Terry Theise, the only wine guy you need to know about

November 29, 2010 § 5 Comments

Terry Theise, lemme count the frickin’ ways.

Please, y’all, remember that Terry Theise will be in Portland, Maine on December 7, signing copies of his book at Rabelais from 3-5 p.m., and then hosting a wine dinner at Bar Lola at 6:30 p.m.

From Portland Press Herald, December 1, 2010

This is simultaneously the hardest and easiest column for me to write. Easy because it concerns Terry Theise, my personal wine hero (and writing hero, and life hero), and I have waited a long time for the opportunity to write publicly about him. Hard because the stakes are so high: If I fail to convince you to form a long-term relationship with Theise’s work, then I wonder why I speak about wine at all.

If you love wine for its particulars but also for its metaphors; if you cherish delicacy, beauty, clarity and harmony over bravado and impact; if you agree at least partially that wine is ultimately not really about wine but is rather just one particularly useful pathway to the transcendent, then you too may come to view Theise as your Guide.

It’s due to Theise more than any other single person – his crystalline palate; his unyielding devotion to his winemakers as humans; his passionate, rambunctious, irreverent essays in his own wine catalogs and now in a book, Reading Between the Wines – that most of us know the first thing about German and Austrian wines, not to mention have come to appreciate Riesling as the most beautiful and complex grape on Earth. Theise has also exposed the corporate culture of the international Champagne market and pointed the way to grower-made Champagne (or as he calls it, “farmer fizz”).

He represents, powerfully, for the sensitive sensualist in all of us: “There aren’t a lot of emotional introverts getting the word out,” he told me. “It’s important to applaud that quiet, delicate temperament and encourage that sort of person – to say, ‘Your perspective is incredibly important.’” This from a guy who says he’s “most of the time thinking about sex, baseball and rock-n-roll.” Most of us who read Theise (as you can online, or by buying his book) adopt a kind of WWTTD-bracelet approach to life.

Although he has one of the finer palates in the world, he’s unconcerned with analyzing wines to death. “Most people think only what they’re supposed to think about wine,” he told me. “They treat wine like their life, as something that needs to be wrestled to the ground. We’re constantly being showered with beauty, but we affect an indifference to it that takes greater effort than would be required to just let it in.”

Worse even than indifference is adherence to preconceptions, which afflicts so many wine consumers when they encounter sweetness. Some Rieslings are perfectly dry (like the outrageous value Leitz Einz Zwei Dry “3”, $15), but a misconception persists that a touch of sweetness is anything other than life- and food-affirming. How to dispel this? “It’s hard, but my only real advice is to make yourself into a pure, blank receiver.” His wines beg us to meet them with our full array of sensual receptivity in the moment, rather than a scorecard.

“I approach this as an aesthete,” he said, but he’s an earthy one. His wines can be pounding-your-hands-on-the-steering-wheel-pop-song like the Gysler Silvaner 2009 ($14 liter) or quietly majestic like Dönnhoff Oberhauser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett 2009 ($25). They can be lusty, waxy and lipsmacking like the Gysler Scheurebe 2009 ($17 liter), or spacious, oxygenated and spicy like the Darting Dürkheimer Nonnengarten Riesling Kabinett 2009 ($17 liter).

They can educate: Berger Zweigelt 2009 ($14 liter) shows the significance of integrity over concentration, as it combines dense red fruit and prosciutto without any squeeze-in-there-guys cloying or whump. Or they can seduce and sizzle: Messmer Spatburgunder ($19 liter) shows why so many of us are hooked on German Pinot Noir, wrapped as this is in silk, smoke and sand.

For Thanksgiving I provided an array of the above wines as well as some others from Theise. I didn’t push it or gush over the wines unless someone asked, and they were there among other bottles people had brought: California Pinots costing twice as much, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Burgundy. The Theise wines disappeared the fastest. For all their soul, all their distinctiveness, all the care that went into their making and their selection, they’re above all delicious and approachable. “Not every wine needs to rock our world,” Theise told me after a long conversation about world-rocking wines. “Just laugh when you’re tickled and let it all be fun.”

All Theise wines are distributed in Maine by SoPo Wine Company. Some are tremendous bargains (note the liter bottles above), others are quite pricey and lead to Theise’s palace of wisdom. For access to these, he suggests drinking less (more attentively): “If you spend $45 a week on three bottles, try spending that on two. Or sometimes, one.”

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§ 5 Responses to Terry Theise, the only wine guy you need to know about

  • Don says:

    Mr. Appel

    While I respect your admiration for Mr. Theise, and think that he has done a lot for German Riesling, by simply being a fan and importing great wines. I wholeheartedly disagree with anything else you have waxed poetically about him above. Terry Theise simply likes to hear himself talk, and rarely does he write in way that would attract entry level Riesling drinkers. An example would be the below write up –

    “At this point I’m actually hoping for something I won’t like so much, so as to give the appearance of being “discriminating” and “selective.” This pitiable stratagem was doomed. Now we entered the zone of the rare and stellar, the place where Riesling does what no other wine can do, and Mosel Riesling does what no other Riesling can do. One can yammer about ginger and pistachio (both Domprobst signatures), and I have and will again (and just did in a sneaky way), but this wine has an utterly heartrending
    restraint below the celestial singing fruit. – Terry Thiese, describing a bottle of Willi Scheafer, 2009 Graacher Domprobst Spatlese

    ….huh? What the hell did he just say? If I was new to the Riesling game, I would walk away shaking my head and wondering, “am I worthy to even drink this wine?”…and I would go back to drinking Australian Sauv Blanc for $10.99 and think I got a great deal. IMO Terry Theise is NOT the ONLY wine guy you need to know about in any way shape or form.

    • Joe Appel says:

      Don’t most of us like to hear ourselves talk? Maybe you mean that for you, personally, TT is too much. Imagining yourself as new to Riesling, you surmise you’d be put off and confused by TT. OK, yeah, fine! But I think that’s just about a mismatch between TT’s spirit/perspective/tastes/etc. and your own: no judgments there, just a non-alignment. I know plenty of people who have read TT and caught the bug, whereas they wouldn’t have without someone so idiosyncratic and wild. Indeed, I was an “entry-level Riesling drinker” when I first encountered him, and reading his catalogs is what set me off on the journey.

      I freely admit to having overstated the case in my column — not everyone is going to get excited by TT the way I have. (I personally had to stop reading him at night because I wasn’t able to get to sleep!) My connection to wine is all about feeling and spirit, so I tune in to Theise. But his writing is in part what got me there; my hope is it might do similarly for others. If not, fine! If you read “only guy you need to know about” and couldn’t see my tongue in my cheek from where you were standing, my fault!

  • Andrew Jarman says:

    Did you taste the Domprobst Spatlese (#5 or #10) ? Did you taste any of the Schaefer 2009s ? Did you taste any Middle Mosel 2009 ? Did you taste Schaefer at the Trier’s auctions ?

    What did you taste ?

  • Andrew Jarman says:

    My comment is meant for Don…

  • Marel says:

    As I sit here, sick and cold in northern Minnesota, I just want to say how much I enjoy the good writing of those who are enthused and passionate about something. Of course, as a poet most everything for me is seated in the senses; I so appreciate an anti-snob, joyous appeal to getting out and living fully, with all the things we humans have available to us, such as wine and corkscrews, food and people to relish it with, or the perfect solitude of swirling a glass of pleasure by oneself.
    My compliments on your post and yes, I am now intrigued enough to search him out. Thank you.

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