We Chat With: Paul Grieco of Terroir and Hearth

"Riesling doesn't shock me. Riesling brings a smile to my face, and my soul feels complete when I drink Riesling. "

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

Paul Grieco speaks in statements, and knows how to work an interview. He's ebullient, direct and then... there's the beard. Both literally (as in, whatever is currently growing off of his chin), and minted: he recently won the James Beard 2012 "Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional" award. For the past 4 years he has hosted "Summer of Riesling," where his menus only feature Riesling by the glass. Why Riesling? Why, in general, wine?

You were in the restaurant business for many years before you branched into the sommelier world. Did you see a hole in the wine scene in NYC that you felt needed to be filled? My god, no. New York is the greatest wine market on the planet earth. It's the best place to be a beverage director. Everyone comes to our front doors and knocks on them every day wanting us to taste and sell their wine. Why wouldn't I want to come here and play ball?

So what did you want your contribution to the scene to be? I loved fighting the good fight for the person who wasn't being defended or promoted. I loved the underdog and I loved being a contrarian.

How does Riesling fit in? It's the underdog grape. It is the greatest grape on the planet that was once regarded as such by everyone on planet earth. It appealed to monarchs, it appealed to potentates, and it appealed to the common man. And then we lost that. So I view it as my job to bring it back and put it on its lofty perch.

How did we lose that? World War II and the devastation of Germany. Before World War I, German Riesling was dry. It was a fully fermented genius grape, and the rarities were the ones with the incredible amounts of residual sugar. Post World War II, sterile filtration changed that. Also, because sugar was very expensive, and the easiest place to get sugar is from a grape, those wines were exported. They became your and my view of German wine; a very monolithic view of German juice. It barely told the story of Germany. Now it's my job—and others'—to relate the totality of the German wine experience.

What about the specific Riesling grape makes it so terroir expressive? It's transparent—we don't fuck around with it. Wine makers love it and hate it because Riesling wine is grown in the vineyard, not made in the winery. If you mistreat the grape you're going to get shit in the winery. But if you do your job to its utmost degree, once you get the grape to the winery, you do nothing. Wine makers don't really make the wine—Mother Nature makes the wine. We're getting a direct view into the soil and DNA of the Riesling grape. It's a glorious thing.

So what would you say we get wrong about Riesling, other than that the fact that... It's sweet. It's the "S" word, period, amen.

You started Summer of Riesling in 2008 to many an uplifted eyebrow. Years later it's grown into a international phenomenon, and with packed crowds at Hearth and the Terroir bars. How do you see our understanding growing? Are we getting it? I think the understanding is getting better and better every day. What I've seen is a greater desire on the part of the guests to have a conversation on the subject of Riesling. The first year when we said "we only have Riesling by the glass" people were incensed. Now at least they stay and are willing to converse with you.

And what about for you? What does it take for a Riesling to shock you or move you or excite you? Riesling doesn't shock me. Riesling brings a smile to my face, and my soul feels complete when I drink Riesling. All I look for is an expression of six things: that Riesling must be balanced, complex, finesseful, have a sense of place, have the ability to age, and be yummy. If you meet those six criteria, I'm a happy camper.

Moving out of Riesling for a bit, is there another grape that we might not be as aware of, or have another perception of, that excites you? I will say this very gently, but if there was not a summer of Riesling there would be a Summer of Chenin Blanc.

What about it is worthy of a Summer? In some ways it is the equal of Riesling—completely under appreciated, transparent, and reflective of the land that it is grown in. It can make all the different styles from bone dry to slightly off-dry to off-dry to semi-sweet to sweet. Chenin Blanc is beyond belief and is a world class grape.

Is there a specific region of the world right now that's exciting you? Yes, I'm actually saying this: Australia is the most exciting wine area on the planet.

As far as your six criteria go, what's working in Australia? Small producers are doing super-cool things and allowing the grapes to shine. We've pigeon-holed Australia to be either super low end, driven by the "critter wines" or the super high-ends with massive extracted fruit, alcohol and oak. But what about the middle ground? That's where most of us live our lives, after all—a balanced life. But we never thought that Australia was making balanced wines. They are, absolutely.

So, Mr. James Beard—I know, you're giving me a look right now—but how do you feel about winning it? What does it do for you? Alright, listen, we do what we do because we love to do what we do. I don't think many people in the restaurant industry are in it for awards and all of that shit. I won't deny, though, that receiving that award felt really fucking cool. Because I felt that my entire peer group was stoked for me. And maybe in some ways I took it as a thumbs-up for me to pursue even more the direction we've taken in the world of wine.

What is your greatest blessing in life right now? What makes your tail wag the most? Two sons. Two sons, by far. I do this all for them.