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Culture / Foodie Events

Captain Underdog

Championing Unpopular Wines Gives This Guru Unique Insight into What’s Worth Drinking

BY // 11.22.16

I love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, we trade stories about travel and winemakers and terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food and restaurants. We recommend wines to one another, we drink, and we learn a lot. In Wine Talk, I will introduce you to some of my friends and acquaintances — individuals who love wine as much as I do, who live to taste. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well. 

Terry Theise. I first saw that name on the back of a wine bottle, a Riesling I was enjoying immensely. I recall that it was from the Mosel, but I regret I cannot remember its exact provenance — we are talking about a day going on 30 years ago now, so I can perhaps excuse myself for the lapse. I wrote down the name and made a point of seeking out other bottles bearing Theise’s imprimatur.

Today, all those years later, I cannot recall my method producing one disappointment. The man’s palate is, in many ways, the doppelgänger of mine. His wine awakening parallels my own, and Germany and Riesling play starring and steady roles. I’m especially proud of and excited about this particular Wine Talk, because Theise is a hero of mine. It’s an honor to introduce his work (and wines) to people unfamiliar with them, because his opinions matter.

Here is an excerpt from his official bio: Terry Theise makes a habit of selecting unpopular wines and foisting them upon a world unaware of how badly they need those very wines. Germany, Austria, and Grower-Champagne have been his hobby horses, which he has ridden more or less gracefully for thirty years. I love that description. He’s a fine writer — get his book Reading Between The Wines and pay attention to the words — then watch Leading Between the Vines, Theise’s “love letter to the German Riesling culture.”

He’s writing another book, scheduled to appear in 2017 (working title: What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking), and he continues to introduce Americans to his beautiful world of wine. Prost, Herr Theise!

Tell me about three wines that are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each?

Hard to identify individual wines. Essentially, I gravitate toward types of wines, but that being said, I like drinking Champagnes from the 2002 vintage, Austrian Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners from 2007 (though these are still quite young), and old Riojas.

Let’s say that cost is no consideration: What’s the one bottle you would add to your personal collection?

Same answer as most of us would give, I imagine: Romanée-Conti, Clos du Mesnil, anything transcendent that I can’t afford! I’d probably shy away from just one bottle, because it’s too much pressure on the wine and on me when I’d open it. My experience has shown me that trying to engineer a “great occasion” is a quick way to push it away. Best to set the stage with probabilities and likelihoods rather than making a fetish of one single bottle.

Terry Theise's tasting catalogue can always be counted on to produce some intelligent buzz.
Terry Theise’s tasting catalogue can always be counted on to contain some intelligent reading.

What is your favorite grape? And why?

Riesling beyond any doubt. It gives the most complex and multifaceted and refined wines of all. That said, I have a powerful subjective regard for Nebbiolo and Chenin Blanc, though one has to live with them being capricious and temperamental. I also have a slobbering crush on dry Muscat, especially the Gelber Muskatellers from Germany and Austria.

How about one bottle that our readers should buy now to cellar for 10 years in anticipation of celebrating a birth, anniversary or other red-letter day?

If it says “Austria,” “2015” and “Riesling,” you can hardly go wrong. I can also suggest Champagne from the 2009 vintage. And Mosel Rieslings from the vintage 2012.

What is the one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine?

What does it taste like? Not how “powerful” it is, not how intense it may be, not how “quirky” it might be, and certainly not how many fricking points somebody gave it — WTF does it taste like??? I want beauty and deliciousness.

Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle outside your home?

Assuming you mean wine place as opposed to venue, correct? In restaurants, I narrow a list down to (generally) Old World, low to moderate alcohol (maximum 13.5 percent), no oak or oak as a mere nuance, flexibility with different foods … and so I look at Chablis (which I adore), Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, Chenin Blanc, Champagne. For reds, I look at Burgundy first, and then Spain (Ribeira Sacra), maybe Loire Cab Franc, certainly Austrian reds (to the extent one can find them). But red wine is a conundrum, because the overwhelming majority of dishes in the places I go to are white-wine oriented, and I often wonder at the space and money that’s tied up in a huge inventory of red wine that doesn’t go with the food.

Get this book "Reading Between the Vines"(Image courtesy thekitchn.com)
Get this book “Reading Between the Vines” (Image courtesy thekitchn.com)

What was your “wine eureka moment” — the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?

The first time I tasted a Riesling and discovered a mass of fascinating flavors that weren’t fruit as such.

What has been the strangest (or most interesting) incident involving wine that you have experienced in your career?

I can recall many remarkable and wonderful moments in which the unity of wine-person-culture-nature has been vivid. Every connected wine is an “incident,” because it embodies and enforces the connection, which is why the experience feels so empty when those connections aren’t there.

Your favorite wine reference in a work of literature?

I like how Hawk is always drinking Krug in all the Spenser novels! (Robert B. Parker, for those who don’t know.) In general, there is very little wine in literature/fiction, though I hope that my own writing contributes to the breadth and depth of the literature of wine itself.

Want more Wine Talk? Check out these stories:

The Wine Daughter
A Man of Letters and Wine
Ms. Champagne Wants a Nebuchadnezzar
The Wine Artist Goes for Chardonnay
This American Loves Spain and Its Wines
Houston’s Wine Whisperer Has a Soft Touch
Blackberry Farm’s Somm Pours in Splendor
Mr. Pinot Noir: Donald Patz of Patz & Hall
A Cork Dork Wants to Spend More Time in Tuscany
Sommelier Turned Restaurateur Daringly Goes Greek
Texas Master Sommelier Debunks Wine Geeks
A Bottle From Gigondas Changed This Houston Man’s Life

Oil Man Falls in Love, and the Rest is Good-Taste History
Ryan Cooper of Camerata is a Riesling Man
Mixing It Up With Jeremy Parzen, an Ambassador of Italy
Sommelier at One of Houston’s Top Wine Bars Loves Underdogs

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