Theise, Terry, Reading Between the Wines, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010
Terry Theise may be the best wine writer you have never heard of. Terry is a buyer for the east coast importer, Michael Skurnik Wines. To label Theise as a buyer is an understatement. He is likely the most highly-specialized expert in small maker wines in the world. His specialty is the zany categories of Germany, Austria and Champagne (zany is his term).
Where does writing enter the equation? Terry writes extensive catalogues each year, catalogues that provide an expert overview of each region and its wines along with detailed profiles of the wineries and tasting notes on the wines he is selling to the trade clients of Michael Skurnik Wines. These catalogues are something I look forward to each year, not only for the content but also for the entertaining, provocative and informative way Theise turns each phrase. Suffice it to say, Theise is one of my wine heroes.
The book under review has just been published and is a stand-back-from-the-details-of-selling tome that describes in poetic terms the Theise view of what makes great wine great.
Theise is highly-principled and does not hesitate to publish his principles and then proceed to stand by them. He likes artisanal wines for their distinct character of place. He likes wines made by small producers because these people don’t touch their wines in ways that get in the way of expressions of terroir. He likes these wines because they are humble and not susceptible to fashion.
This description makes Theise sound like a wine-world equivalent of a Luddite. Terry is far from a Luddite. He seeks wines that adhere to a charter of values which embodies wines which display flavour aspects of: clarity, distinctiveness, grace, balance, deliciousness, complexity, modesty, persistence and paradox. Most of these terms need no definition: they represent the things every experienced taster seeks when assessing a wine.
In opposition to the flavour elements Theise seeks are those that matter least in his manifesto: power, sweetness, ripeness and concentration.
Given these preferences it is not a surprise that Theise specializes in wines from out-of-fashion regions like Germany and Austria. This said, I think Theise may be lurking in the background as an important influence on the re-emergence of interest in the delicate, low-alcohol food-friendly whites from these Old World regions. He reflects also an emerging evolution in the global palate: witness the struggles low-priced Australian wines have been experiencing recently (wines of power, sweetness, ripeness and concentration).
This book can read slowly in places as Theise waxes philosophically but I recommend you skim these sections as he moves on with effective use of example and metaphor to demonstrate his philosophy in more easily-accepted fashion. Theise is a very good writer with an exceptional sense of humour. This book is great fun notwithstanding a slow spot or two.
Not everyone will agree with Theise and it is evident he doesn’t care. He is impassioned about the wine styles he seeks, as much for the stories of the people who make those wines as for the wines themselves. From my experience the appreciation of a wine is so firmly grounded in the maker that you can’t separate good wine from who made it and where they made it. Perhaps this is why I think Reading Between the Wines is an important book. It articulates in an updated form the same story Kermit Lynch (another of my wine heroes) was telling in Adventures on the Wine Route). These are the stories of the makers of the great wines of the world. Lynch is a Francophile but the stories of craft makers are similar as you move north into Germany and Austria.
I encourage all wine lovers to check out Reading Between the Wines. If you want to road-test Terry Theise first you should go to http://www.skurnikwines.com/msw/terry_theise.html to learn more about him, read some of his catalogues and decide whether you wish to sign up for his manifesto.
Theise also writes articles for The World of Fine Wine.
Originally published in WVN October 16, 2010. Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2010.