12 Questions for Terry Theise

Photo credit: Karen Odessa Piper

Terry Theise. Until quite recently, I would have written “an importer of German and Austrian wine who needs no introduction.” 

But over the past year, the axis of wine, not to mention the world, has shifted. A slew of new wine lovers might just need to be brought up to speed on this pioneering champion of “umlaut-bearing wines” (a term Theise coined long before we or anyone else).

Theise fell for German wine and wine culture while living in Munich in his 20s. When he returned to the U.S. in the early 1980s, he brought this zeal back with him. He quickly rose to become a pivotal tastemaker in Austrian, German, and, later, grower Champagne imports. Along the way, he authored two books and an unparalleled reference library of catalogs, wrote and directed a documentary about German wine culture, and now publishes a frequently updated blog

A year or two ago, he had been contemplating, if not retirement, then at least a break. Instead, he found himself grounded twice over, first by severed ties with the large national importer he had worked with for more than two decades, then, like all of us, by the pandemic. 

Over a series of written exchanges (Theise is an advocate of the epistolary interview), he shares how he has used this time to continue his exploration of the connections between origin and expression, grower and tradition, culture and values — insights wrought from almost 40 years of observation and interaction with German-speaking wines.

If you were building a portfolio from scratch today, what would you look for in the producers you selected and how might that differ from what you sought when you first started hunting in the 1980s?

TT: The same things I always did: good people, tasty wines, good value. I never cared and still wouldn’t care about “status” or membership in whatever group. In the beginning, I let myself have redundancies just because there were producers I couldn’t pass up even if the portfolio didn’t “need” another x or y. Now I’d be more careful. But I’d still want to have all kinds of wines for all kinds of people, not just aficionados.

Which German or Austrian region is ripe for discovery right now and why?

TT: If I were a 20-something importer and wanted really fertile fields to plow, I’d make a beeline to Baden and Württemberg. I was a little tardy to that party but there was still plenty to drink when I did arrive. There are already excellent (and to date, unknown over here) estates in both regions, and more coming along all the time. 

What is the value of old-school German wine labels? Would a less-is-more style — along the lines of what we see with Landwein — be more useful for today’s consumers?

TT: It would be best if it weren’t strictly either/or. We do need adaptations to the ripeness hierarchy system, but as long as wines with sweetness are still being made, we probably need some way to indicate ripeness and richness and the corresponding expectation of sweetness.

In holistic terms, we need to make this all as simple as possible – but no simpler. This runs counter to a German tendency to tinker and not only to cross every t but to debate what color ink to use and whether to use ballpoint or sharpie and what kind of sharpie, ad infinitum. 

But let’s suppose we really did cast this whole thing away. We’d have lost a clear means of telling a prospective buyer what to expect in terms of degrees of ripeness, sweetness, and concentration. On the other hand, we’d gain much more than we’d lose. For dry wines, there’s no need for the Prädikat system anymore, and one is encouraged to see it is melting away. 

My own admittedly opinionated view is that what we need, strictly speaking, are grape variety (95% by law), vineyard name only if the vineyard site is classifiedotherwise village name or regional name or simply estate name chaptalization forbidden above 12.5% alcohol (like in Austria) so that ripeness is easily inferred from alcohol. In essence, this is what the VDP has already brought about, and in my view it is an enormous boon.

Your book What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking opens with a line from Rebecca Solnit: “The pleasure of seeing into the life of things is one of the least celebrated and most important of the panoply of satisfactions.” What do you see in German and Austrian wine that no one else does?

TT: I don’t think I have an especially privileged vision. I have what I think is a heretical opinion, certainly a minority opinion, that German Riesling (and Riesling in general) doesn’t have a wider audience because it’s too good, too refined, too specifically attuned toward persons of elevated taste – at least taste in wine. 

I think to the extent we keep trying to ram German Riesling down the indifferent gullets of all and sundry we’ll just keep being frustrated. On the other hand, if we cherish its virtues and convey our appreciation with love, we’ll grow the audience bit by tiny bit. 

Beyond that, I have a mind alert to patterns. I don’t know if it forms them or simply recognizes them – or some element of both. For example, an insight I had about the commonality of (especially) Chardonnay on chalk at 49.2º N with Riesling on any of a number of German terroirs at 50º was pleasant to observe, though not shocking, more “Well, of course” than “OMG!!!”.

