Paul Grieco is never one to play by the rules.
Five years ago he took on New Yorkers’ palates. On the first day of summer, he revised the menu at Terroir, his rather confrontational wine bar. Patrons who wanted a white wine by the glass had to order riesling. There were no other options. He did this against the wishes of his partner and staff, but he persevered because, as he says, “if you drink riesling you will be a better person.”
How was this received? The response was overwhelmingly popular: Mr. Grieco printed t-shirts and temporary tattoos, even opened two more Terroirs. A fourth location will open this summer in Brooklyn.
On June 20, the fifth annual Summer of Riesling begins at Hearth, the restaurant he co-owns along with Terroir. And this year, the crusade will touch down in more than 500 restaurants around the world, including Canada, that enlist online and agree to pour three rieslings by the glass for 94 days.
With his trademark pencil-thin mustache and untamed goatee, Paul Grieco has gained a degree of notoriety for his provocative sense of hospitality. He’s now one of New York’s most distinct sommeliers and restaurateurs. Believing wine can transport you to a time and place as few other things can, he coaxes and bullies your palate to places it’s never been. For this unorthodox approach, he’s been nominated for a James Beard Award, the “Oscars of food,” for Outstanding Wine Professional, which will be handed out in the beginning of May.
His punk rock attitude is far removed from the white linen formality of La Scala, the restaurant opened by his grandfather and father, which introduced Toronto to Italian fine dining in 1961. His earliest memories are of Saturday mornings setting tables, polishing glassware and cleaning silver, a lesson in the mundane you have to learn to survive in this industry, he says.
Reluctant to join the family business, he ventured instead to university, unsure of what to study. Months later he was back at the restaurant, kicked out of school for partying. Then his father sent him to Italy for a month and the trip changed his life, eventually landing him in New York in 1991.
“I learned about wine and food and most importantly I fell in love with the culture of the table, with the history of wine, the people, its effects and interactions with religion and movements in civilization – those things I wanted to study at university.”
The wine list at Terroir endears customers with its irreverent mix of history, pop culture and extensive wine knowledge. The three-ringed binder reads as part manifesto, part textbook, part rant. In describing what makes wine great, Mr. Grieco writes: “the sense of man’s involvement in these expressions of the grape should mirror the sound of Sarah Palin answering a question on debt reduction … or the value of NATO: silence.”
“I wanted to have fun and then our guests found us, where they can go and play in a sandbox. But Terroir is my sandbox, with my toys and my rules.”
Mr. Grieco insists his approach is reconcilable with the hospitality business. To him, hospitality is a dialogue. At Terroir, they prod, you respond.
What has fuelled this riesling wave is the younger generation’s lack of preconceived notions of wine. “Their mindset towards riesling is ‘Cool, talk to me about it.’ Because of inventions like the smartphone, nothing is foreign to them.”
He sees this shift continuing and he’s excited about the possibilities, which spurs one last declaration. “I think Summer of Riesling is going to take over the world one day.”