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Wine Books: Terry Theise

Terry Theise is a well-known US-based importer specialising in the wines of Germany, Austria and Champagne. His annual wine catalogues, full of opinionated prose, personal philosophy and impassioned buying recommendations, are hugely popular.

Terry TheiseReading Between the Wines (2010)
Terry Theise
University of California Press
Available from Amazon (UK) and Amazon (USA)
ISBN-13: 978-0520265332

It's been too long since I last read anything in print about wine - the internet seems to have taken over for a while - but I am very glad I dipped my toe in the water again with Terry Theise's Reading Between the Vines. Terry Theise might not be a name immediately familiar name to all, this being the first book of his to appear on Winedoctor, so on one level we might regard him as a first-time author. On the other hand, I am sure more than a handful of readers will already be very familiar with Theise's work. Through his work as an American importer of European wines - he made his name on Germany, but works a portfolio that is also strong on Austria and Champagne - Theise has developed a reputation as a very readable, opinionated and insightful writer when it comes to matters vinous. His annual wine catalogues, published on the Skurnik Wines website, make for required reading I think.

Having enjoyed exploring Theise's world through his catalogues I wasn't surprised that I enjoyed the passionate prose contained within Reading Between the Vines. What did surprise me is just how much I enjoyed it, not only how well some of the issues he raises resonate with my own, but also how he manages to succinctly point out issues to which I have previously been blind. The scoring of wine by consumers as an expression of enjoyment is one example, a behaviour pattern which seems superficially normal - we're all quite used to seeing contributors to online wine fora scoring wines - but once Theise gets his teeth into it the whole concept quickly takes on an almost Fortean weirdness. I was prompted to explore this myself in more detail, in this blog post. Some of his most scathing comments emerge at this moment; of one gentleman who declared he only began using the 100-point system when he "felt his palate was mature enough", Theise writes "[t]his poor lamb is running blindly towards the cliffs".

This is not a book solely dependent on finger-pointing and criticism, however, as much of what is written within is positive and directive. Theise expounds his philosophy of wine, giving some indications of how his palate was first awoken, and how it has evolved over the years. He explores aspects of flavour that matter - clarity, paradox, and so on - as well as those that do not - power, sweetness and the like, you get the idea. As he does so he isn't afraid of wading in on controversial topics, from scoring wine, wine elitism (which is good rather than evil in Theise's universe), "winemakers" with no vineyards and perhaps no soul it seems, and more. But there is a good balance here, and the work as whole comes across as impassioned and yet rational.

From time to time we also see glimpses of the real Theise, the man behind the opinionated words. In fact we see much more than glimpses, there are whole tracts, and they are a joy to read. We learn of Theise's early years discovering wine in Germany, of his appreciation of nature, his understanding of the bonds between families and the land they work and the wines they raise there. He allows us to share in some hugely poignant moments, ancient vintages shared with the widow of the long-dead winegrower (Theise's preferred term, I think), his first telephone conversation with his birth-father (Theise was adopted, we learn) and much more. But at no time does it become introspective or self-important; we travel with Theise on this journey as equals, I feel.

Overall, Reading Between the Vines is a humane work, one that allows moments of warm and gentle pathos from Theise's wine-life to come to the surface. There are few wine books that can induce me to laugh out loud, and there are fewer still that display the level of connectedness - one of Theise's words - required to bring a tear to the corner of the eye. And yet this book achieved both. It comes with a recommendation as heartfelt as the prose within.