When Steven Grubbs moved to Atlanta to open chef Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South in August, 2010, he brought with him a love of honestly made Old World wines. Stocking the list with German riesling and little-known Burgundies—much as he’d done years earlier at the chef’s Five & Ten in Athens, Georgia—he set out to push drinkers outside their comfort zones, notably by eschewing familiar picks from California.
With a playful list dotted with quirky descriptions (“Ah. Pousse it. Pousse it real good,” for Domaine de la Pousse d’Or Chambolle-Musigny), he’s earned the trust of the clientele. And while he’s softened his stance on New World wines (his list now highlights not only new producers but venerable ones as well, including Cristom, Qupé and Au Bon Climat), he’s maintained the character of the Euro-centric program—and earned a number of James Beard Award nominations in the process.
Ask Grubbs what he wants to be when he grows up, however, and his answer might surprise you. Here, he tackles our Lookbook Questionnaire to share his strangest hobby, his favorite bar and his go-to drinks in a cocktail bar, wine bar and in a dive. —Lizzie Munro
Wine Director, Empire State South (Atlanta, GA) and Five & Ten (Athens, GA).
What do want to be when you grow up?
Best thing you ever drank:
Hmm probably 1978 DRC Echezeaux.
Worst thing you ever drank:
Shiraz aged in bourbon barrels.
First time you ever got drunk:
It was at a friend’s house, on his mom’s Franzia. I remember thinking my feet felt funny.
If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
The Replacements’ Let It Be.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
Building furniture. Is that weird?
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
To appreciate Obama every single day we had him.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
My friend made some super-gross bacon-cello. We tried to make a drink recipe with it, but each version was greasier and more awful than the last.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Bailey’s on the rocks, paired with blackened redfish. Woof.
Your favorite bar:
The Manhattan in Athens, Georgia. It possesses an outstanding blend of both authentic local dive bar and arty hangout sensations.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
At the kitchen table of a small Piedmontese winemaker in Costigliole d’Asti named Pietro Baldi. Pietro is also a local chef, and he cooked me and a buddy a five-course lunch of traditional Piedmontese dishes. Everything—from the rabbits, to the lemons and the olive oil—came from his house, and was matched with wines he made in the basement. I’ve never experienced harmony like that in a meal. It all flowed from this one tiny spot and this one country master, and it all shared some kind of essential affinity. Nothing will likely ever touch that one.
If they happen to have any decent tequila, it’ll be that on the rocks. If not, it’ll be a cold, cold Bud heavy (because they probably won’t have Schlitz).
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Well, I think that within every category there are wines/beers/spirits that are worth having around, so I don’t want to delete any particular category. But, I do think that there plenty of wines/beers/spirits that rely on an appeal that isn’t very legitimate—like a silly name or something—and I could stand for those to go away.
The last text message you sent:
“Haha. ‘Wilford Brimley here for selfishness.'”