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Wine Talk: The Corrections Department Connoisseur

Most people who meet Jonathan Grossweiler don't benefit from his wine knowledge—because they're inmates—but his tough job didn't keep him from learning about and loving wine

Peter Hellman
Posted: April 11, 2007

"When I was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1998, I said to myself, 'What can I do besides shoot you from 500 meters? Be a marksman for the Mafia?' I needed to find a new skill set. But also a passion," says Jonathan Grossweiler, 34. As a civilian, after seven years as a Marine, he became a corrections officer at a prison for sex offenders in Middlesex County, N.J. But that was just the job. The passion turned out to be wine. The seed of Grossweiler's passion was planted in 1993 during boot camp at Camp Lejeune, N.C., when a fellow Marine invited him to a home-cooked dinner. Grossweiler said he'd bring the wine. Clueless about to what to select at the base post exchange, he picked a flip-top bottle of Carlo Rossi red—his first-ever wine purchase. He knew there had to be something better out there, but it was a few more years of downing suds with other soldiers before his passion for wine would be realized, as Grossweiler explained over dinner one recent evening at the famed Spanish Tavern in the Ironbound district of Newark, N.J. The liberally tattooed Grossweiler, who loves his motorcycle almost as much as he does his wine, was wearing a black shirt with an orange stripe down one shoulder and a Harley Davidson emblem on the breast.

Wine Spectator: When did you upgrade from that first jug of Carlo Rossi?
Jonathan Grossweiler: It was Thanksgiving, 1995, the first at my mother's new house in New Jersey. I prefer not to say exactly where it is, because as a corrections officer, I wouldn't want the inmates to have that information. Anyway, to go with the turkey, I bought a bottle of Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay, Sonoma County 1992. And that was my epiphany wine. At the table, I raised a glass to my mother, who raised me without my father, and I remember saying where that wine came from. Only I didn't know how to pronounce "Sonoma." My uncle was at the table, and he is big into NASCAR. He corrected my pronunciation. I asked him how he knew about Sonoma, and he said, "Because there's a race track there." That Chardonnay was what wine was supposed to be: full-bodied, a little oaky, with good acidity that cleansed the palate even of the deviled eggs that I'd made—and still make every Thanksgiving.

WS: Was that bottle the impetus to learning more about wine?
JG: I was reading back labels, but not understanding terms like malolactic fermentation or why a winemaker chose French or American oak. And I didn't know the structural components of tasting. In 2002, I coughed up a couple of dollars and took Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World Wine Course in Manhattan. I came to it a little nervous, assuming that wine people were going to be rich and snobby. But it was one of the best things I could have done. Kevin had this huge passion without pretension. At the end of the course, I gave him a big hug. And I volunteered to be a wine pourer for his next class.

WS: Did you put your new wine knowledge to practical use?
JG: It started paying off when I took my girlfriend to this restaurant. I was able to order a Rioja riserva knowing how long it was aged and what it was supposed to taste like. Before, I'd have ordered a $19 pitcher of sangria, which I now knew was made from Mountain Dew, fruit juice and jug wine. For five bucks more, I could buy real wine.

WS: Did you ever think of trying to make your own wine?
JG: I arranged through a student friend to go to Château Camplazens in the Coteaux du Languedoc in 2004 and again in 2006. I'd read about using a hydrometer and spectrometer in the vineyards. Now, I actually got to use them to check sugar and acidity levels. And I bent down and picked the clusters. What I took away from that hands-on experience was that wine is not all romance. "Château" is just another word for "farm." You have to get up early and you get dirty.

WS: Do you collect wine?
JG: I prefer to say that I buy wine for future consumption.

WS: What's your best bottle for "future consumption?"
JG: So much in the world of wine is predictable. I wanted something not predictable. So my next biggie is an 1834 Madeira. I'd wanted to get something before 1851 because that's when powdery mildew [a vine disease] hit the island.

WS: When will you drink that Madeira?
JG: I want to get together everyone that I consider influential, who is family to me, and we'll open that bottle.

WS: What are your preferences?
JG: I like wines that do what they are supposed to. If you give me $100 and said go buy a Pinot Noir, I'm going to Burgundy, not Santa Barbara. If I want a 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, I'm going to Napa. If I want a Cab-Merlot blend, I'm going to Bordeaux. What's a truly great wine? It is what it's supposed to be, not trying to be something else. That's the great thing about the AOC, DOC, DOCG, all those different rules: The consumer understands, if I want Gewürztraminer, I'm gonna go to Alsace or Alto Adige, not to Priorat.

WS: What are some specific recent purchases?
JG: Let's go to Burgundy: In my perfect world, I go from village to premier cru to grand cru, buying from the same vintage and the same producer so I get the same mentality in winemaking as well as the taste of terroir. But my world isn't perfect, so at Burgundy Wine Co. in Manhattan, I was able to buy a village Gevrey-Chambertin and the premier cru, Gevrey-Chambertin Clos St.-Jacques from Frederic Esmonim. But for the big boy, a Chambertin, I had to go to Nicolas Potel. From what I understand, the Clos St.-Jacques should also be a grand cru.

WS: I notice you're buying wine from France. As an ex-Marine, how'd you feel about the anti-French feeling during the early days of the Iraq War?
JG: I'm a Marine with a Harley and a pickup truck with an NRA sticker on it and a .44 magnum. And I told people, "I love France!"

WS: Are your beer-drinking days gone forever?
JG: People say, "Hey Gross"—my friends call me that—"you don't drink beer no more?" And I tell them that if we go riding our Harleys in the summer and we stop at a bike bar, sure, I'll still have a Bud.

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