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The ‘Wine Apostle’ Behind Terroir

By: Lettie Teague

Photo by: Daniel Krieger

(New York, New York) – There aren’t many people who can create a restaurant empire after having served as a sommelier or, for that matter, who can carry off a full Van Dyke beard. But Paul Grieco, whose Johnny Depp-ish facial hair may be almost as famous as his five Terroir wine bars, isn’t a typical wine professional. In fact,  Grieco probably wouldn’t call himself a wine professional at all—it’s more likely he’d label himself a “wine evangelical” or perhaps even a “wine apostle.”

That’s because Grieco believes in “causes” rather than bottles—and the wine lists of the Terroir wine bars and his Hearth restaurant reflect his impassioned, intellectual—and decidedly offbeat—approach to wine sales. The Terroir lists are equal parts long-form essays and wine lists. (The Terroir Tribeca list, for example, features a tribute to the late community activist Jane Jacobs, even though she was not a TriBeCa resident or even much of a wine drinker.)

Grieco and his partner, chef Marco Canora, were already running Hearth, on Second Avenue and 12th Street, when they opened their first Terroir five years ago. Situated just around the corner from Hearth, the space was too small for a restaurant but the perfect size for a pocket wine bar with pocket-size snacks.

The first Terroir was so successful that a franchise of sorts was born, beginning with Terroir Tribeca, the largest of the five wine bars, which opened almost three years ago on Harrison Street. This was followed by Terroir Murray Hill, a seasonal Terroir on the High Line (open only in warm weather) and the newly opened Terroir in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Over a glass of wine at Terroir Tribeca last week, I asked Grieco how many more Terroirs he and his team would open in 2013. For example, would he and Mr. Canora like to be the Shake Shack of wine, with a Terroir in every city and state?

Grieco shook his head. That’s an interesting analogy, he said, but “it’s not going to happen in 2013. We need to make the five wine bars better.” He said they needed to be better at the business side of wine if they were going to expand. “I want to be regarded as a good businessman,” said Grieco, who has 41 investors to satisfy.

Messrs. Grieco and Canora already preside over a staff of 50 or so who know “how to service the juice,” as he said. While Grieco provides advice and oversight, each wine bar manager is in charge of her or his own wine list. (Most of Grieco’s managers are women.)

The wine lists vary not only according to their creators but to the tastes of their neighborhoods. For example, Grieco said there might be more Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec by the glass at Terroir in Murray Hill than some of the other spots, while glass options at Terroir Tribeca might be pricier. “We can do more high-end glasses because it’s closer to the Financial Center,” he said.

The newest location, in Park Slope, is still a work in progress. “It’s more about family, but it’s not like I can come up with a wine program for a 6-year-old,” he said. There are, though, plans afoot to create afternoon wine tastings for the neighborhood’s mothers starting next month.

Photo by: Brent Herrig

Grieco is a noted Riesling fan(atic). He’s the creator of the “Summer of Riesling,” a three-month-long promotional event now observed by restaurants all over the country. I wondered whether there are other wines that he cares about as well. “Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t only drink Riesling,” replied Grieco. In fact, there are endless numbers of wines that he has yet to champion, wines whose stories “aren’t being told.” I asked for a few examples.

The wines of Eastern Europe, replied Grieco. “The are really going to take off.” The wines of Portugal also inspire him—as do the wines of Australia. “I took a 10-day trip to Australia and it was one of the better wine trips I’d taken,” said Grieco. But he was frustrated that, thanks to strong domestic demand and the high cost of exporting their wines, few of the wines that he had tasted are actually available in the U.S. “Hopefully, there are enough soms who will be rattling the gates to get us more of their juice,” Grieco declared.

I wondered whether there are any wines that don’t particularly inspire Grieco. After all, he couldn’t love everything. “You have to have that dark angle, don’t you?” Grieco responded. “Well, when I get up in the morning, I don’t think of California wine,” he finally offered. “I think about New York wine, Maryland wine, Ohio wine—but not California wine.” Was there no chance that he might someday want to tell the stories of California wines, too? “You will know that I am fully into California wine when I shave my beard,” replied Grieco.

SOURCE: Wall Street Journal

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