The famed importer’s philosophy emanates from a respect for the land.
Terry Theise is a man after my own heart: passionate champion of underdogs; perfume lover (with scarce opportunities to wear it); seeker of balance in wine, people, and life; natural educator and co-conspirator; and bon vivant whose mischievous side bubbles up easily and frequently. He is also a brilliant conversationalist, which is why I will keep this introduction brief.
For his work and passion as an importer of artisanal wines from Germany, Austria, and Champagne, Theise has been recognized as the 2008 James Beard Foundation Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional, the 2006 Food & WineImporter of the Year, and the 2001 Wine & Spirits Man of the Year. His book, Reading Between the Wines (University of California Press, 2010), has quickly become a must read for anyone in the industry.
Sitting on the sofa one rainy winter afternoon at a mutual friend’s home in Berkeley, Calif., we sipped monkey-picked tea (his generously sweetened) while discussing life, rock stars, hippies, sommeliers, and, of course, wine.
CATHERINE FALLIS, MS
In your book, you attribute your interest in wine to Hugh Johnson and Rod Stewart. How did a rock star get you interested in wine?
Rod had to have a case of either Blue Nun or Mateus Rosé on hand for every gig, and he always did that thing of handing a bottle down to the front row. I was 16 or 17 at the time, and I had a front-row ticket for his concert. Wine had never been a part of my family’s life that I knew of; I’d never had it before. But I was a guitar player in a band; in my feckless, misspent youth, I had goals of becoming a musician. So you’re trying to fit into a pack, and you’re very sensitive to the norms and rules of the tribe. You want to be accepted, so you learn to like, or pretend to like, the things the tribe likes. I had this notion that I needed to like wine, because there was Rod Stewart dealing with it, and there were all these blues songs—The Electric Flag had a song called "Wine"—and a hippie culture in which people were getting stoned and passing bottles around. So I just thought, "That is something I need to bring into my world." If you go back to the first little division of cells that ultimately give birth to a wine lover, that’s what it was—such humble beginnings.
It’s kind of sad that wine went from hippies to the elite.
Yes, but the industry is its own worst enemy. Although wouldn’t you say that people in the industry are, as a rule, less snooty and less forbidding than civilians and particularly big spenders, who buy a lot of wine and equipment and accoutrements? Those are the ones who are really snobby, because for them it is a means of measuring their status.
Did living abroad as a young man give you a different perspective on wine from that of your fellow Americans and ultimately determine the types of wines you work with and enjoy?
Totally. Living in Europe absolutely formed the way I understood wine, the way I conceived of it, and the thing I thought it to be. Mind you, I was there between 1973 and 1983, and I really got seriously into wine in 1978. Even if I had lived in the U.S. at that point, it was still sort of Eurocentric; California wine hadn’t really made it yet, notwithstanding the Paris Tasting in 1976.
The way I learned about wine was, first, I went off exploring vineyards. The books I was reading were less about producers and more about which vineyards I should be looking for. So what formed in my mind was the notion that the place the wine came from was absolutely decisive in determining its potential quality. I would go to places that I had read about, like Nierstein or Graach or Johannisberg in the Rheingau, with lists of vineyards, and I would knock on growers’ doors. It didn’t take me very long to understand that some people made much better wines than others.
The other notion that formed early for me was that wine is made by small family vintners. That’s all that I was exposed to, and it was all very humble. I didn’t go to see anybody who had a tasting room or tchotchkes or anything like that. I was welcomed into the family’s living room or whatever little corner of the house they used to entertain private clients, and it was always a member of the family who greeted me. Again, I was forming templates from zero; I was laying down the tracks of what my wine paradigm would be. And in all the places I went in Europe—starting with Germany, which was the closest to me, and venturing afield to Alsace and Burgundy and the Loire Valley and Trentino-Alto Adige—the parameters of production were the same.
By the time I got to Bordeaux several years later, I was really taken aback. Bordeaux struck me as being very inhospitable and cold, and in those days there was virtually no infrastructure for tourists. I don’t think they really wanted to welcome casual visitors. The doors were barricaded—open just for the trade or the brokers. Whereas in Burgundy, although there was a certain amount of honky tonk, with the illuminated neon signs reading Visite le cave or Dégustation vente, it was still jolly. Again, it was little domaines. If you went looking for Bonnes Mares, you knocked on doors in Chambolle-Musigny and found the very few people who had it.
