‘A wine list that is only a list of wine, sucks’

That was the message from Paul Grieco of New York’s Terroir wine bar and restaurant when addressing attendees of the first ever Somm360 congress in Montreal in November last year.

Paul Grieco is general manager of Terroir wine bar and restaurant in Tribeca, New York City

Having started with this statement, Grieco then began a talk by stressing that he was going to address specifically the writing of wine lists, saying that the pricing, focus and size of the drinks selection was not what mattered – it was the words that were vital.

“If you love Bordeaux, then have Bordeaux,” he said. “And if you want 3,500 selections, well, I can’t count that high, but do it… and if you want 20, then I applaud your brevity,” he continued.

“And if you want to go Moses and bring a carved stone tablet to your table, then I applaud you,” he added.

Then, he stated, “But we will not address the number of selections, nor the pricing nor the physical, tactile nature of the list.

“Today I am going to talk about the actual writing of a wine list… the joining together of words and punctuation marks to inform us, and more specifically, to make us dream,” he said.

At the moment, however, he lambasted the trade for its approach, describing the language used on most wine lists as “arcane”, and the way the wines are arranged as “confusing”. As a result, he said that most people see the world of wine in restaurants as “like a private club”.

With that in mind, initially, he schooled the attendant sommeliers to use Danny Meyer’s book Setting the Table as their “bible”, pointing out that the people gathered at the summit were not so much in the wine business, but the hospitality business.

He explained, “The difference between service and hospitality is this: service is a monologue, it is telling me what you are doing – I have no say in the matter – but hospitality is a dialogue: you sir, the guest, is telling me your expectations, with me telling you how I’m going to fulfil them, and that is happening emotionally, physically and verbally.”

But how is this relevant to the composition of a wine list? For Grieco, it’s because he considers the list as “a vehicle for conversation, because I want to engage all my guests in a conversation about this incredible beverage”.

Having admitted his own failings in creating a discussion point around his early attempts at writing wine lists, he said hat he had failed to convey such an emotional response to his guests.

“Wine moves me, but my wine list was not giving voice to any of that shit – am I just a cork puller? I want to be a story teller,” he said.

By way of example, he mentioned the incredible effect of meeting a personality in the wine industry as strong as the founder of Lebanon’s Château Musar, and the urge to convey such an emotional response to his customers. “If you had met [the late] Serge Hochar, then you couldn’t just write, Château Musar, 2005, Lebanon…”

So what has he done? Well, Grieco then showed a number of example pages in his own list from Terroir that were imbued with his powerful, provocative personality, including a Beaujolais selection, featuring a selection of crus, entitled, “Beaujolais, and not that crazy Dubeouf Shiite”.

He is also the person who came up “the summer of Riesling”, featuring the tagline on his list as a way to entice more people to this relatively unfashionable grape during the warmest months of the year.

But the need for a more considered, emotive approach to wine descriptions on restaurant lists is becoming acute, said Grieco.

Speaking specifically about his home market, he said, “There are 10,000 restaurants in New York city, and you can get a kick-ass meal prepared for you by Wholefoods, or delivered, so you don’t need to come to me to get food and drink, so I have to do something to educate you and elevate this interaction…

“And I can’t get to every God damn table, but my wine list can – so it is an entrée into this broad conversation to anyone who wants that conversation.”

More generally, he also observed, “We need more to drink wine – since 1994, wine consumption [in the US] has increased by less than 2% every year; we need more to drink wine.”

But, addressing the premise of his talk, “A wine list that is only a wine list, sucks”, he then asked the assembled audience, “So, do you just want to be a cork puller or do you want to be a story teller of wine?”

At which point he left the stage, and the attendees cheered.

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New sparkling wine list at Terroir (as featured on the restaurant’s Instagram feed)

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