Sommelier Talk: Erin Scala Proves Virginia Is for Wine Lovers

Channeling the muse through music and wine, the wine director of Fleurie has become a rock star in Charlottesville
Sommelier Talk: Erin Scala Proves Virginia Is for Wine Lovers
Erin Scala has witnessed the Virginia wine scene evolve to a point where vintners are experimenting successfully with lesser-known grapes like Petit Verdot and Petit Manseng. (Eze Amos)
Nov 18, 2016

Erin Scala marches to the beat of her own drum—literally. From formal study of music in college to rocking drums in a variety of bands, Scala naturally finds crossovers between music and tasting wine. “When you think about how a wine tastes and how you experience the sense of tastes on your palate, it can be the same way [with music],” Scala says. “Sometimes I will think, ‘Oh this reminds me of Bach the way it is.’ Or I can say, ‘Wow, this wine really builds once it's in your mouth’"—a crescendo worthy of Beethoven.

Scala first discovered wine in 2006 when she worked as a server at Fleurie, now a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner, in Charlottesville, Va. That's when she also met her future husband, Joe, who was in town visiting home; at the time, Joe was living in New York City and working at Grand Award winner Per Se. Following a whirlwind romance, Scala moved to New York City six months later. But the two ultimately decided to return in 2013, to both Charlottesville and Fleurie. Joe is the general manager and Erin is the wine director.

Scala has amassed a 350-selection wine list, with strengths in California, the Loire and, as the restaurant name suggests, Beaujolais. But the region that stands out most on the list is Virginia. The development is a departure from a decade ago but tracks with Charlottesville's ascent as epicenter of a fast-improving local wine scene. Scala spoke with Restaurant Awards director Gillian Sciaretta about the emotional ties of music and wine, and the rise of Virginia wines.

Wine Spectator: How did you get your start in wine?
Erin Scala: I remember this one time [in 2006]—you know how everyone has that one bottle that really got them started? Well, this time I heard the chef and a wine importer talking about this one wine that they said smelled like olives. And I thought, "Oh that's so weird. A wine that smells like olives?" So I walked over and said, "Let me just smell that." So I got a sniff of it, and it really did smell like olives! It was Château de Fonsalette 2003 [from the Rhône].

At that point I was like, “OK, this is kind of crazy. I have never smelled or tasted anything like this. I am going to go home and research this tonight.” I then started looking at the wine list a little differently and thought, "There are some pretty cool things on here that I need to learn a little bit more about."

WS: There is a big emphasis on Virginia wines on Fleurie’s wine list. Why did you decide to focus on Virginia?
ES: I have two perspectives to answer that question: the 10-years-ago perspective and today's perspective, which are totally different.

About 10 to 15 years ago there weren't that many wineries in Virginia. Now there are over 250. So back then, when there were 70 or 80 wineries, some of them were not that good, some of them were really good and then some of them were doing a nice job. And a lot of people had the same wines on their wine list: White Hall whites and Barboursville reds. When I worked here in 2006, we had Barboursville Pinot Grigio, and it was one of our top sellers. And then we would play around with a couple of other Virginia wines, maybe four of five all together.

When I moved back to Charlottesville I thought, “Well here is a chance to really showcase Virginia wines in a market that's totally receptive and open to them.” One thing I have noticed that's different between 2006 and today is that back [in 2006] there wasn't a very big wine trail. Now it's opposite. We'll have maybe 20 percent of our guests on a weekend night, out-of-towners visiting Charlottesville for a weekend away. You see more people, more visitors, come in, and they want to drink Virginia wines. They want to immerse themselves in the experience and try some local mead or local grass-fed beef or local cheese with a local wine.

WS: How do you determine what Virginia wines to add to your wine list?
ES: I put some wine selections on there that I think aren't as easy to sell [but] that I think tell the Virginia wine story. To give you an example: King Family, they're right outside of town. My favorite wine from them is their Meritage. But they also make a 100-percent Petit Verdot, which is an important part of the Virginia wine story, so I want to showcase that wine on the list.

WS: What wines on your list do you most want your guests to discover?
ES: I think with a name like Fleurie, my answer would have to be cru Beaujolais. I give a whole page to it in the wine list, with a special map and a little love letter from me about cru Beaujolais and how they are some of the great value wines of the world. They make so much sense in the restaurant business. Especially with all of these people ordering different things at the same table, and you don't want to just keep pouring Pinot Noir for everybody, you know? Right now I am getting as much Marcel Lapierre Morgon as I can.

Even after work sometimes I will have a glass, and I'll be like, "This is just what you want. Any season, all year round, it's perfect. Perfect juice.” I wish it were on tap.

WS: Being a musician, how do you think outside passions influence your philosophy toward wine?
ES: In our culture, because the drinking age is so high, how can anybody commit themselves to a life of wine without already committing themselves to something else first?

Music encourages you to get in touch with emotion, I think. And I think a lot of industries don't. So when you are writing computer programming, is your boss ever like, "I really need you to feel this code!"? But in a band, the conductor's like, "Give me more! I need more passion in this part of the song!" You're always being forced to engage with your emotions in a way that comes out and makes you more expressive.

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