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The Life and Afterlife of Terroir

Paul Grieco's Terroir wine bar helped usher in America's wine revolution. But what does a revolutionary do when the battle is won? Jon Bonné on the evolution of New York's ur-wine bar, and its punk sommelier in chief.

In March 2008, the sommelier Paul Grieco and chef Marco Canora quietly opened a wine bar in a sliver of a space on New York’s East 12th Street. That part of the East Village that was still shaking off a longtime reputation for punk, heroin and grime. The bar was called Terroir.

In one way, it seemed like nothing particularly noteworthy. Grieco and Canora owned the restaurant, Hearth, just up the street, and a nearby landlord offered them a rent deal they couldn’t refuse. After opening the gilded Insieme near Times Square as the economy was beginning to melt down, Terroir offered a chance to downshift. Into just 550 square feet, they squeezed a couple dozen seats and a tiny kitchen that allowed Canora to revive the hearty fare he’d enjoyed cooking at Tom Colicchio’s Craftbar. The compact menu offered meatballs and bruschette and an addictively good pork-blade steak, intended to be just enough for customers to satiate themselves as they cut a swath through the wine list.

But Grieco’s list was no tidy collection of cream-colored paper. Designed by Steven Solomon, a visual artist and captain at Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern, where he’d been hired by Grieco, it exploded the idea of a wine list: a three-ring binder covered in imagery worthy of Johnny Rotten, wild pop-culture references and rough typefaces ripped from Ray Gun and 1990s ‘zines (Google it).

On any given night you could find red Bordeaux and German riesling next to Lebanon’s Chateau Musar, or Spanish reds from Bierzo or Australian sémillon. If such juxtapositions seem obvious today, at the time they were beyond the pale of the relatively tepid wine culture of the mid-2000s, one dominated by chardonnay, pinot noir (just recently crowned over cabernet) and a handful of Italian curiosities.

What set Terroir apart more than anything, though, was that aesthetic Grieco and Solomon finessed: not just the wine list but temporary tattoos, t-shirts and stickers that defiantly quoted pop culture (like a spring green “Teen Twin Terror-Bill” riff, featuring “I Was A Teenage Frankenwine”). Grieco filled the list with essays in the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson. (On Austria’s Heiligenstein vineyard: “Vineyard workers still attempt to tame this outcropping of Middle Earth, accompanied by geologists looking for a rationale and prostitutes looking for Eliot Spitzer.”) In one of his more well-known coups, Grieco invented the Summer of Riesling, to honor that always-underloved grape, and turned it into a nationwide campaign, including a now emblematic sticker that riffed on those “Hello, My Name Is” tags.

This wasn’t much different than the patois a lot of restaurant people already used to talk about wine when customers weren’t listening; they saw wine not as a luxury item but as something as culturally meaningful and crush-worthy as their favorite band.

That aesthetic also gave Grieco, who had previously been buttoned up in a suit at Gramercy Tavern, the opening to transform himself into an embodiment of Terroir—the first sommelier punk, with a modern dandy’s sense of fashion: pointy goatee, pencil mustache and everything from garish seersucker suits to cargo shorts and a well-worn Canada Dry delivery jacket. The role of sommelier (if you could call him that) had become performance art. And you were meant to give yourself over to the experience. “It was a sandbox,” Grieco told me. “And in our sandbox, it was our toys, our friends, our rules.”

The East Village was the perfect place to exploit this sensibility. Since the days of Lou Reed, punk had been the neighborhood’s defining trait, one that lingered through the 1990s as St. Mark’s Place slowly shook its smack-alley reputation. It extended even to drinking there, at dives like the Holiday Cocktail Lounge (now respectable and much more expensive) or Decibel, which raged against the machine in sake bar form (and which endures today). Certainly it felt right to Grieco. “It was the East Village, and it was punk,” he says. “It was you sitting in high school with stickers and drawings all over your notebook.”

It didn’t take long for Terroir to find an audience in a like-minded set of wine people who felt trapped on the fringes of a snoozy industry. In fact, it was a physical refuge—a safe space for those disenfranchised wine nerds to congregate—not much different than Dead Kennedys or New Order shows had been in the ‘80s. Grieco, with Solomon’s help (and Canora’s food), was claiming winemaking, and wine drinking, as radical acts.

And that wasn’t meant to be an abstraction: Most of Terroir’s servers (and plenty of customers) wore shirts designed by Grieco and Solomon meant to imply a revolutionary twinge, the most memorable design featuring Bartolo Mascarello, the legendary Barolo maker, in a pose reminiscent of Che Guevara. (The Mascarello family, reputedly, was not amused.)

Like many wine people coming up during that era, I found a resonance in the wine-as-punk message. Although I lived in San Francisco at the time, Terroir was typically my first stop from JFK after a late flight. It was a place that brimmed with a nerdy, earnest sort of electricity. I’d devour the pork-blade steak and a glass of something red and bracing, and distance myself from the normcore of my newspaper day job. On one of those trips, sitting at the bar counter, I first kissed the woman who would become my wife.

