I hate reading wine lists. Too many choices, too much pressure. I’d rather trust a good sommelier.
The trick, of course, is finding that good sommelier. On a recent night out at Fleurie, in Charlottesville, I found one in Erin Scala. I had brought a special bottle from my cellar, one with age, that turned out to be oxidized. Dead. Ruined. A victim of borderline storage and excessive patience, perhaps; the wine clearly should have been enjoyed several years ago.
So we decided to trust Scala. It was Restaurant Week in Charlottesville, and Fleurie was offering wine pairings to accompany the modern French cuisine of chef and co-owner Brian Helleberg. The 35-year-old sommelier delighted our party of three with a Bründlmayer Lamm Grüner Veltliner from Austria and a Saint-Amour Beaujolais Cru by Cheveau. Her other delicious selections included a Meursault and a Pomerol.
I had met Scala at a few local wine functions, and she knew I was coming to dinner that night, but individualized selections are her norm, not an exception. At Fleurie, unlike at many restaurants, no wines were listed with the dishes on the menu.
“I dislike pre-selecting the wine pairings and printing them on the menu,” Scala explains. “My favorite pairing might not always work for the guest. And I don’t believe there is a single perfect beverage to match with any dish. There are many magical combinations, and the more drinks I have to choose from, the better my odds of satisfying different palates.”
Sommeliers often talk about “reading” a customer. Is the host trying to impress a boss, a client or a date? Is the diner uncertain about or dismissive of the wine list? Scala looks for clues so subtle, it’s clear she’s pairing wine not just with food, but with the diner as well.
“I learn a bit about their palates by what they order, and even how they eat their bread,” she says. “If they load their bread with butter and salt, I will reach for a more intense wine. Or their cocktail order: Someone who orders a shot of Patrón will have different tastes in wine than someone who orders a rye Manhattan with a specific type of vermouth. If they ask for ice in their water, they probably like their wines colder than I typically store them, so I might give the wines an extra chill.”
Not to make you self-conscious, but next time you sit down at a restaurant table, you might suspect you’re being watched.
“If they take their napkin right away, leave their glasses in the proper order and keep their bread plate in its place, that tells you they are very familiar with fine dining and usually know a little about wine, so you can be more technical in the wine descriptions and go into things like soil type,” Scala says. “If I still need information, I’ll ask what they usually drink and if they prefer white or red.” Most sommeliers start there.
Improvising wine selections in that way, rather than deciding on them before the first customer walks in the door, requires having a lot of wines available. And they need to be compatible with many dishes on the menu. That’s where the Beaujolais comes in. Scala served it alongside a dish of gnocchi in a Bleu d’Auvergne cheese sauce with toasted pecans and a tomato confit. The wine’s acidity cut through the dumplings without overpowering or clashing with the cheese, while its savory herbal quality played nice with the tomatoes.
Scala loves Beaujolais because of its ability to pair with a variety of flavors. “Almost every night, people at the same table will order fish and meat and ask for a bottle to go with both,” she says. “Almost every restaurant will offer them a lighter-style pinot noir. Sommeliers these days are looking for a little variety to cross that bridge of meat and fish.” She prefers Poulsard from the Jura in France, aged Rioja from Spain or “whole-cluster fermented syrah.” And of course, cru Beaujolais such as the Cheveau Saint Amour she poured for us.
Dessert was unconventional. Our friend ordered a salad with a glass of Sancerre; my wife had peach pithivier with Pineau des Charentes, a sweet wine made from eau de vie and fresh grape must. I sipped an oloroso sherry with a selection of cheeses.
In the end, I was glad my special bottle was ruined. Its failure prompted us to explore a world of possibilities, with a talented sommelier as our tour guide.