Terry Theise is the most influential importer of Austrian and German wines in the United States. He has been a tireless champion of Riesling and should get some of the credit for its rising prominence. He is the author of the book Reading Between the Vines and the filmmaker behind the movie Leading Between the Vines described as a " psychotropic experience" that peers into the worlds of some of the world's leading Riesling producers.
Dorothy J. Gaiter talks to Theise about his journey into wine, making movies and why he hopes Riesling never becomes mainstream.
Dorothy Gaiter: When I was starting out in wine, I learned that there were a few names that if I found them on the back of a bottle, I knew this was going to be a wonderful experience. I might not be crazy about the wine, but I knew that it was a wine of integrity, that it was someone's wine. It wasn't being pumped out by the gallons by some nameless, faceless entity.
Terry Theise's name was one of those names that I looked for because every time, you put your name on reliably enjoyable wines. Thoughtful wines. People look for guarantees in wine. There are no guarantees, but seeing your name gave me some confidence I was going to have a really fun time...
Terry Theise: Thank you. I was very privileged to be one of a generation of importers who I understood to be gatekeepers, and to put our names on the labels, although in my case I wanted my name to be relatively inconspicuous. Our job was to cherry-pick our growers. I believed in the early days that if I did my job correctly I made a grower appear to be even better than he actually was. Particularly with German wine, growers make multitudes of wines.
Left: Theise with Philippe Aubry of Aubry Fils.
A typical grower might make two or three dozen wines in a vintage. Apart from how unruly it would be if I offered all of them, why would I? I would take the four or five that excited me the most and with those wines that producer would be represented in the American market. Now this isn't because I'm such a hot shot, but I just saw it as my simple commercial function and also as a means of keeping faith with my customers. I wanted most of all, most of all, to be reliable.
When you say to me that my name on the back label of a bottle of a wine was a reasonable guarantee of quality, I am so gratified I don't know hardly what to say.
You've been called the Patron of Lost Causes, a person who loves the wines of Germany, Austria, (grower) Champagne. Riesling.
That is for sure true. Widows and orphans come to me, baby.
I think every wine writer, every sommelier in the world loves Riesling.
We flog it and flog it and flog it. Has it caught on yet? It seems to me that if we can get people to taste it they love it, but there seems to be some barrier. It hasn't gained “traction,” using one of your words.
There's a lot of barriers. Some of them I understand and most of them I don't honestly. Riesling hasn't caught on. You get different answers to that question depending upon whom you ask. I think if you ask Stuart Pigott, he'd say it is catching on. Paul Grieco might say the same. We certainly sell a great deal more Riesling than we ever have sold, but it's still not a mainstream mass-market kind of thing, which by the way I am personally relieved about.
My feeling is a very elitist-sounding thing to say, so I apologize in advance. My feeling is that if Riesling ever did catch on with the mass market, there would be two problems with that. One, there wouldn't be enough wine of sufficiently high quality to serve the mass market.
Two, the mass market would probably glom onto it for the wrong reasons.
What would the wrong reasons be?
Trendiness. It's certainly possible to make bland uninteresting Riesling, you have to work at it but it can be done. People will sometimes say as long as somebody is reading a book it doesn't matter if they're reading trash, they're engaged in the act of reading. To my way of thinking that's like saying, “well as long as somebody's in a Burger King eventually they might graduate to Brooklyn Fair or Eleven Madison.” I just don't necessarily see that as true.
I think that our tastes are a fluid that finds its natural level. Riesling, I think at this point, has entered the mainstream of people with excellent taste. That's a really good thing, but there are limits to the numbers of people with excellent taste.
Riesling is never going to be the Romcom or car chase explosion computer generated imagery special effects popcorn chompers that you see at your local multiplex. Riesling is always going to be the really quirky little Indie film that's playing at the scuzzy little theater around the corner and instead of a gigantic queue at the door, there's going to a little scrum of about 2 or 3 nerds waiting in line for tickets.
That's Riesling, but it's a very high quality of experience. In fact, I think ... Ultimately I think Riesling is the master class of wine appreciation and wine loving. It delivers to the drinker more of everything that can matter about wine.
Over the years, people have asked me one question that has always stumped me and that's “when will I know, when will I have experienced enough wine that I'm ready for the big boys.”I just ...
What a great question.
I don't know how to answer that.
Because there isn't an answer. It's one of those things you'll know when you know. You wake up one morning and, for some strange reason having little to do with any preparation that you've done or work that you've undertaken, for some strange reason, you have more answers than you had questions. It just happens. It happens ineluctably.
It happens one day and I think it is the residue of the type of attention that you've been paying and the amount of exposure that you've given yourself. If you have the kind of mind that forms patterns and categories relatively easily, you'll find your way quicker into wine. It's one of those metaphysical questions. It's like ‘well how do I know when it's true love? Trust me, you'll know.