Who did you always wish you had in your portfolio but could never get?

TT: Well, I was never really acquisitive in that way. I figured I had my share and the other guy had his. There were a few swings-and-misses along the way, of course. I went to visit Peter Lauer many many years ago, and [current winemaker] Florian’s father told me he barely had enough wine for the restaurant. Though I promised myself I’d keep an eye on that situation, I didn’t. That’s a really excellent agency and [U.S. importer Stephen] Bitteroff has done justice to it. 

Often I find these things have ways of apportioning themselves correctly. We let Pascal Doquet know we were interested while he was also being courted by Schatzi, and when he chose Schatzi, some of my colleagues were, let’s say, bemused by my sanguinity over having “lost” the competition. But if I’d have been Pascal Doquet I’d have made the same decision; for him Schatzi was the more appropriate choice. 

There’s another element in play also. If I’m yearning for some grower in the other guy’s portfolio, what does that tell my growers? “What, aren’t we good enough for him?”

If I’m yearning for some grower in the other guy’s portfolio, what does that tell my growers? “What, aren’t we good enough for him?”

Could you elaborate on your thesis that Blaufränkisch — not Pinot Noir — is Riesling’s red equivalent? 

TT: I see the linkage between Riesling and Pinot Noir as holistic, inferential, even sentimental. It is based on the idea of a commonality of taste, i.e., that the same kind of person tends to love them both, and that their reasons display a certain overlap. Yet when I look strictly at the wines themselves, I arrive elsewhere. 

After a few years of tasting Blaufränkisch seriously, it struck me that it was the red variety most like white wine in its structures, flavors, and ‘behavior.’ It is generous without placing fruit-as-such front and center. It has high acidity. It has a vertical structure, even a Gothic one, its flavors rise to a point. 

Whereas Pinot Noir swirls in a holistic sphere of umami, generally speaking. Finally, Blaufränkisch offers more minerality than any other red variety I can think of, and in that way alone it is tangibly connected to Riesling by more than inference.

How do you feel about the VDP from the perspective of someone selling German wines abroad? 

TT: I have a range of opinions about the VDP. Obviously, I have high respect for their historical origins. To paraphrase the Churchill (I think) quote, the VDP will always do the right thing, after it has exhausted all the alternatives. Overall they are a force for good, but with a lot of troublesome deviations along the way. 

But as a merchant, I found the VDP was sometimes a hindrance. I’ll give you an example. An estate I worked with was asked to join the VDP, and he, in turn, asked my opinion. I said, by all means, join if you feel it will help you. “But does it help you?” he asked. Actually, I said, it does the opposite. How so? Well, right now you’re offering me a wine (let’s call it “Fumberger Altenschloss” Riesling Spätlese Trocken) for €8.60. When you join the VDP you will offer me the same wine, now called “Altenschloss Grosses Gewächs” for €15.90, in a stupid-heavy, pretentious bottle. What have I possibly gained?

But I do acknowledge the great good that’s been done with the reorganization of wine descriptions in the Burgundy system, and I do support the idea of classifying vineyards. 

As a general rule, though, we have to recognize there are two currents running in parallel. One is what I call “for the benefit of eternity” and the other “for the benefit of people who have to sell the wine now.” Lately, the ÖTW, who looked to the VDP for models, and whose work overall is a force for good, have made some label changes in line with their categorizations and classifications. Each of them makes perfect sense for the long-haul, and each of them tied a millstone around my neck when I was a salesperson. 

I wanted to talk about wine, not bureaucracy, and I say this in full understanding that, inherently, these systems would be useful in the fullness of time. But right now, at the point of sale, walking into the headwinds attendant to umlaut-bearing wines, all these lovely concepts were just so much static.

Can we return to that point about “static”? Do you think it’s meant to keep this set of German wines for insiders? 

TT: I don’t think that. I rather think the “static” is just the ordinary trash of over-stoked intellectuals a little too in love with their concepts. Outside the discrete issues around the VDP, we can also consider the truly admirable and even beautiful idealism of someone like Michael Moosbrugger at Schloss Gobelsburg, who is thinking in epochal terms (and properly so) while his reps have to explain why the wine called “Renner” doesn’t say Grüner Veltliner on the label, even though it’s made from Grüner Veltliner and “Grüner Veltliner” is more of a “brand” than Renner. 

