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Q&A: Terry Theise, Importer and Contrarian

Q&A: Terry Theise, Importer and Contrarian
© Terry Theise
Terry Theise has shaken up the American wine scene since he introduced the market to fine German riesling in the mid-1980s – followed by grower Champagne and Austrian wines. Katherine Cole sat down with the famously opinionated importer.

Where did you grow up?

Lots of places, because my father worked for the government and we never lived anywhere for long. When I was in the U.S., it was always either in the suburban D.C. or the suburban New York area. But we lived abroad also: a couple years in Delhi and a few years in Munich.

What drew you to wine?

Wine just seemed to be part of the rock-star lifestyle. There was a song by a group called The Electric Flag, called 'Wine,' that was very popular. It was an old blues song, a fast shuffle. Wine was a party drink for when you weren’t getting high. So that drew me to the idea of wine as something I wanted to have in my life so that I could fit in.

When I first saw the Hugh Johnson book ["The World Atlas of Wine"], that was quite an awakening for me – realizing that wine could be all those things and it was right in my back yard. I was a young man living in Germany and I did a lot of visiting – talking to winemakers and walking through their vineyards. It's an irreplaceable experience; it’s like a turbocharged shortcut to enlightenment, to really understanding wine in context.

You dropped out of college to go live in Europe, didn't you?

Yes. In Munich, there was an army base, where there was non-active-duty work available. I did that for a while – bits and pieces. I worked for the very first McDonald’s that ever opened in Germany. I was fired from that job after six weeks: I think I was insubordinate. Then I worked in a military-operated hotel. It was really perfect. It was hard work but easy money, and gave me a tremendous amount of time to explore. Wine was dirt-cheap then.

As an importer, you brought German and Austrian wines and “no-name” grower Champagnes to the U.S. when these wines were at an all-time nadir of uncoolness. How did you break through into a resistant American market?

I was passionately committed. I really felt powerfully that this was a story that needed to be told – wines that people needed to see. Austria was kind of the same story. I was so blown away by the vitality of that culture, and the quality of the wines as they emerged from that wine scandal [of 1985]. Champagne was similar. The story was so sexy and so compelling: it was the last place in France that was in a choke-hold of négociants and co-ops. There was an opportunity for the growers to take back production.

When I got into the German and Austrian wine markets, I had very little competition and could cherry-pick a portfolio of an extraordinary group of growers who were not represented in the U.S. Those days are gone, by the way, completely gone. There is virtually nobody worthy in any of those countries who doesn’t have an American importer.

L-R: Theise (center) with German producer Helmut Dönnhoff and his son Cornelius; German vineyards export 1.3 million hectoliters per year
© Terry Theise | L-R: Theise (center) with German producer Helmut Dönnhoff and his son Cornelius; German vineyards export 1.3 million hectoliters per year

What are the most exciting trends coming out of Austria?

I think an exciting trend is the retreat from new wood, over-ripeness, high alcohol, and international varieties in the red wines. There’s been much more discovery of zweigelt, blaufränkisch and St. Laurent: their singular virtues, and letting those virtues be expressed without giving them a sheen of internationalism.

How about Champagne?

More growers, all the time, who have been encouraged by the success of those who came before them in the last 10 to 15 years. More emphasis laid on quality viticulture. It is going to take fully two generations for Champagne to undo all the damage that was done after the Second World War with chemical viticulture, not to mention the region being used as a dump for all the non-recyclable plastic Paris garbage [a soil-enrichment practice that involved spreading rubbish, still in blue plastic bags, over Champagne's vineyards].

An extremely healthy trend is young growers talking with one another, sharing ideas in a fraternal and collegial way. That was never the case in Champagne before.

Any good news out of Germany?

Germany, honestly, every tentative step that they take forward, they take two back. As dearly as I love the wines and the people who make them, the culture as a whole seems to have a strange fiendish gift of stepping in every pile of dog shit on the sidewalk.

The Wine [classification] Law is a debacle. It sucked when it was enacted in 1971 and it sucks even worse now. Not only is it a debacle, but it is an increasingly ignored debacle. Conscientious winegrowers are observing the minimum they must, in order to not be prosecuted, and ignoring the rest. So you have this law that is a relic and is barely being observed anyway, which compels the question: ‘Why does it still exist?’