Right: Theise with Harald Hexamer of Weingut Hexamer.
You will know.
You've written about wines that, and very good wines some of them, that you can hear the noise.
But there's a slice of wines that you hear the silence and I thought that probably comes closest to the answer that I would have liked to have given people, but they'd have to understand that as well. Hearing the silence, that's ...
Yeah, and they have to already be appreciative of the silence. To talk about the silence can sound a little bit hoity toity, but I think everyone understands who are of a certain temperament.
About six years ago in the New York Times, there was a food story about mole. In the process of researching the story, the writer was in Mexico and eating all kinds of different moles and wrote a line that I have never forgotten. “Experiencing one mole,” he said, “I closed my eyes and it was like a sudden invasion of silence.” I thought first of all that it was an exquisite phrase and second of all, I'm not the only one.
There are experiences all across the aesthetics. There are experiences where we feel almost palpably the world falling away and there is a numinous bond between us and this thing. Whether it's a painting or a bit of music or a poem or a wine or food, whatever it is that has suddenly occupied us, it's an extraordinary thing to feel and we are extraordinarily fortunate to feel it.
I'm not sure the extent to which that kind of temperament can be cultivated. You're either born with it or you're not. There's a lot of very matter-of-fact people who approach wine with a kind of an engineering sensibility and they want to understand how the pieces fit together and they're looking for the causes and the effects for the things that they're experiencing. That's a perfectly legitimate approach to wine. Everyone should approach the wine in the full integrity of his or her temperament. If you are someone moved by the experience of beauty, wine will sooner or later grab you that way.
What was that first experience in 1978 with Riesling? How did you get bitten?
We drank wine casually and it was mostly supermarket plonk that we were drinking. One day by accident I brought a bottle home of something called Riesling. It was a co-op bottling, Kabinett from the Mosel, 1971 vintage. I just had never tasted anything like it. It was so radically different from the fruity, simple stuff that I'd been drinking that I thought, okay.
First it was uncanny, second it was compelling, and third I felt immediately I can't let the rediscovery of wines like this be random or accidental. I need at least to acquire a minimum amount of information so I can find my way back to wines like this because this is what I want to keep drinking. At that point, I just embarked upon trying to learn the basics.
Left: Terry with Ludwig Hiedler and his wife of Weingut Hiedler.
How'd you do that?
Reading mostly and once I read enough, and Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine ...
Was incredibly helpful for me in those days. Once I had read enough, I realized these wine agents are almost in my backyard. It was very easy to travel from Munich. That was how it all started. It was kind of like it just snowballed. It just kept getting bigger and bigger and more and more overwhelming.
When I first visited German wine regions, I was entirely captivated. First, the regions were beautiful. I loved the wines. The people were amazingly sweet and hospitable. I thought ... It consumed all my waking hours.
The first three or four years that I was into wine, I was the absolute embodiment of the crushing wine bore, because it was all I cared about. Anybody who had the misfortune of being in my proximity, if they evidenced even the slightest interest in wine I would bend their ears. I look back on it and just go Oh my God, how did anyone even tolerate me.
But obviously to good effect.
In the final analysis it worked out okay. That's kind of the genesis of my history in wine.
You have a movie ...
I have a movie.
In which you bring to viewers these wonderful people who are making wine. You met them over the years. Talk about one of them.
The movie was a love letter to the German Riesling culture and it was very much ... When I got into my late 50s, I started thinking I'd like to leave something solid and tangible behind. It was lovely to have bought and sold a number of wines and I'm aware of the good that was done by having done this work, but I also felt like I wanted to have a testament.
The book was part of that testament, but the book was mostly about me and my relationship to wine and all of the ways that I thought wine could act upon a sensibility such as mine. I wanted to do something that was outside of me where the camera would stand in for my eyes and I could take the viewer and show the viewer what I have been looking at for all of these years.
I wanted to show first of all the landscape, the way that wine was embedded in the landscape, the intimacy of relationship between the people, the landscape and the flavors of the wine. Incidentally, I also wanted to indicate that this culture was by no means necessarily sustainable. The reason it does sustain is that for some improbable reason young people want to carry it on.
It was very important to show what it was that enticed young people about doing this work, which is very brusque work. It's not charming when you're up there in the vineyards and it’s up in the steep slopes and there's bees and bugs around you. Look, it can sometimes be very hot in the summer up there or otherwise grapes wouldn't ripen. The closer you get to wine the less romantic it sometimes appears. I needed to talk to those people.
I have a friend, Rachel Black, who is a culinary anthropologist, who when she saw the film said, ‘Terry you're just a natural born anthropologist.’ She was a professor at BU and she wanted to show the film to her class. I was very touched by that. I knew what I wanted to do with the film. The film did what I wanted to do. You always know ways that it can be better. When I watch it I'm inordinately sensitive to ways that I wish it had been better.
