Long famed for his carefully crafted portfolio of wines from Champagne, Germany, and Austria, Terry Theise has recently made a name for himself as a voice in wine literature with the publication of Reading Between the Wines. I caught up with him during a tasting at City Winery in NYC, where we discussed the mystical nature of wine, great wine prose, and “the greater cause of beauty.”
Jeff Harding: Thanks for taking the time to meet with me, Mr. Theise. First off, how do you pronounce your name? It’s kind of tricky …
Terry Theise: It’s Theise, with a soft “th,” and rhymes with peace. But in Germany, they say “Tez,” and in French it’s Monsieur Tez. If you have a last name like mine, which nobody knows how to pronounce, you can’t get too concerned. I mean, you can call me Genofski if you want.
JH: I recently read your book and loved it, because you aren’t afraid to be subjective, mystical, and poetic. I think so much wine writing has become shelf blurbs and numerical scores, or what I call the Parkerization of wine literature. Nobody is literary in their writing; nobody writes how they feel about wine. Your book was a refreshing a change. I recently interviewed Alice Feiring, and she put it best, “Terry is a poet, and that book was poetry.” She’s a big fan.
TT: That is so sweet, coming from Alice, because I love her prose. I see the two of us as like a fork, we are unified at the base, and then when you get up to the tines, we diverge a little bit. She goes certain ways that I don’t follow, and I go certain ways that she doesn’t follow. Alice is such a soul sister, and that she said something like that means the world to me. She has a very charming and delicate way of writing.
JH: So given your insight into writing about wine, what are your favorite wine books?
TT: There is a really cool collection Alexis Bespaloff did in 1984, called A Fireside Book Of Wine, which is a collection of essays by British wine writers in the mid-1900s. People like H. Warner Allen, Maurice Healy, and Andre Simon. They wrote extravagantly emotional and poetic prose about wine, and it was one of the first wine books I read. And so the meta-message for me was that it was perfectly OK to have emotional reactions to wine. And in some cases, extravagantly emotional reactions to wine. So I was given permission, in a way, to do the same. More recently, I like The New France by Andrew Jeffords. Now he’s the poet. I loved The Accidental Connoisseur, Lawrence Osborne’s book. It’s such a fantastic book. And then there are books which do the job, they accomplish the mission they set out to do as far as wine writing. And sorry if this sounds pretentious, but wine writing as literature—those are the books that mean the most to me, and that was the company that I was kind of hoping to join with my book. For better or worse.
JH: What was behind the timing, in choosing to publish your book in 2010?
TT: Honestly, as I said in the book, when I got the James Beard award, it felt like a watershed [moment] in my career. I had always wanted to write a book, and I had always procrastinated. So I felt like, “It’s now or never. Why am I waiting?” There seemed to be no reason to delay anymore. And once I started putting the book together, the unanticipated thing that was really such a blast for me was how much I liked writing. I would wake up in the morning and when I remembered I was going to work on my book, I felt such joy.
JH: What do you think about the Gruner trend?
TT: Here’s what I think about the Gruner trend. It pisses me the f*#! off that you can have the word “Gruner,” and “trend” in the same sentence. Gruner Veltliner is a classic grape variety. It has its permanent place in the pantheon of the great classic white grape varieties. That it is subject to the vicissitudes of being trendy in one decade and un-trendy in the next, and then fitfully trendy the decade after that as trends rise and fall like hemlines, seems to me to be insulting. Not to me, but insulting to the existence of something noble and to the greater cause of beauty.
JH: But you do often see Gruner Veltliner as a “by the glass” selection these days, whereas 5 or 10 years ago people didn’t know about it.
Gruner Veltliner really took off in the latter years of the 90s. It became a sort of hobby horse that a generation of young sommeliers hitched themselves to because it gave them something recherché and unique and novel that they could identify with. And then of course there was the backlash from that. And I thought—excuse me for saying it in such bald terms—but what the f*#! is wrong with people? Did they really think it was only trendy? Did all the wines that they tasted fail to accumulate or consolidate into an impression that this was something important and durable? Was it really just “back then we were wearing black shirts, this year, we’re wearing yellow shirts, and next year we’re going to wear orange shirts”?
JH: Are there trends like that in the Old World?
TT: Wherever there are people, there [are] going to be trends, with taste being ephemeral, and attention spans being ephemeral in essence and more fractured in particular, based upon the Internet age and Twitter and such. But I do think that we Americans have markedly short attention spans compared to the Europeans. Certainly things will come into vogue there, and for a couple of years people will be talking about Irancy or Bouzeron or Aligote, but it’s much less. They are blips in the screen in the Old World, whereas here they are the entire screen in many cases.
JH: As long as we’re on the subject, there seems to be a trend toward serving esoteric wines that nobody has heard of.
