Paul Grieco will be featured throughout the month of March 2021!
What made you want to pursue a career in wine?
Well, I grew up as the third generation in a restaurant family in Toronto, Canada. My grandfather opened what was arguably Canada’s first fine-dining Italian restaurant in 1962, my father started working with him on the first day, and I was quite literally born there in 1965, and I have known of the business for the better part of my life. While I went with my father on the weekends to polish glasses, clean silverware, and set tables, I had no desire to work in the business, per se. I went through all of the usual elementary, high school, and college stuff, and let’s just say this. I was asked to leave University because I was “practicing too much hospitality.” In other words- I was an uber procrastinator and just didn’t want to really be there.
But, my father refused to let me sit on my thumbs, and I was pulled into the restaurant to work as a bartender. After a few months, my father came to me and told me that he was sending me to Italy for 28 days; he told me exactly where I was going, what restaurant I would be working at, and which wineries I would be visiting during my stay there. I was reluctant at first, but went because what 20-year-old kid says no to that? I went to Italy a complete ignoramus in wine terms, and when I returned 28 days later, I was comparably a relative genius. What really happened there, though, was that I fell in love with wine.
I realized my issue at University; while, yes, I wanted to practice as much hospitality as possible, the issue was really more about the fact that I wasn’t studying things that rocked my world. I learned in that one month trip to Italy that wine involved everything that I wanted to spend my time learning more about and interacting with- history, culture, civilization, religion, philosophy, the culture of the table, the interaction with people; Every discipline and subject of study I saw through the prism of wine.
When I came back, I was ready to rock and roll; this is it, the restaurant industry is my profession. I am first and foremost a restauranteur- not a wine guy. Through the wine industry, I get to practice the things I love—number one- hospitality. Number two- I get to explore my passion for wine and share it with other people.
What was the inspiration behind the Terrior Wine List, and why did you choose a three-ring binder format? How often do you change it out?
This could be a simple question with a simple answer, but that is not how I roll. I think just like every person who opens a restaurant, whether you are a chef or a wine person, you try and make your place different than where you have worked before and different than others- because you are trying to make a statement. As a front-of-the-house wine person, that program is your calling card. So the question is, how do you ultimately make a wine list different when, since time and memorial, a wine list looks like a list of wine. Frankly, that bores the life out of me!
So, the first restaurant that I opened was Hearth in 2003, and the thought process revolved around how we can make things different. I would look in the mirror often and think what I really loved about wine- yes, I loved the grape juice; it quenches my thirst and brings me to a happy place physically, emotionally, and psychically, but it is storytelling.
I lamented about wine lists in the traditional format because they were just that, a list of wines; there were no stories. The rare list would provide a description and something to provoke conversation, but most beverage people saved the conversation for one-on-one interaction. I realized that I couldn’t do that at every table; it is impossible. Yes, I train my staff to have those conversations, but let’s be honest, they have so many other things to do, and they can’t stand at a table for half an hour to preach the gospel of Riesling. So I looked upon the list to be that book, not just a list of wine, a book of wine. There is too much good wine out there, and I wanted a constant changing of the list. So, the simple question to your simple answer is practicality.
The concept that inspired the original list at Terroir was our location in East Village, which was part of the area that inspired punk rock music in America. We wanted a punk rock attitude towards everything we did. When thinking about punk rock and trying to gain one’s independence to tell your story, it brought us back to our days in school and covering our textbooks in stockers- so we made paraphernalia of wine stickers. It brought us back to where we wrote our notes in binders, and so the wine list was written on notebook paper and stored in a binder. We didn’t give a sh*t that the package would not be viewed as “fitting” of the incredible wines that it contained. It spoke to our love as kids, adolescents, and teenagers. How often did I change it up? Every damn day.
What was the wine that inspired your career?
Well, you are not going to get an answer. It is a great question; it is a question that we ask wine people. I get it- but I didn’t approach wine that way. The angle in which I approached wine was from the various areas of study, from a vantage point of pretending to be a punk rocker in my high school years (and absolutely not being one). When I got into University in the 80s, I fell in love with British new wave music, and all my friends were into modern American rock/pop, which I couldn’t stand. I became a DJ and pushed the things I liked upon my friends, and that attitude of finding an attraction to finding things among the fringes and the alternative side, that is what I became, and it morphed into the world of wine.
