Hospitality pro Manny Nieves is a reporter's nightmare: a fast-talking, multi-tasking, non-linear thinker who knows way more about his subjects than you ever will. Whether it's wine, food, or the restaurant biz, Nieves isn't just knowledgeable; he's a well-connected insider who counts celebrity chefs and California winemakers among his inner circle. So no surprise that when we drop in on him on a recent morning at his newest venture, Grady's Fine Wines and Market in Rocky River, we find ourselves racing to keep up.
Then again, it could be the result of the bottomless mugs of rich Puerto Rican coffee he's sipping. The beans were sourced via special request from Westlake roaster Windward Coffee. "We had to have Puerto Rican coffee," Nieves tells us while pouring another mug, "because I grew up in Puerto Rica.
"I remember going to my dad's print shop on a little street with a giant coffee plant at the end of the road," he says. "That aroma was wonderful. Dave [Hoffmann, from Windward Coffee] and I went through several versions before we came up with this medium-plus roast. It's the most expensive coffee I carry, but in my opinion it's the best."
That's something else you'll learn about the 40-year-old Nieves: There is nothing on his shelves or in his pantry that doesn't meet his exacting standards of quality. That includes the 600-plus international wines that line the walls at the front of his long, narrow gourmet market, the craft beers that beckon from the cooler, and the fine Creminelli charcuterie that glimmers in the deli case.
Nieves took over the longtime wine shop a little more than a year ago. Since then, he's worked hard to develop an inventory of exceptional products. Whether it's the dried legumes that go into his baked beans or the gourmet cheeses that fill his cooler, every item comes with a pedigree. "I want to be 100 percent behind everything I sell," he explains. "What I offer at Grady's is the best of everything I can find."
And you better believe, Nieves knows what's best. As a wine expert, the former sommelier at Classics, the now departed fine-dining spot at the Cleveland InterContinental Hotel, has headed up wine programs at restaurants in Palm Beach, Naples, and Miami. Presently he's just two steps removed from attaining the rank of Master Sommelier in the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers. (For comparison, there currently are just 122 Master Sommeliers in the nation, and only 190 in the entire world.) He still keeps a bound edition of his 56-page Classics' wine list on hand as a sort of personal bible. "It's a great reference," he says as he pages through the vast document. "Plus, it's a little bit of nostalgia."
These days Nieves wine list isn't on paper; it's on his walls. "I kind of shade my inventory to go with the seasons," he says, gesturing to shelves lined with gleaming bottles. "So right now you'll find a lot of Chardonnays and whites. But mainly, it's whatever tastes good. My customers are a well-educated bunch and they really know wine. That means I'm free to stock more interesting products. And because I have a restaurant license, I can get wines that never make it to the grocery-store shelves."
The upshot is a store that welcomes explorers but caters to connoisseurs. Right now, for instance, Nieves can't say enough about Petit Sirah, a high-alcohol varietal rife with flavors of black-raspberry jam. Earthquake, a reserve wine from California's Michael David Winery, is his current fave. "It's awesome," he says of the $24.99 bottle. "If the world was ending, this is what I would want to be drinking when it all went down."
Beyond his grape expertise, Nieves is also set apart from your everyday wine-shop owner by his culinary cred. While food knowledge is essential for wine experts, Nieves has taken it one step further by becoming an accomplished chef whose talents are on display in Grady's ever-expanding food-service ops. That includes everything from signature sandwiches like the 2X BLT (starring a double dose of double thick-cut applewood-smoked bacon from fine-meats purveyor Blue Ribbon) to monthly wine dinners featuring dishes like cinnamon-skewered scallops and beef carpaccio wrapped around truffled arugula with Parmesan and sea salt.
Nieves traces his chef chops back to time he spent working in London kitchens, including the venerable Grosvenor House. "But I've always been friends with the chefs at the places I worked," he says. "At Classics, I always helped write the menus and some of my dishes actually made it onto the tables."
He's also tight with Govind Armstrong, the dreadlocked chef-owner of 8 oz. Burger Bar in L.A. and South Beach, and familiar face to fans of Top Chef and Iron Chef. Nieves was sommelier at Armstrong's Table 8 in South Beach, and continues to lend his food-and-wine expertise to the chef's ongoing projects.
On the local front, Nieves operates Local Flavors, an off-site catering biz, and Manny's Mac & Que which, as the you'd probably guess, specializes in barbecued meats and more than 40 inventive styles of macaroni and cheese. (The notion of taking it to the streets via a food truck hasn't escaped him.)
He also offers a large selection of prepared foods for carryout. That includes his freshly made chicken potpies, four-meat lasagna, and zesty pulled pork that gets treated to a custom spice rub before heading for the back-of-the-store smoker.
Headed out for a day on the boat or the beach? Nieves will put together a customized picnic basket for your party. "Just call me the day before and let me know what you like and your price range."
Prefer to cook at home? Nieves has just the thing: strips, ribeyes, Porterhouses, flank, and skirt steaks from Certified Angus Beef. "The cool thing is I get restaurant quality: hand cut, individually cryovac'd, and ready for the grill. You can't buy a better steak outside a restaurant."
Not coincidentally, Nieves also counts CAB's corporate chef Scott Popovic among his closest friends. It's a connection that Popovic, formerly executive chef at upscale steak house XO, is happy to endorse.
"Manny is one of those guys that once you get to know him, you never want to let him out of your sight," says Popovic. "As a wine pro, he is extremely talented. And as a chef, believe me: He can move it and shake in the kitchen!"
Together with wife Jennifer — a skilled chef and graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America — Nieves also serves French-pressed coffees and home-baked pastries at the shop each Saturday morning beginning at 9. A couple high tops, a small dining bar, and a landscaped patio provide seating.
Then there's the $5 Saturday-afternoon wine-and-food tastings, the Tuesday-night "Camp Happy" happy hour, the occasional "party bus" trips to wineries, and the more-or-less around-the-clock camaraderie.
"Grady's has turned into a neighborhood not-bar," Nieve says. "Everyone who comes here knows and loves wine. It's really become a destination where people gather, talk, and try something new. Really, it's like a party!"
As for what many would consider the grueling pace? Nieves loves it. "I'm the happiest person I know," he bubbles. "I get to do this for a living. What more could I want?"