Get ready – Joe and I have another fabulous treat in store for you on our next episode The Punch Down! Our guest on episode 5 is the inimitable Terry Theise!
Terry has been importing the wines of Germany, Austria and Champagne to the US since the 1980s and can be credited with introducing Americans to the wonders of Mosel Riesling. He was the recipient of the James Beard award for Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional in 2008 and is the author of one of my favorite wine books: Reading Between the Vines (more on that below), which is now a full-length documentary film.
Please join us for our live online chat with Terry on Tuesday June 11 at 1pm Eastern (6pm UK).
When Terry’s book came out, I was writing for another wine website and reviewed the book, but sadly the site disappeared before my review was published, so it seems like a fitting occasion to resurrect my article! Here are my thoughts on Reading Between the Vines by Terry Theise.
Reading Between the Wines is a provocative composition extolling the importance and very art of wine. Conveyed by a candid Theise whose engaging prose portrays his experience of wine and how it has the ability to stir us in ways that gratify beyond our imagination.
Theise articulates the meaning of wine in a style unlike any I’ve read before. It aligns with my personal belief that wine is much more than ‘just another drink’ with which to relax at the end of the day. It can evoke emotion, transport you to places far and wide and can add elements to your life you never would have expected.
Terry Theise, is much admired for the impressive portfolio of small-production, family vintners he imports into the U.S. from Germany, Austria and Champagne. In 2008 he won the coveted James Beard Foundation medal for the nation’s outstanding wine and spirits professional. Through the pages of this book he brings us into his world – the scenic regions, the gentle people, the majestic wines – and shows us when we drink ‘connected’ wines they have the power to transport us to prodigious places, places that add meaning and dimension to our lives. This book supports Theise’s belief that “wine is a portal into the mystic.”
This statement may sound airy fairy, just another wine geek gone too far into the metaphorical and metaphysical ooze, however, we soon see that Theise is anything but naïve. In fact, he is a man with a deep passion and love for the wines he works with and isn’t afraid to speak his mind nor show heartfelt, honest and real emotion.
He befriends us with the straight-talking first person account while giving us his thoughts on everything from tasting wines (the grave risk associated with blind tasting), critics and scores (they are not a necessary evil), specific grape preferences (no spoiler alert needed to know Riesling is at the top), to globalization (the importance of the concept of terroir) and the delightful people behind the wines he proudly delivers to American wine drinkers.
In chapter one, we are given relatable direction for “befriending your palate” and are told that “Wine is like a shy dog. Lunge for it and it backs away. Just sit still and it draws nearer. Wine is less about what you can grasp than about how you can receive. You grasp it more firmly if you grab it less tightly.”
But the journeys we take with him to Germany are where the magnificence of this book lies. His eloquent and often aristocratic vocabulary pays homage to the scenes he describes.
Scenes of a misty, foggy morning ‘tramping’ up Himmelreich Hill and finding a moment of transcendence gazing down the steep sloping vineyards to the gently flowing Mosel river, while the pickers noiselessly relieve the vines of their grapes. Such a clear picture is painted in the mind’s eye, accompanied by a warming friendliness, respect and appreciation that is quite positively tangible.
The story of the Christmas morning when the narrow opportunity within which to harvest the Eiswein grapes occurs, and the good grace, genuine merriness and pride with which the workers undertake their task brought tears to my eyes. So natural this event seems, it’s as if it would be strange to spend a Christmas morning doing anything else.
With each anecdote Theise shares, and every character he introduces us to, it becomes not only clear, but distinctly obvious, how wine leads him to discover pure magic in a fraught world, and why we the reader, follow along, always anticipating the next opportunity for such inspiration.
This is a love story. A love founded on respect and admiration for the creation of wine from vineyards located in places of impervious splendor, brought to the world by shy, unassuming, hard working, kind craftsmen in three regions of Europe.
The wines that these places and people produce are the object of Theise’s ardent affection because of their subtle sensuality and ability to seduce with a coy intrigue which is unmistakably appealing.
And while this particular love story does not have any physical love scenes, it has plenty of sexual entendre, both literally and blended amongst the tales. Theise is not afraid to be boyish, verging on immature, while alternating between unquestionably opinionated, clever, self-adulating, poignant and fabulously funny. He is easily able to have a laugh and poke fun at himself in an endearing manner.
It would seem, like many of his beloved Rieslings, that Theise has softened and grown into himself and a greater purity, honesty and depth has been attained.
Theise uses wonderful metaphors to illuminate his points and instead of choosing masculine sports analogies, he utilizes animals (dogs and birds in particular) and nature, things more closely associated with the beauties that are always around us, should we take the blinders off and choose to embrace them.
One of the many tools he employs is the comparison of wine to music. This may be somewhat due to his unrequited desire to be a rock star, but more likely is because music can evoke soul touching emotion in the same way wine can.
There is no doubt that Theise is an overt ‘terroirist’ (a believer that a sense of place is the crux of any good wine) – it would be close to impossible not to be, given the style of wine he has made his life’s work. When speaking of his disdain for exploited wines, those grown in an area unsuitable to their natural expression and falsely forced to be something they’re not, he says:
“For the drinker to take a stand against such manipulated wines is to assert the value of the right thing grown where it belongs, and the distinctiveness and honesty of the results in the glass. Little enough to ask, it would seem; yet it is everything.”
This implores the reader to take greater care in their choices because true wine cannot be mistaken for factory-made, industrial wine and it is only when the wine is a pure expression of place that the doorway to ‘the mystic’ creaks open.
Theise builds on this point several pages later when discussing the unspoken traditions and respect inherent among Mosel vintners, almost a ‘club’ they belong to, no matter the quality of their wines, one of “human culture much deeper than mere occupation.”
Wine drinkers have the choice: “You can see it merely as an object and assess it against its competitors using some arbitrary scale. Or you can drink something that tells you it was made by human beings who want to show you the beauty and meaning they have found in their lives.”
This last sentence is wine.
These words encompass the true meaning of this revered drink. A drink made by people whose only desire is to showcase the exquisiteness of their land through this one product: a bottle of wine. This wine travels across the world to your dining table and by opening this bottle and drinking this wine you are, somehow, brought together in appreciation and can share a communion between lovers of wine that goes far beyond articulation and lives in a special place – a mystical place.
If you are a lover of wine and want to be entertained in an intelligent, humorous, touching and humane way, I highly recommend you pour a glass of wine (preferably German Riesling) and crack the spine of this book. You will never experience wine the same way again.
If you haven’t read Reading Between the Wines, buy it here.
See you on June 11 at 1pm Eastern, 10am Pacific, 6pm UK, for Episode 5 of The Punch Down with Terry Theise.