I viewed it as my role to tell the story of wines that did not get proper due in the marketplace—the world of wine-inspired my career, not any one wine, the world of wine. I was inspired by the fact that wine was being made in a multitude of places that I find to be thrilling as all hell. Honestly, I am as equally thrilled by a Musar Gran Val Rouge from Lebanon as I am by a Riesling Kabinett from Germany, a Chianti from Tuscany, a Pais from Chile, and an old vine Grenache from Australia. There are no sacred cows- the entire world of wine inspires me daily. It allows me to get out of bed each day and think, “what cool stuff am I going to try today?”
What is your least favorite varietal?
No- that answer does not exist. It is a voyage of discovery. Jancis Robinson’s book on grapes comes in with approx 1,500 entries; I don’t overtly say that I want to try every one of them, but also, why not? I genuinely don’t care. I may have a preference; I gravitate towards certain things- I am an acid hound. There are styles I am more attracted to and styles I am not, but varieties? No.
How did the Summer of Riesling come about?
On the note of trying to push people’s comfort level with wine, there is no more derided or diminished varietal than Riesling. It is the varietal that everyone has an opinion about that is completely wrong. In my typical attempt to rally the troops to ‘fight the good fight’ for something that does not get the acceptance that it should- hello, Riesling.
If you were to ask most wine people their favorite grapes or wine, Riesling without question would be either number one or two. With that in mind, I wondered why Riesling has so much trouble in the market. When I finally got to open my own place, I decided it was time to change the conversation. In a typical wine by the glass program with about 20 different selections, probably four of them would be Riesling. The consumer will most likely choose from the other 16 wines on the list.
When I looked at the space, it reminded me of my sandbox as a kid, one of the coolest places I ever had because it was my sandbox, friends, toys, and rules. If you didn’t like it- then get out of my sandbox. This thinking morphed into the first Terroir. If I was going to be a preacher of Riesling, I couldn’t give you an option not to have Riesling. We opened up in March of 2008, and it just so happened that I thought, well, summer is coming up shortly. Summer of Riesling. Let’s take our wine by the glass list and only offer Riesling by the glass. So that, when I offered you a glass of Riesling, and you said no- I got to say, well, there is nothing else to drink! The customer had no choice but to engage with Riesling.
If we, as beverage people, were going to put our money where our mouths were, that was the point we had to go to. The setup of the first Terroir was that so I could be arrogant and not be penalized; it was a sandbox. I want to emphasize that the summer of Riesling never said Riesling is the greatest wine on the planet- I stress the fact that all we want to say is that Riesling is one of the greatest wines on the planet. It is our fault that we have failed to remember that. So, I wanted to be one of those individuals that had my place stir the wine pot.
What kind of courses is the Terrior Team teaching during the restaurant being closed?
Whatever we want. Whatever motivates me and that I can have fun with. We are trying to keep ourselves motivated, educated, interested, and inspired. While I miss the face-to-face interaction and long for the return of that, I will acknowledge that the pandemic has opened an opportunity that I hope doesn’t go away. Because we were forced into it, Terroir doesn’t just have to stay a place you may visit while in NYC; Terroir can be in your homes in Napa Valley. How great is that? I would like to think that the same love affair we have for the world in wine is also being manifested through our online classes.
When the restaurant is open, what is the Terrior Team drinking?
Whatever we want. Again, this is another arrogant answer, and I apologize. There are no sacred cows, we love the world of wine, and it is my job to inspire my team. If I can inspire them, then they can inspire our guests. We are going to enjoy whatever rocks our world.
Your favorite Riesling producer, you have to pick one, and why?
It would be from the Ruwer Valley of Germany- von Shubert is the family, and Maximin Grünhäuser is the estate name. The reason why that estate, not above all others, does truly inspire me is the totality of it, the fact that we have documentation that we have grapes that have been grown on this land since the 10th century- 1,000 years of wine history on this land. Once owned by the church, they were able to recognize the parcels of this estate that were better than others on the hillside. There is the Abtsberg, Herrenberg, and the Bruderberg. The Abtsberg wines were the best and were reserved for the leader of the monastery. Second, there was the Herrenberg, and those wines were reserved for those in the choir. Then the Bruderberg, which was reserved for the rest of the members. The fact that this type of distinction on a single hillside has been in play for many centuries just rocks my world. My mind and soul are not big enough to understand thousand years of wine history on this planet and that we can sit down, pull a cork, and interact with the beverage, through which we get to interact with a thousand years of stories from that parcel of land. That is the Riesling producer that I want to go to sleep with.
Want to learn more? Paul Grieco will be featured throughout the month of March 2021!
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