the sommelier profession begin? How is the Fleurie name related to wine? What is orange wine and how is it made? Can we ever make grappa here in Virginia? Does she have unique challenges being a female in a male-dominated field? We discuss all of it.

We also head down the rabbit hole and do a live wine tasting because I asked the question, “What is the ultimate good pairing?”. Which of course meant we also had to experience the ultimate bad one. Such fun. Plus, I discovered my new favorite wine. What was in both pairings? Listen to find out!

I recently dined at Fleurie again, where Erin’s husband Joseph is a co-owner along with chef Brian Helleberg. The experience was extraordinary. I felt completely taken care of in every aspect. It got me thinking. How many restaurants out there are like that? Places where you feel you can totally relax the minute you step in the door because you can confidently put your trust in every person on staff. You don’t even have to think, just sit down and say, “Order for me.” Fleurie is definitely one of those places, and Erin’s wine skills are a huge reason why.

I love wine but don’t know much about it. So I learned a ton during this episode and I know you will too. The biggest thing I learned? There are terrific wines in every category. So step outside of your comfort zone, don’t order that sauvignon blanc you always do, and put your trust in a great sommelier like Erin Scala. Santé!

SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:

  • I’ll Drink To That! – A terrific podcast all about the people doing the work of wine. Very similar to Edacious! Erin does the introductions to every podcast, offering up great stories and information about all things grape.
  • Thinking-Drinking – Erin’s blog, full of news, musings, stories, and tons of information about wine.
  • Somm – Sommeliers compete for the ultimate title. Entertaining, but also kind of ridiculous in my opinion. What do you think?
  • The Supersizers Go! – British personalities Giles Coren and Sue Perkins eat their way through almost every era in history. Ridiculously funny and entertaining.
  • Charlottesville Pie Fest – Do you have what it takes? Register your pie at the link! Can’t master pie crust yet? Then show up and eat a slice to benefit the Crozet United Methodist Church Food Pantry. October 9th at Crozet Mudhouse. We need sponsors! We need judges! We need prizes! Contact me for details, and don’t miss my BONUS episode about the pie festival this Monday!
  • Appalachian Food Summit – In its 3rd year, this summit started over a discussion on Facebook as to whether or not cornbread contains sugar. Its mission is to educate everyone on the valuable contributions Appalachia has made to food culture, and to celebrate its vibrant and thriving foodways. We’re not living in the past people! Appalachian food is alive and well, growing and changing all the time. Experience it for yourself!
  • Virginia Festival of the Book – Are you a restaurant owner willing to donate your space for a food event? Then VA Festival of the Book wants to talk to you! Contact me for more details.

This episode is sponsored by MarieBette Café & Bakery.

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