I always felt, I can either sell the wine or I can explain the system, but I can’t do both.

I always felt, I can either sell the wine or I can explain the system, but I can’t do both. In Michael’s case, he wishes to establish that place is paramount over variety, and he is correct, but the effect is to leapfrog over 30 years of market-building in the process. But time will tell. It’s a better world if he’s right and I’m wrong about this.

Do you believe the importer has a duty to present a spectrum of wines that accurately represent everything that is going on in a specific region or country or is there more value in having a portfolio that presents a specific viewpoint?

TT: I do feel, strongly, that an importer should be able to articulate a point of view – her customers shouldn’t have to guess – and her selections should embody that point of view, whatever it is.

I don’t feel an importer has any “duty” other than to be as true as she can to her vision. Whatever it may be, broad or narrow, as long as she has a point of view reflected in the wines she selects. If she wants to be comprehensive then she should be, but if she wants to be particular then that’s what she should be. 

The question of whether one approach or the other has more value isn’t my call to make, or rather, I don’t discern a preference. 

Has farming been important to you in choosing a grower to import or whose wines you want to drink yourself? Why are farming philosophy and practice not featured more prominently in your catalogs and current tasting notes?

TT: Farming is important, very much so. However, I’m not dogmatic about it. Plus I had the luxury of not needing to worry very much about it because nearly all the growers I worked with were environmentally conscientious. On the second part of the question, I have too much respect for a grower’s need to make a living and feed the family to subject their work to my purity standards from a position of zero risk. It’s also because nearly all of them are moving in a “green” direction if they’re not already certifiably organic or biodynamic – moves I applaud. Shaming people for the steps they aren’t taking, or haven’t yet taken, is just an ugly way to behave. As a merchant (and to a lesser degree as a writer), to the extent I focus on this question I am giving buyers reasons to reject wines based on a choice that feels “moral” but which is often actually just arrogant virtue signaling.  

All of this is different from talking about these things to the extent they visibly influence the wine. I do that eagerly. As for the rest of it, I am comfortable that none of the growers I’m writing about are blithely throwing chemicals around. All of them are people of high environmental conscience, wherever they may be on the green-o-meter, and for me as their (former) agent and (current) commentator, the most respectful thing I can do is to quietly urge them on.

Can you set us straight on “sponti”? We see and hear it used to describe the nose on heavily sulfited wines, wines with pronounced reduction, or both. But where does the term come from and how do you think we should understand it?

TT: It’s German grower-slang for Spontangärung, or spontaneous fermentation. It’s a more or less stubborn reduction that, while it smells rather sulfurous, doesn’t actually derive from applications of sulfur. It can be found in wines of high elegance and polish (Von Othegraven, J.J. Prüm, Carl Loewen among many others). 

Karl-Josef Loewen once told me “It’s an inconvenient aroma in its youth, but behind it is an aroma you can attain no other way.” It’s generally associated with vinification in wood, though there are vintners who combine sponti with tank – Schloss Lieser for example. Assuming the wine is past its reduction (either by swirling or by the passage of time) the aroma marker for sponti is, curiously, milk chocolate. 

By the way, I have a theory that the number of minutes it takes to swirl the aroma out of your glass is the same as the number of years it will take to disappear in the bottle. For me, it’s an unavoidable short-term nuisance in the service of a beautiful goal. I don’t quite get how the Naturalistas aren’t all over this as something desirable. It’s funky!

The number of minutes it takes to swirl the aroma out of your glass is the same as the number of years it will take to disappear in the bottle.

Tell us more about your new work of blogging, interviewing, and reviewing wines on your own site?

TT: It started out as a way to keep active and visible, and to indulge my love of writing. I enjoy the interviews. I like the various dialogues with readers. I’ve only just begun with the reviews, but those are a dream come true, to taste without time pressure and without multitasking. I can write what I feel like writing, plus I can do unusual interviews with cool people, and I will use it to provide tasting commentary on the growers I assembled and represented. 

Have more questions for Terry Theise? He invites you to send them to [email protected] for consideration in a future article. 

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