The Post-Mainstream Era

It isn’t too much to say that, for a time, Terroir was America’s ur-wine bar. It shifted the way we talk about wine, and inspired dozens of derivative spots along the way. Today you can walk into Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in New York, High Treason in San Francisco or Tabula Rasa in Los Angeles and find that intentional merging of high culture and low—important wine served without the fancy airs. Grieco, meanwhile, has become iconic enough that he’s the rare sommelier to be name-checked on wine lists as far away as Sydney.

Terroir also helped launch what Canora now calls “the decade when everything began turning around.” It arrived at the moment when a relatively formal era of dining—the wine temple Montrachet had just closed—was being supplanted, with a push from the financial crisis, by versions of what exists today: restaurants barely disguised as wine bars (think Four Horsemen and Wildair).

Revolutions, however, are hard to sustain. Today, nearly 10 years later, Terroir musters on, in a significantly modified form, on Tribeca’s Harrison Street (plus a successful seasonal edition on the High Line). And I still love going there. But I also wonder: Does it still resonate in a wine culture that finally achieved what Grieco strived for? Wine today has been freed of much of its stuffy bullshit. The old gatekeepers have mostly been put out to pasture, and it has become vital part of popular culture, finally free of the Boomer fears that held it back.

And yet Terroir’s path has been more wobbly. It pursued rapid growth—at its peak, there were five Terroirs throughout New York—and yet all except one permanent location closed. So the idea of Terroir succeeded. But as with so many aspects of punk, could the thing itself survive, after a long decade?

A lot of people wondered just that when the original East Village location shuttered in 2015, after Canora and Grieco split as business partners. In a way, the end of East Village Terroir felt like the end of that transformative era, as though the wine world had surpassed Grieco’s original vision. Punk had been mainstreamed, and it left behind its old icons—kind of like CBGB becoming a John Varvatos boutique.

The truth is, Grieco was never really interested in remaining on the fringe. (“Do you remember when Depeche Mode was alternative and new?” he asks me. “I love that they’re now playing arenas. I love where U2 is today.”) He wanted to do what the Talking Heads did: Evolve punk into the mainstream. And that made sense, considering that he was pushing not a narrow or willfully edgy set of wines, but classics. Or at least a big-tent definition of that word, one that includes things like trousseau from the Jura, which Grieco had already been pouring at Gramercy in the 1990s. His genius was to recast those wines as punk icons, as fanboy fodder.

Terroir, then, might have stopped feeling so special precisely because so many other people embraced Grieco’s message, not much different than how the once avant-garde Gramercy started to feel conservative once everyone else copied it. “That’s the problem,” Solomon told me. “Once you win the battle, then you look ordinary.”


That’s What Happens to Punk

There’s a temptation to look at the denouement of Terroir, or at least the end of its East Village original, and conclude that its time ended. The truth is trickier. For one, wine bars in general tend to be losing propositions, at least in Canora’s mind. Customers linger over a glass of wine, and “when you do that and you stay in that seat the economics don’t work.” Plus the attempts to adapt Terroir to other neighborhoods felt awkward, especially in Park Slope, where the stroller set—even those dads in Hüsker Dü t-shirts—never embraced the imported punk aesthetic. A Murray Hill location, where Canora and Grieco went so far as to quote local colonial history on the wine list, withered in a part of town that preferred cheap beer. “We should have just opened up a bro bar,” Solomon says.

Candidly, the current Terroir, in Tribeca, doesn’t quite evoke the original. The hiring of chef Andrew Riccatelli (recently on Chopped) was an attempt to spruce up the food, but the current menu feels willfully fancier—good for the bottom line, but also enough to invoke nostalgia for those pork steaks and meatballs. And there’s intimacy lost when you have a space three times as big, or when you walk in, as I did not long ago, to see a group of Wall Streeters enjoying a seated Madeira tasting.

But maybe that’s what happens to punk. The fringe moves on to drink unsulfured malbec next to Brooklyn brownfields, and the seasoned anarchist mellows with age.

Terroir, meanwhile, remains faithful to its very particular aesthetic. Grieco and Solomon still spend long hours fine-tuning the wine list and T-shirts and other Terroir paraphernalia, and I admire it all in the way I love how 4AD, the record label, musters on. Recently, the two assembled a Burgundy feature that used a car analogy to compare the wine region (a 1964 Lincoln Continental) to Bordeaux (a 1982 LADA). And they even find ways to quote some of their own greatest hits: The “Hello, My Name Is” stickers appear on the current list—reversed as a page header for the riesling selections.

Most crucially, for the first time in a long time, there’s just one place to absorb Grieco’s constant and frenetic energy. If he’d sometimes become a scarce presence in past years, you’re again likely to encounter him in person—his well-known goatee now turned salt-and-pepper—along with some new hires, like Sabra Lewis, previously the wine director at Shuko and Günter Seeger. This brings Terroir back to one of its important ideas: employing staff who could be gathering Michelin stars but would rather let their hair down. Terroir today is still a place to drink classic if slightly off-kilter wines and watch Elvis videos on large-screen TVs as Morrissey plays—or, to think of a visit not too long ago, to watch the final presidential debate over a bottle of 2003 Emmerich Knoll riesling.

To the extent that wine has entered its post-mainstream era, it has done so in part because of the path that Terroir sketched out. Is Terroir not as edgy as it used to be? Maybe. And that’s probably ok. After all, even Johnny Rotten had to grow up.

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