This Summer: All Riesling, All the Time

Photo: iStockphoto

For years, Rieslings have been widely dismissed as “sugar bombs” that aren’t all that sexy. Everyone has memories of quaffing Rioja on the Plaza Mayor, and Sideways did wonders for Pinot Noir, but who the heck has ever risen to champion the wine in the weird tall bottle, with the Gothic lettering on the label? Actually, this guy: His name is Paul Grieco. He’s a notorious loon. Even at black-tie parties, he dresses in Canada Dry coveralls presumably handed down from a vending-machine technician. But soda isn’t his first love. In case the “RIESLING!” tattoo on his forearm didn’t make that clear enough, Frank Bruni plums the depths of the man’s obsession in the Times today.

For the past couple of years, Grieco has instituted “The Summer of Riesling” at Terroir (his wine bar in Manhattan’s East Village and now Tribeca). For the entire summer, Riesling is the only thing you can order by the glass, no matter how much you want a Sauvignon blanc. You don’t want Riesling? No white wine by the glass for you! There’s no doubt Grieco is a showman — last year when Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema criticized Terroir for being overpriced and groused about having to “plough through many, many pages of rieslings,” Grieco responded by quoting Sietsema (“rather than winning you over with Rieslings, Terroir seems intent on torturing you with them”) on one of his zany wine list covers.

But Grieco may be on to something. After steering away from it for years, Pacific Northwest wine-makers (who some say gave Riesling its bad reputation in the first place) are returning to the grape, and on the East Coast, New York’s Finger Lakes region has been declared the “new Riesling kingdom” by a French wine magazine.

What’s more, Bloomberg’s wine columnist, Elin McCoy, recently pointed to a Nielsen survey indicating that in the year that just ended in June, Riesling was “the fastest-growing white wine in volume, with sales up 11.5 percent, and in dollars spent.” McCoy has been a fan of the “anti-establishment” wine for years: “When the temperature hits 90, a bright German bottling with its modest alcohol levels and pinpoint balance between pure fruitiness and tooth-tingling, bone-crunching acidity is what I pour.”

Chicago Tribune food and wine critic Bill Daley agrees that Rieslings are “one of the most versatile food wines ever created.” Like McCoy and Grieco, he points out that they range from “bone dry to very sweet”: “Rieslings are distinct, original. You have to be a bit daring to try them. The good thing is, because rieslings haven’t been very popular in the American market, you can get a lot of quality bang for your buck.”

A Finger Lakes wine producer recently observed that “we can’t be seen to be talking down to consumers” when divesting them of the impression that Rieslings need to be quaffed young. Clearly, Grieco chooses instead to take the hard-line: “Let’s be honest. I’m forcing it down your throat,” he admits to Bruni, who confesses that even he has “cursed him at times for his stridency.”

Nevertheless, if you too are a Riesling resister, check out the video in which Grieco tries to sell Bruni on its “bone-crushing acidity,” or better yet, check out Bruni’s Diner’s Journal addendum to the article, in which he quotes some of Grieco’s bon mots about the grape: “Just like the pagan who finds the Lord, riesling makes believers out of those who say they don’t drink the juice … see the magic, feel the magic, taste the magic, and enjoy off-roading.”

How I Spent My Summer of Riesling, by Terroir [NYT]

A-List Rieslings Top Bordeaux, Cheaper Ones Soothe in Summer [Bloomberg]

Don’t Be Chicken, Try Riesling [Chicago Tribune]

This Summer: All Riesling, All the Time