Terry Theise is an acclaimed and influential importer of—and expert on—boutique wines from Germany, Austria, and Champagne. An award-winning wine writer, Theise (rhymes with “peace”) has published two books—Reading Between the Wines, and What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime—in addition to his numerous articles, blogs, and iconic annual portfolio selection catalogs. His feature length documentary Leading Between the Vines was released in 2012. Over the course of his career, Theise has won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional, Wine & Spirits Man of the Year Award and Food and Wine magazine’s Importer of the Year Award.
Read more about Terry in the written interview below.
Karen MacNeil: You’ve shared in the past that going out on your own with a little-known portfolio of wines was tough. But after a feature from Robert M. Parker in his Wine Advocate, your business tripled overnight. You have always been vocal in your opposition to 100-point scoring systems. How do you reconcile those things?
Terry Theise: I don’t believe I need to reconcile them. If Bob Parker wanted to taste my wines, there was no way I could prevent him. Same for anyone who uses a scale I happen to dislike. Also, as the agent for my growers, I am obliged to get as much press as I can for their wines. I’d be irresponsible and self-righteous if I restrict access to my wines only to writers whose scoring systems I happen to find acceptable. One thing I did do was to never, ever refer to a “score” from anyone in order to sell the wine – or to sell any wine. I may have said that so-and-so was “well reviewed” or words to that effect, but I never called a customer to say “Wine-X just got 93 points, how ‘bout that placement we were talking about?”
KM: Tell us something about yourself that would surprise most people to learn.
TT: David Schildknecht was recently surprised to learn I loved the composer Gabriel Fauré. David had me pegged as a jazz guy. But in general? Who knows what would surprise which person, but I have an abiding love for some so-called prog-rock, and for a while when my son was younger, we watched a lot of pro wrestling together and I totally enjoyed it. I am also completely indifferent to nearly all “modern” art, which might bemuse anyone who thinks I’m a creature of Great And Solemn Culture.
KM: You have said in Reading Between the Wines, that “we need not to demystify wine but to remystify it.” Why do you believe that?
TT: That question is interestingly phrased. To answer it as it is asked, “why” I believe it is because I happen to be sensitive to wine’s ability to be a doorway to experience most would term “mystical,” and I think this is precious and useful and at risk of being squandered if we’re too busy feverishly making wine “simple.” To answer the question your actual question implied, I feel there are two ways in to wine education: one is to reassure the student that “It’s simpler than you think,” and the other is to say “You’re about to enter a world that may seem complicated but that is actually miraculous and sublime, and while you may feel a little confused you’ll be too busy having your mind blown and your heart expanded to notice any confusion.” In my view, an articulate teacher such as you can handle both approaches at once, because you’re a fine organizer of information, a clear communicator of information, but most important a person of uninhibited imagination and spirit of joy.
“I feel there are two ways in to wine education: one is to reassure the student that ‘It’s simpler than you think,’ and the other is to say ‘You’re about to enter a world that may seem complicated but that is actually miraculous and sublime, and while you may feel a little confused you’ll be too busy having your mind blown and your heart expanded to notice any confusion.’” ”
KM: What do you believe are the most overrated trends in wine today?
TT: Many of them would reduce to simple matters of taste preference, right? If you’re nuts about wines I don’t like, that doesn’t mean you’re overrating them, it just means we disagree. But! While I wouldn’t use the word “overrated” in this context, I would say there is too much intellectual slackness in elements of the natural wine community. It can be troubling to see an otherwise smart person wrenching himself into conniptions of virtue-signaling while making absurd excuses for some wine that stinks like sweaty bog shrimp.
KM: What wine book on your shelf do you take down most frequently?
TT: For practical uses, the Johnson/Robinson World Atlas of Wine and Peter Liem’s Champagne. For fun, definitely Laurence Osborne’s The Accidental Connoisseur.
KM: What wine are you embarrassed that you’ve never tasted?
TT: Not embarrassed, just regretful. I seldom moved among well-heeled collectors, so I have minimal exposure to most of the trophies. You name them, I ain’t drank ‘em.
KM: What other wine regions besides Germany, Austria, and Champagne inspire you?
TT: For regions I’d have to say both Jurançon and Beaujolais, each of which is an extravagant dream of wine-landscape at its most ravishing. For wines, absolutely Chablis and Piedmont.
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favorite beverage, and why?
TT: Thanks for asking. Tea! There are so many parallels to wine, and I love how deliberate the “buzz” is, the slow rise of energy as opposed to the jangly coffee jag. Tea is a lifelong love and an endlessly interesting field of study. But I’d have to say my very favorite beverage on earth, even more than wine, is ice-cold mountain water from a fresh flowing stream. Give me that, a slice of great bread and a big glob of really excellent butter, and I have everything I need to be blissed out.
KM: What person, living or dead, would you most love to drink wine with?
TT: “Would” I, or do I? The answer is my wife Karen Odessa. But hypothetically I think it would be Andrew Jeffords, because I so love his writing.
KM: Your wife is a chef. Does that mean you are super serious about pairing wine and food expertly or do you tend to eat and drink what you’re in the mood for whether or not they “go together?”
TT: Mostly the former but sometimes the latter. We try to get the combinations right without obsessing over it. Often we’ll reach a point where the food can go different ways (sauce, seasonings, what wine is used to deglaze the pan, adding acidity, adding sweetness, among other options and variations) and then we taste the wine and decide. Sometimes one or both of us is just in the mood to drink a particular wine and that’s what we drink regardless of the food. But it’s important to note, the types of wines we have in the cellar are generally flexible and compatible with “food” as long as you avoid the most egregious howlers.
KM: Is there another Terry Theise book in the works?
TT: Always! I mean, if I gathered scraps and shards of writing I’ve done since the last book was finished, there’s probably fifty thousand words to build on. That doesn’t mean there’ll be another book; that depends on the feasibility of finding a publisher and on my own conviction that a third book would justify its existence by going further than the first two. I’m by no means convinced of that, and I’m hugely grateful to have been published at all, and so you could say I’m satisfied as an author, though I write constantly and probably always will.