Interview with Sommelier Eric Scheffer of Savoy Cucina Italiana, Asheville, North Carolina

November 2011

Kylene Keith: How does your experience in the entertainment industry translate to your current responsibilities as a professional sommelier?
Eric Scheffer: I approach every night as a new day of filming. It's a production! The lighting, the music, the servers, the uniforms, the dining room and the table settings all set the stage for the consumption of great food and wine. It sets the stage for us to show off our food and wines. I have always said that the environment greatly affects the patrons' dining experience and how they feel up until the time they are seated. When they get to the table a good server will guide the customer through the evening. The food and wine are icing on the cake.

KK: You're the first sommelier StarChefs has ever featured who is also the owner of his restaurant. How do you juggle both of these demanding roles? Something must give.

ES: What usually gives is my home life. I am very dedicated to my restaurant. Luckily, my daughter Jordan spends a lot of time visiting her dad at the restaurant. It gives me something to look forward to during challenging days. I am also smart enough to have surrounded myself with the best staff that I could find. I am blessed with our Chef Peter Affatato. He is amazing and he and I are so in sync that we know instinctively where we want to go on any given evening. All I have to do is trust him and occasionally throw in my two cents when it comes to presentation. Our Beverage Manager, Shannon Stevens, has a good handle on liquor ordering and she keeps her eyes on our percentages. We work together on the list. We usually meet 3-6 wine distributors a week to sample new wines. Once I have made any changes, Shannon is the queen of keeping our list up to date with vintage and appellation changes.

KK: It's obvious to anyone who visits your restaurant that the servers have had extensive wine training, what steps have you taken to encourage wine education for your staff?

ES: Our entire staff, including food runners and server assistants, is required to attend wine classes once a week. These classes are given either by wine distributors, winemakers, Shannon or myself. We provide printed material, usually from websites or directly from the vineyard. Everyone tries the wines and they are randomly quizzed. We also have a book that we call the "Big Book of Wine". It has every wine on the list with pages of information about the wines. Each staff member takes the book home and reviews it, then hands it back signed, so I know they reviewed it. This has a monthly rotation amongst the staff. We also encourage the kitchen staff to join us so the pairing of foods to our wine list is considered when they are creating dishes and sauces.

KK: I understand that your wine list has been greatly influenced by your travels around the world. Do you have a favorite wine region?

ES: Shockingly enough, I don't have a favorite. Wine is the adventure of my life. My preferences change all the time. Do I want to be playful? Do I want to be bold? Do I want to be safe? It all comes into play. What I'm eating, how I feel, and who I'm with all affect my preferences. I would say that Italy and California would be my first regions of choice with Argentina being a close third.

KK: What do you particularly love about the wines from these regions?

ES: I am especially fond of what I would call the best California Cabernet Sauvignon from South America, Nicolas Catena Zapata Cabernet Sauvignon. Now that is world-class wine. Get as much as you can of the 1999 vintage. My prediction is it will be in the top 100 if not the number one wine in the world this year. I love Italian wines for their individual differences and the passion the wine has for food. They can't be apart. You can taste the terroir, the winemaker's hand and of course, nature.

KK: Your wine list also boasts a number of unusual wines from other lesser-known wine regions. Do you feel that customers are becoming more open to ordering wines outside of their California comfort zone?

ES: Absolutely. Partially to be cool and partially because more "non wine geeks" are becoming less afraid of wine and are finding their own comfort level. They are creating their own "wine geek-ness" by discovering new and exciting wines that they can then show off. But I truly feel that we are a great part of that process. The atmosphere here at the Savoy is one of making wine fun and accessible. My wait staff builds trust and with that trust I encourage them to have fun with customers. I encourage opening bottles, within reason, and offering samples to customers if they are unsure about a wine selection. We always ask a customer for a price range. We never want a customer to feel forced into an expensive bottle. There are also great stories about wines from off the beaten path. A real mystique is created that the customer can use at their next dining experience and impress their guests.

KK: You have started a program at Savoy where you help people host wine dinners in their homes. Do you have any tips to share with our readers on hosting a great wine tasting party?

ES: Be bold and have fun. Don't be stuffy. Be daring. Don't follow the rules. Seek out chefs and restaurateurs in your area. They love to talk. Ask for wine suggestions and even menu ideas. Or if you are so inclined, have them participate. Have the restaurant cater the event and send a knowledgeable server to be the lead server. They can talk up the wines while you entertain. Create themes based on countries or seasonal favorites. Try to include a different wine for each course. And don't forget a good dessert wine. Most people are very surprised when you have something scrumptious to drink with a very decadent dessert.

KK: If you could share a bottle of wine with one Hollywood celebrity, dead or alive, who would it be and what wine would you choose?

ES: I have two picks.
Jack Nicholson. The wine would be 1976 BV Georges de Latour.
Bold, daring, fun, sassy, brash. A wine with no limits or boundaries.
Federico Fellini. The wine would be 1971 Gaja Barbaresco.
Elegant, sophisticated, mature, passionate, complex, thought-provoking.