Don't be, don't be.
It's a sweet, sincere, lovely little piece of work. Again, I'm not necessarily proud of the work as such. I don't feel like wow, we did a good job. I feel like that they got a chance to be seen, I hope in the best possible light.
I think so.
I liked the things that people said in the film, although it was really funny. A lot of them were, of course, things that we had said in our private conversations over the years that I've known these people. Many times they got a little red light fever. When the camera was on, they got very shy. The only ones who really opened up were the Merkelbach brothers [Alfred and Rolf] , who became much less shy than they usually are and who became very jolly indeed which I thought was completely and totally wonderful.
They're usually shy?
They're usually very shy.
What you're describing about the place and the winemakers reminds me of something you wrote in your German catalog, probably a long time ago, that soul is more important than anything.
And soul is expressed as a trinity of family, soil, and artisinality.
These people in this endeavor, in this place, it's just a lovely thing.
It is a lovely thing. I was tremendously fortunate that my first formative experiences with wine were done in Germany with these families. I was at that point too naïve and inexperienced to realize that wine could be any other way than this. When I made that discovery then I was really sad because I thought wow, you've taken all of the mojo out of it.
The only thing that really makes wine ultimately worth drinking, apart from the sensual pleasure it gives us, is the participation in these multidimensional experiences. I don't see this as necessarily mystical or if it is mystical it's very matter of fact mystical.
Here's how I look at it. If Johannas Leitz is connected to his vineyards because he works them closely and because having worked them closely he's aware that this flavor comes from this piece of land and that flavor comes from that piece of land. He didn't put it there, it's already there and he's kind of midwifing it out into the glass. He's aware of that.
When I drink his wines, I also participate in his relationship with his vineyards because I'm connected to him by virtue of drinking his wines. He's connected to his land intimately, I'm connected to him by drinking his wine, and so I'm in a nexus of connection. That experience, which is commonplace in my wine drinking life, when it is absent the thing feels completely empty.
I can imagine.
It's just empty. I feel reduced. I feel like some vital part of my humanity has been hacked away. I find it incredibly sad that so much of the wine drinking community doesn't insist upon this experience as a prerequisite. There is possibly going to be a second book. I'm about 28,000 words into it as we speak.
The first chapter of that book is What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking.
That's a wonderful, wonderful question.
This is basically the answer. What makes a wine worth drinking is not the extent to which it entertains you or the way that it might make you feel like I'm drinking the wine that the fashionable people drink. It is that it delivers that nexus of connection to you. I actually think that that's more important than how much you like it. It's important that you like it, but the multi-dimensionality of the experience is finally the most important thing of all.
That’s beautiful and profound. How did you come to put your name on labels?
Partly because ... Thank you. Partly because it was kind of a marketing shortcut. In the early days, I was working with producers whom nobody had ever heard of. I decided also that I would establish my name as kind of the thin end of the wedge for people to get into these til then unknown producers. But the most important reason was I put my name on the label as a means of self-control should I be tempted to compromise.
The temptations of compromising are always present. You're sitting with a producer and tasting his wine and you want to make him happy. If there's a wine that he happens to believe in and I happen not to like all that much, I may be motivated by sentimentality to offer that wine because I want to make him happy.
If my name is on the label too, then I am much more severe about what I accept and what I reject. I was lucky to be part of a generation of importers who were that type of gatekeeper. Who worked with their growers and basically cherry-picked their growers and brought their best wines to market. If all of us did our jobs correctly we made the growers seem even better than they already were.
You helped make it possible for me to continue to do this wild and crazy work. Also, with German producers, they make multitudes of wine. Two or three dozen wines in every vintage. No sensible person could offer that many different wines. Apart from it being unruly, you play into the cliché of German wine being impossible to understand.
I would take the things that I felt to be the best, most exciting wines. Luckily my producers were willing to work with me. Particularly in the early days, my selectivity really didn't ruffle that many feathers. It does now to a greater extent. The world has changed obviously in a number of ways in the last almost 30 years since I started doing this. The temptations to compromise grow greater all the time.
They do. The struggle to resist them is greater all the time. We're more important to our growers now than I was then. My selecting or rejecting a wine is more consequential to them now than it was then because then it might have only been a matter of a few dozen cases and now it's a matter of many hundreds of cases. It's not only making the grower unhappy but it's also walking away from business that we would do virtually automatically. There are wines which are purchased in certain quantities year in and year out.
What does somebody like me do if a vintage comes along where that particular wine just is gnarly. My answer to that question is if it's gnarly you walk away. You just can't do it. It's not part of what I consider to be the integrity of my process.
Don't forget to read Dorothy J. Gaiter's column on Terry Theise, live on the Grape Collective.