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Paul Grieco on Expansion and the New Sommelier

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Paul Grieco practically grew up in a restaurant. Born and raised in Toronto, his family owned La Scala, which opened in 1961. When he arrived in NYC in 1991 there were barely five sommeliers. He worked in a variety of different restaurants and briefly entertained the idea of becoming a rockstar before landing a job as a waiter at Gramercy Tavern in 1995. Just two years later, in 1997, he took over as Assistant General Manager, Service Director, and Beverage Director. He went on to open Hearth in 2003 as beverage director and partner, followed by Terroir East Village in 2008.

In the nearly 10 years and two more Terroirs later, Grieco has become one of the wine world's loudest (and controversial) voices. He's reinvented the role of the sommelier and proven to a new generation that you can succeed in wine by thinking outside the box. Here, in this interview, he talks about how he's changed, the value of intimidating wine lists, what he learned from French chef Pierre Gagnaire, and why he's Bordeaux's newest, and most unlikely, fan.

What were you interested in, wine-wise, when you took over the list at Gramercy Tavern in 1997? Paul Grieco: I had a great knowledge of Italian wine a very good knowledge of California and a moderate knowledge of the rest of the world of wine. I said to myself at the time, "I will never have the money to explore the verticality of the wine world." You'd go to the grand restaurants of the world and you open up the wine list and there would be 20 vintages of Chateau Latour and all the great growths of Bordeaux and Burgundy and I think that's great, but I preferred to explore the horizontal nature of the wine world because there were other people who were covering the verticality of wine better than I ever could. I could not catch up with my education to learn about those 20 vintages of Latour. But I made it my point to learn about that cool indigenous variety from Hungary.

Were there other people who were exploring the fringe of the wine world in the 1990s, or was there a predictable wine list archetype that everyone sort of adhered to? When I arrived in the city in 1991, I don't even think there were five sommeliers in NYC. Le Cirque never had a sommelier in 1991; Danny Meyer didn't have a sommelier. The 21 Club had a sommelier, maybe Pallio had a sommelier, but the best restaurants in NYC at that time didn't really have somms. But through the 1990s we saw it explode. Certainly there were somms trying to push the envelope then, but mostly we were just trying to find our way.

When did you really start to push the envelope? When I left GT in 2002 to open Hearth was when I really started thinking "How is my place going to be different?" "What is my story to tell?" Back then asking a chef if he cooked seasonal was such a stupid fucking question. We went through that in '90s; it was de rigueur in '00s. But I thought, "Why can't a wine list be seasonal?" If I view cabernet sauvignon, for example, as a heavier grape I am only going to have cabernet on my list in the heavier months. And in the summer months if you want cabernet you're going to have to go to cabernet franc from the Loire, a lighter interpretation of that grape. I also thought, "Why can't a wine list be like a storybook?" So that's when I started writing down all the shit that I wanted to say about wine. It wasn't always easily received. People were pissed that flipping through this 50-page book and there'd be a whole written page about one goddamn wine.

You went from running a large wine list to a much smaller list, what was that like? When I moved to Hearth from Gramercy Tavern I went from having a monthly budget of $100,000 to $25,000 dollars and I said well this isn't going to be fun. But I appreciated the restrictions because they forced me to think harder about the choices I was making. It made me think of Pierre Gagnaire when he moved from St. Etienne to Paris and he regained his three stars people were upset, not because of the food, but because they thought the wine list was not a three-star list. He had about 100 selections. But his rationale was to say listen, I have tried every single one of these wines and every single one of them goes well with my food. It made me believe that I didn't need to have a 1,000-bottle list to have a great wine list. I can have a well-curated list and I can promise that every single wine on this list goes well with this chef's food at this time. That was a thrill for me.

How did Terroir come about? Were you worried about the concept being too edgy to succeed? You think about that sort of shit. I never think about that shit. I did it to challenge us. Maybe we were lucky. We signed the lease it was $2,500/month. So even if I fucked it all up, I wasn't going to lose my shirt. I treated it as my sandbox with my toys and my friends and if you wanted to come to my sandbox and play with my toys, rock it out. If you don't like my toys and my friends—cool, I respect that, there's the door. I never think about what my guest wants to drink. Success to me is someone coming into my restaurant and opening the wine list and not recognizing a single goddamn thing on here. That makes me feel good. That makes you feel uncomfortable. I realize I am in the hospitality industry so I know making you uncomfortable shouldn't be a goal, but if I am going to do that then it is my charge to take you by the hand and educate you. Find a way to drink and eat what we're doing so that at the end of the experience you're satisfied, but you can also say, "Fuck, I learned something too."

You've watched the NY drinker evolve over the last 20 years. What do you think the most significant change in the culture of drinking in New York? A seismic shift happened over the last 10 years. In 1997 people would walk into the bar at Gramercy Tavern and say: "Can I have a glass of chardonnay?" Or, "Can I have a glass of merlot?" And you would invariably say, "Yes, of course you can." In 2007 this guest walks into your restaurant and says, "Let me see your wines-by-the-glass list." Now that shift allows you to present your grape juice to this guest and the guest say, "Cool, I'll have this." Or, "I don't recognize any of this, can you help me?" And we have a conversation. The guest now is more trusting and willing to follow the sommelier's lead.

You've talked a lot about Bordeaux and Australia lately, two regions many people are surprised to see you championing—what's the deal with that? Many would call me dogmatic and I am happy to wear that title. We all try to synthesize the world of wine to a place where we can get comfortable with it and the majority of the time we have no fucking clue what we're talking about. So I carried this mantle of Bordeaux being the creation of 60-odd grand vins and Michel Rolland and all this highly mechanized winemaking, but I forgot that there are actually 8,000 chateaux in Bordeaux? Am I a fucking idiot? So I felt like investigating. If I was a Bordeaux producer I'd be scared shitless right now. 20 years ago if you were putting together a serious wine list it had to have Bordeaux on it. Now you can open a great restaurant and you don't have to have one wine from Bordeaux. Having them is actually passé at this point, don't you think?Yes, exactly and knowing that makes my ears perk up, and I say, "Ok if you want to pigeonhole me then I am going to do an about-face."

I see the new sommelier as a storyteller who isn't afraid of the hand-sell. A lot of that stems from what you did at Hearth and Terroir. How would you articulate the evolution of the role from the late '90s to now? All sommeliers want to do is share their passion for what they have discovered in the world of wine. It's that simple. I think this modern somm is pushing the envelope because they want the opportunity to take the guest on a journey. We aren't just cork-pullers. I think now young people can go home and say, "Mom, Dad, I want to be a sommelier," because the modern sommelier has made it into a legitimate profession.

In an interview you once said that your goal is to have a Terroir on every American street corner. I know that you weren't being literal, but if you were to dream up your life in wine five years from now, what would it look like? Exactly like it is now with 15 more Terroirs. In NYC I think we have room for three more. I think many towns, cities across the land could use a Terroir because it isn’t just about wine. It’s about the terroir of the hood and I want to tell a lot more stories. So, where to next? Maybe Charleston, SC; Ann Arbor, MI; Columbus, OH; Portland, OR; Kansas City, MO; Austin, TX; Toronto; Montreal; Boston, MA; Washington, DC. In NYC? The Upper West Side and Astoria, Queens.

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