One of the things I’ve noticed on the part of some of the rather young wine buyers is that they have a curious attitude toward what I’ll call the classics. Part of that attitude is entirely justifiable because who can afford to drink the classics anymore? Bordeaux is out of reach unless you are an arms dealer or some plutonian magnate in Hong Kong. It’s even getting hard to drink great Italian red wines at this point. You could say well, yeah sure, we’re not into the classics because they’re so spendy and they’re really just for hedge fund managers. So in that sense I understand it. But there is a corresponding attitude that by dint of these wines being classic, they are somehow stodgy and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The reason these wines are classic is that over centuries upon centuries of trial and error these wines have identified themselves finally, as I describe them, as Tantric sex between grape and ground. They are the wines that consistently deliver the most enthralling drinking experience. And you know it when you taste one of those wines, you have that fantastic feeling of unity. This vine belonged in that soil and these people understand it. The people who grow the grape and make the wine live on the same land. These people get it.
I tend to be pretty iconoclastic, and for me to look at that temperamentally, I understand where the young’uns are coming from, kind of looking at the classics and thinking, “That’s dusty and we don’t really need to get into that, there’s still all these interesting wines from Santorini and who knows where.” But I don’t think you want to throw the baby out with the bath water. And to use yet another metaphor, the classics are in some cases very low hanging fruit. What I do see often is people ignoring the sweet, low-hanging fruit, climbing their way to the top of the tree, groping for something novel or recherché. And in some way that doesn’t make sense to me because there’s only so much real estate on a wine list. There’s only so much real estate on a retail shelf. We should have some professional responsibility as to what we put it in.
JH: I watched your interview on Michael Skurnik Wines and you speak about the incredible variety of styles of Riesling. What do you think of Chenin Blanc?
TT: I love Chenin Blanc, it’s entirely under appreciated. But it’s very temperamental. Compared to Chenin, Riesling is relatively well behaved. It’s a relatively easy vine to grow and doesn’t have those strange morphing capacities. In the Loire, there’s a term “chenasse,” which describes, as I understand it, a phase in the development of Chenin Blanc wherein it is very unattractive. It can sometimes have the smell of a dirty ashtray. So Chenin Blanc, Loire Valley Chenin particularly, is a grape that I am helplessly in love with, but it’s a very frustrating love affair because the girl is capricious.
JH: Your portfolio focuses on Germany, Austria, and Champagne. Why haven’t you expanded to other regions?
TT: Initially I followed my palate and those were the places my palate led me to. Adding Austria to Germany was [the cause of some] heart palpitations, and then adding Champagne to Austria and Germany was even more heart palpitations. And after that the logical places for me to have expanded, had I wanted to, would have been Alsace, perhaps the Loire, maybe Savoie and the Jura, a lot of regions north of the Alps where the kinds of wine I like were being made. But luckily for me, I was old enough by that point to realize that you don’t know when you have diluted your attention span too far until you have diluted your attention span too far. Whereupon it is very difficult to correct the mistake.
JH: So how big is your portfolio?
At this point I have 68 wine growers. It’s as much as I can do to give those 68 people as much love and attention as they need, so I don’t want to indulge myself by going off into other regions that I might be interested in just because I’m bored. And I like being a specialist. First of all, the nature of my intelligence is not especially synoptic, and if I’d tried to be one of those people who know a little about a lot, or even a lot about a lot, I wouldn’t have been very good at it. So I’ve identified what means a lot to me, and I’m going to go as deep as I can. I’m going to be specifically dedicated to these few things.
JH: I like comparing music to wine as an educational tool, to help explain a wine or a grape, but you compare it to music in a more mystical way, how a wine or song gets you in the gut. Can you explain?
TT: If you look, for example, at literature, literature moves you in part because you become absorbed in the narrative. A story is being told to you. You care about the people and so you care very much about what befalls them. Music moves you without narrative, it’s just beautiful tones. And I mean, it can be manipulated to produce certain emotional effects, but nonetheless for me it’s still a very ordinary mysticism, that music does affect us that way. And I’m talking about all kinds of music.
And I think wine works very much along similar lines. In face, wine is perhaps even more pure because you can’t manipulate it to produce certain emotional effects. Composers, especially film composers, know exactly how to do that: which intervals to use, which modes to employ, the ones that are dark, the ones that are bright, the ones that will make you feel tender, and so on. Wine just does it by sheer abstract beauty, and so when you start talking about wine and you’re looking for metaphors by which it may be described, or its effects by which it may be described, music is the one that comes most easily to mind. And it’s the one that works actually, at least it goes 95 percent of the way.
Some people might say, “Well, couldn’t you say the same thing about food?” Food involves appetite. We don’t drink wine because we’re thirsty. We drink wine for the pure experience of receiving its flavor.