New Zealand State of Wine with Erin Scala of The Musket Room
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.