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An Interview with Paul Grieco

Paul Grieco - Gramercy Tavern We are sitting at the bar in one of the most successful and happening restaurants on the planet. It's approximately three o'clock on a warm Friday afternoon in late August, and the Gramercy Tavern is packed. Virtually every table is occupied, and even the bar is cooking.

RR: Maybe this isn't the best time to talk with you, but we were assuming there would be a bit of a lull between lunch and dinner.

PG: We are always busy and I believe New York is by far and away the greatest restaurant market in the world, so nothing surprises me. When I started here, we worked incredibly hard trying to get things up and running and servicing the customers we were able to attract. Now they just keep coming in those doors and we are working even harder, and the pace can be a killer. But that's what it's all about. You have to love it.

RR: So how is it that you wake up and find yourself as the sommelier in beautiful downtown New York?

PG: I got into this business kicking and screaming. My family owned an Italian restaurant in Toronto, so you can say that I grew up in this business. I wasn't even mildly interested in wine, but the exposure was definitely there. I remember tasting my first glass of wine at the age of eighteen, and a couple years later, my father sent me on a trip to Italy. I spent twenty-eight incredible days touring the countryside visiting restaurants, wineries, and meeting people working in our industry. The Italian wine scene was especially interesting and this became my real introduction to the exciting world of wine, and it has been my passion ever since.

RR: So with the passion notwithstanding, how do you learn the business?

PG: I can remember taking only one formal wine course, but I read everything on the subject that I could get my hands on. I've always been a student of history, and wine goes back to ancient civilization - they talk about it in the Bible. It used to be that to read about wine, you had to search for the wine industry publications. With its new popularity, wine articles appear everywhere. The New York Times has developed an entire section devoted to food and wine, and magazines like Vogue, GQ and Esquire are talking about wine. The Internet presents almost unlimited information on wine, and a more interested public is exposed to all of these sources as well. Of course, in my mind, the best classroom possible is the day-to-day exposure right in the restaurant.

RR: So I guess if your direction is wine and beverages, you picked a good spot.

PG: My timing was perfect. When I came to New York there were only a handful of sommeliers. When the 90's hit, the wine industry exploded, and astute owners such as Danny Meyer recognized the potential and made significant investments in their wine programs. In order to take full advantage of the newfound passion in wine by the American consumer, you have to build an inventory that will attract these people. That is a major commitment, and Danny made it at Gramercy Tavern, and in all his restaurants. If you want to have real success in the wine business, you need a great restaurant, and most importantly, you have to commit the time and money necessary to build the program.

RR: And what kind of a program are we talking about?

PG: We're talking about an inventory in excess of 25,000 bottles, and while our wine menu changes constantly, we offer some 400 selections including some twenty-one wines by the glass. And keep in mind that we're talking about a program that accounts for up to 30% of our total restaurant sales.

RR: What about half bottles?

PG: I really don't get excited about half bottles. When you have a truly great selection of wines by the glass, you don't need half bottles.

RR: The Wine Spectator describes your wine presentation as an emphasis on France, Italy, and California.

PG: That really changes daily. We certainly feature those regions, but great wine is coming from everywhere, including places that you would least expect it. We taste new wines on a daily basis, and we are always introducing something new and exciting to our menu.

RR: Can you ever really master the subject of wine?

PG: No. And you can't possibly taste it all. It's always a work in progress. And no matter how much you know, wine is still a very subjective beverage. You can question a customer and based on the answers, recommend a selection that you hope will be ideal. But you can't determine a customer's taste, and therein lies the real challenge. So you work with a customer, and when you deliver that perfect wine, they really appreciate it, and they keep coming back.

RR: In the scheme of things, how do you define your role at Gramercy Tavern?

PG: I see myself as the Beverage Director and my secondary position as that of the sommelier. I see myself as an educator, a promoter and a salesman. If I'm doing my job correctly, every member of our waitstaff will be a competent sommelier, and wine sales will take care of themselves. That does not come by accident. It comes by hours of training and having the staff taste wines every day. We have developed a situation where for many of our customers, Gramercy Tavern has become a wine destination restaurant. Again, in order to have that, you need great food and a great wine program. I'm proud to say that we have them both.

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