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Q&A with Steven Grubbs

Empire State South's wine director on Summer of Riesling and why he loves this noble grape

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Paul Grieco's love for the Riesling grape is fierce. So fierce, that in 2008 the celebrated sommelier — and general manager of Hearth Restaurant and Terroir Wine Bar — made it his mission to advocate for this noble grape, one that he believed had been wrongfully typecast as overly sweet and therefore undesirable. His devotion to Riesling was more in line with today's Summer of Riesling slogans: "Surrender to the greatest grape on planet Earth" and "[B]y drinking Riesling you become a better person." To change minds, Grieco decided that a radical gesture was in order. For the entire summer, the only white wines he poured by the glass at Terroir were Rieslings. Grieco did the same in 2009 and every year since the size and scope of Summer of Riesling has grown. In 2011, the International Riesling Foundation, an organization solely dedicated to expanding the knowledge and interaction with Riesling, joined Grieco's cause. This year, more than 400 establishments in 32 states are involved in the summer celebration. Atlanta's participating restaurants, which have agreed to feature at least three Rieslings by the glass, include the Optimist, JCT. Kitchen, Market, Aria, and Empire State South. With roughly six weeks of summer left to celebrate, CL caught up with Empire State South's Wine Director Steven Grubbs to learn more about this versatile and complex grape.

How did you become involved with Summer of Riesling?

Hugh [Acheson] and I had already been dabbling in Rieslings at Five & Ten, and we happened to visit Terroir and saw what Paul was doing there. We decided to quietly cop the idea in Athens. Not too long after that I met Paul and he asked me to conduct Summer of Riesling down here in Georgia. I had to come clean and sheepishly tell him that I sort of already was.

What makes Riesling special?

I think what's so appealing about these wines is that they seem to hit so many pleasure receptors. The fact that they are juicy and have all that refreshing acidity makes them instant drinking pleasure. But since they also usually show off plenty of mineral and floral details you also find yourself spending a lot of time just smelling them and trying to figure them out. This creates a good time for your nose and your mind, too.

Why do you think some people are opposed to drinking Riesling?

I think for most people it has to do with the way they were taught to drink. When most wine drinkers started drinking alcohol they wanted it to taste like all the other stuff they liked to drink for pleasure: soft drinks, fruit juice, sports drinks — all sweet drinks. And when they started drinking wine they gravitated toward wines that had sugar, like many Rieslings do. Later on they developed a taste for dry wines, beers, and maybe even bitter cocktails, and they decided that it was time to move on from wines with sugar and never look back. They began to proudly proclaim "I don't like sweet wine" like that was their natural state, which it wasn't, and as an unfortunate consequence Riesling got tossed out, too.

What kinds of foods would you pair with Riesling?

Old wisdom says Riesling is great with all kinds of Asian food, especially spicy Thai. But I also think there's a real place for Riesling with classic Southern food like pork chops and spicy low-country fare. Pork and Riesling are a very natural combination. The match works on the same principle as pork chops and applesauce. Pork likes a little sugar — think bacon and maple syrup as an extreme example — and acidity cuts the pork fat and makes you want to keep taking bites. I really like to drink Riesling with all kinds of foods, though. It is surprisingly adaptable.

Do you have any tips that may help potential Riesling drinkers decode confusing labels?

This is the tough part. Every country is a little different, and understanding the German system is like trying to work on a Volkswagen. You sort of have to go to a specialist. That said, you can generally say that if you are looking for a drier wine it's not a bad idea to look at Austria or maybe Alsace in France, but Germany also makes great dry wines — in fact, around 85 percent of what they make now is dry. These wines are usually noted with the word "dry" or "trocken," which is the German word for dry.

The German wines whose labels have long stretches of intimidating words are called Pradikatswein and they are actually telling us quite a lot about the wine. It will usually say something like Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Kabinett. This tells us which town the wine is from (Urzig), what the vineyard site is (Wurzgarten), what the grape is, and how ripe those grapes were when they went into fermentation — in this case the Kabinett level. This Pradikat measurement usually translates into more intensity, complexity, and weight as you go up the scale from Kabinett to Spatlese and Auslese levels. Often the wines get a little sweeter, too.

If you know those Pradikat words then you can generally tell what the wine will be like. And if you're really smart and you know your Mosel vineyard sites, then you'll know that wines from the vineyard called Wurzgarten, which literally means "spice-garden," will have strong spicy floral notes, too.

What do you say to people who are unwilling to give Riesling a try?

I have two tenets about Riesling and sugar: 1) Not all Rieslings are sweet. 2) Not all sweet wines are for amateurs. Also, I might say something like, "How late-'90s of you."

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