Living, Learning, Liquor: SU Professor discusses his experience as alcohol expert
By Angelica Welch ’17. Courtesy of 360 Magazine
Torrey Grant, adjunct professor of the famous Beer and Wine Appreciation class, has a deep-seeded relationship with the Syracuse food and drink scene and the growing wine industry in the Finger Lakes region of Central New York. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1997, Grant stayed in the city to pursue a job in the restaurant business but eventually found his way back to SU. In addition to teaching, he works as the fine wine and event coordinator at the local liquor store, Liquor City. An advocate of the unconventional – like pairing Champagne and hotdogs – Grant has melded his trained palate with Syracuse’s homely, simple nature.
Q: Did you ever see yourself staying here in Syracuse, let alone teaching at SU?
A: No – when I was in school, because I worked off campus at a bar downtown, I became friends with a lot of people from the area. I had a pretty good job, and then in 1999 I got a really good job managing a restaurant, so I just stayed and all of a sudden it’s 2016.
Q: How did you get involved with teaching?
A: It’s funny, I knew people in the position and I used to get lunches with them, so I knew the class was here, but I never took it. But two years ago, oddly enough, this girl I used to date sent me the posting and was like ‘they’re looking for part-time faculty.’ So I was like ‘alright’ and I threw a CV together because I hadn’t applied for a job in a few years at that point. It started out with two sections last semester, three this year and I’m doing four next semester. I teach at [Liquor City], which is my favorite day of the week there. I love doing this – I like the balance between the two.
Q: This class is super popular. Are there any challenges that exist in teaching it?
A: Yeah I think so. Last semester, my first semester, we taught from the curriculum that was already established because I got hired the week before class started, and I was actually out of the country. So I didn’t really have an opportunity to change it – and I could tell it hadn’t been changed in a number of years. There was no mention of Spain, no mention of Argentina, really. I can see why the former professor, who was beloved and did a great job, didn’t change it every year because it’s a lot work. But to keep it relevant, you have to change the class along with the industry. I want it to be relevant every single semester, and I also want it to be relatable.
Q: Alright let’s get into some wine questions – how would you describe the wine scene here in Central New York?
A: Um, it’s a little weak. I wish there were a few more places that offered a well thought out wine list – even if it’s just ten wines. I think Alto Cinco does a great job, but there are a lot of restaurants that I can go into and open their wine list and tell you who put it together, like which distributor helped them with it, because all of the wines are from one company. I think the scene is getting there because there are people who want it. I just wish there was less reliance on big brands that you can see everywhere you go.
Q: So a cider, is that closer to a wine or a beer?
A: It’s kind of in the middle. Beer is harder to make than wine because you have to convert starch to sugar before you make it. Whereas grapes and apples have their own natural sugar. It’s probably still closer to wine, other than the fact that you are going to carbonate it. It’s mostly sold and marketed as beer but I see ciders that come across my desk every day that are put into wine bottles.
Q: Central and Upstate New York is kind of seen as beer country – do you think there is room for wine?
A: Definitely. Buffalo and Rochester have seen it more so than Syracuse. I think there’s room for it but, in all honesty, it shouldn’t be up to the consumer – it should be up to the people running the restaurants, the bars and the taverns to introduce people to that. You have to create a market. There were people here that wanted it, but were driving elsewhere to get it.
Q: Do you work closely with any vineyards or wineries up here, or do you stay impartial?
A: Yeah, I do [work with them]. Of course the Finger Lakes are only an hour away, so I’ve gone and worked harvest a couple of times in different places. I just went down and did a dinner at the James Beard House a couple weeks ago where I took all New York state wines. I went to the wineries and they were very eager to jump on board with that, so I’ll take a few cases and showcase them in Manhattan. It’s funny though – Manhattanites are much more fond of our wines than people in Syracuse. Syracuse is the hardest market. Finger Lakes wines do great in Rochester; they do great in Manhattan – Syracuse has this weird ‘not in my own backyard’ mentality.
Q: If someone wants to buy a local Finger Lakes wine, what would you suggest?
A: The Finger Lakes have made their name on Riesling. Ravines is probably my favorite winery in the Finger Lakes. Morten Hallgren came from Provence, from a centuries-old wine-making family, he did apprenticeship in Bordeaux, and he makes dry Rieslings and Chardonnays that are wonderful. Fox Run is awesome, Keuka Spring too – they got Winery of the Year this year. This summer was a great year. Grapes aren’t like tomatoes, they like a drought. I think you’ll be able to look at the 2016 wines and they’ll be really, really good – reds especially, but also whites.
Q: What is the biggest mistake you see when people come into Liquor City and say they want a “good” wine?
A: The biggest mistake I see is that they think there is a certain thing that they are supposed to be getting. They should just get what they like. The funniest comment I get all the time is ‘Oh, I’m sorry I don’t know much about wine’ and my response to that is that if everyone knew a lot about wine I would be unemployed. People have this preconceived notion that they are supposed to like something, and they’re not – you’re supposed to like what you like.