And I haven’t even mentioned the official German wine marketing organizations, which truly stumble around like some half-blind twit who has dropped his monocle on the floor. They are not going to build a statue of me in the public square across the street from the German Wine Institute, I assure you, unless they put it under a tree that pigeons like to sit in. But you give me half an hour and I could fix the German wine law. And I would basically guarantee that within three to five years after so doing, German wine sales in the United States would quintuple. There’s a dare, huh?

L-R: Theise with his wife, leading chef Odessa Piper; a snapshot from Theise's recent film, "Leading Between the Vines"
© Odessa Piper/Terry Theise | L-R: Theise with his wife, leading chef Odessa Piper; a snapshot from Theise's recent film, "Leading Between the Vines"

What’s your impression of “Summer of Riesling,” the seasonal promotion of riesling at popular restaurants and wine bars that’s been going on for the past five years in the U.S.?

Insofar as it is playful and is putting riesling front and center, I think it is having a really positive effect. The only issue in my mind is [that] it runs the risk of ghetto-izing riesling as something you can only drink in the summer. Riesling is the masterclass. Riesling is what you evolve to. Riesling is the wine that will keep you the most perfect imaginable company when everything else has started to pall. Riesling is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is as fine as wine can be.

If you want to know why the market isn’t larger, in a metaphorical way, why do more people go to see Hollywood-special-effects-romcom-popcorn-munching, car-chase-explosion blockbusters than go to see sweet little indie art films? The audience for crap is always larger than the audience for things of quality. It’s an axiom of humanity. Riesling is a thing of very, very high quality. And if someone reads this and thinks: 'Is he saying it’s too good for the likes of me?’ Then I’m saying, ‘Buy a bottle and find out.’ It’s never going to be all things to all people. It’s going to be an irreplaceably precious thing to the right people.

What has been highlight of your career?

The fact that I haven’t reached it yet.

Any lowlights?

When I agreed to travel to do a wine dinner when I was just fried – so sick of traveling and so grumpy and piss-ant miserable that I offended my hosts and the chef who made the meal. And years later – seriously, 10 or 15 years later – they are still talking about this in that community. That story still dogs my heels.

Speaking of dinners, your wife, Odessa Piper, is a James Beard award-winning chef. Tell us what a typical meal at home looks like for you two.

First of all, only one of us can cook. We do not collaborate well. Either she cooks, or I cook. She cooks marvelous food, far more creatively than I, and employing more technique. She is inclined, like most chefs, to make too much food and use every dish in the kitchen. It is an ongoing challenge to maintain my trim boyish figure.

We drink very well, but we don’t open jaw-dropping wines every night because you can really get jaded. Between jaw-dropping wines, you need a certain amount of white space. You need to reestablish what your ordinary baseline level is. And our baseline level is pretty good…

Special-occasion wines would be top Champagnes, very mature rieslings, old Rioja, old Barolo and Barbaresco, those kinds of things. If you came into my cellar, you would be picking through a great deal of wine and nary a trophy in sight. But I think we drink like gods.

In what circumstances do you most enjoy wine?

There is a cliché that great wine needs to be shared. And Hugh Johnson says that great wine needs to be talked about. Well, yes, mostly, but I’m not entirely certain that is always necessarily true. Sometimes a bottle of really searchingly beautiful wine can keep a solo guy the most exquisite company. It doesn’t always need to be valued by the echo chamber of another person’s mind. I would like to consider the virtues of drinking wine by oneself.

What brings you the greatest happiness?

In no particular order, comforting someone I love, making him or her feel better. Holding a baby, playing with a dog. Having time to read and a good novel on my lap. Having time to actively listen to really good music. Being in the mountains.

You didn’t mention wine.

Wine is a given. It’s always wonderful to drink a great bottle of wine.

* In his recent documentary, "Leading Between the Vines," Terry Theise travels through the wine regions of Germany. He is also the author of a book, "Reading Between the Wines," published by University of California Press.


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