Of course, Germany came first; it comprised the majority of what was in my cellar and what I was drinking, and it led to the whole notion that the volume of the flavor isn’t as important as the quality of the flavor—that you can have tremendous intricacy and fascination with very little alcohol. That wines don’t need to scream in order to be heard. That the text of what they are saying is much more impressive than the boldness of the font with which they are saying it. All these things were coming to me as meta-messages; nobody was saying them to me. So when I first encountered wines from the New World, right after I got back in 1983, I was taken aback again. It struck me as bizarre that wine could be monochromatic. I felt kind of sad, like they didn’t know what they were missing. They were conducting themselves as though they were the real thing, whereas they were kind of a strangely bogus pastiche of the real thing. And I really wantedto get into California wine. I mean, I dove headlong into it and was excitedly reading all the material that was available, and it took about a year and a half before I realized that, boy, this was like the emperor’s new clothes.
Even then, though, weren’t there still little estates and small family producers?
Maybe a little; the Disneyfication of the California wine industry wasn’t like it is today. I think what was bothersome to me was the wine itself. And when I first encountered the people, they didn’t strike me as vintners. They struck me as people who wanted to be vintners, and who certainly wanted to cloak themselves in what they considered to be the wine lifestyle, but there was something that was inauthentic about them. And so I was disillusioned. It wasn’t my a priori position to hate New World wine; far from it. At that point, I wanted to be really inclusive and ecumenical and tolerant, to find the virtues in all wines and explore the whole world. But ultimately I found that what I was getting out of New World wines was empty calories. It was the appearance of wine without the substance of wine. It’s obviously gotten much worse since, and yet, paradoxically, it’s also gotten a bit better, because there is now this really interesting community of people who are bucking the trend and swimming against the tide. The question is still open as to whether they’re going to be able to make the kind of wine they seek to make from the material available to them, in the environments available to them. But obviously, I’m willing to cut those people every possible bit of slack because they yearn for the right things. We’ll see whether nature cooperates.
And whether their financial security can withstand the challenge.
Yes. But don’t you think it’s kind of interesting that we Americans have this sort of derring-do? Old World wine is the result of many centuries of trial and error, but we’re Americans, by golly—we’re going to suss it out in the first 20 years. Somebody wrote, I think in a letter to the editor of The World of Fine Wine, "What are you going to tell somebody in Uruguay who’s looking to make interesting wine—that he has to wait 200 years?" And my answer was, "What else would you tell him?"
So yes, I was in Germany from ’73 to ’83, and was passionately into wine from ’78 on. I went through all the stages: you know, colossal wine bore, miserable wine chatterbox—I could empty a room. But I was really fortunate. I learned about wine privately, deliberately; it wasn’t competitive in any way, I didn’t have a whole bunch of geeky friends against whom to measure my progress. I just got a little feedback from people here and there.
You were self-directed.
I was. And it wasn’t long before my ex-wife, Tina, and I left Munich—in about the last year—that we started to make wine friends and get invited to their tastings and parties. In those days, of course, before the Internet, it was all a bit more innocent. I had written a book of absolute garbage that was correctly rejected by everyone I sent it to, but I took excerpts from it and sent them to a now-defunct American magazine called The Friends of Wine, and I was beginning to get published, because they didn’t have anybody there who was writing about German wine. So here I was, this guy who was good with words and would write for next to nothing—but I parlayed it into at least getting interviews with people in the business when I got back to the U.S.
How did you formally get started in the wine business?
I interviewed in Washington, D.C., because my ex-wife’s parents lived there, so we had a place to crash while we got on our feet. I went to the big retailers and the wholesalers and offered my services. One of the retailers was willing to hire me; he knew Bobby Kacher [of Robert Kacher Selections] and said, "I’ll make a call to Bobby for you. You call me tomorrow, and I’ll tell you what he says." Bobby invited me over and we spent an evening tasting wine, and I suppose he must have thought I was credible. He asked me who I had interviewed with, and the list included his distributor. And he said, "Let’s see, what’s today, Wednesday? Call them again on Friday." So I called, and the company owner said, "Yes, come in again." Looking back on it, I know very well what happened. They didn’t want to hire me, but they didn’t want to piss Bobby off either, because he was an important supplier. So they offered me just about the worst job, for no money—it basically consisted of calling on all the accounts that the company either had never called on or had been thrown out of. I was thrown to the sharks, but I was determined to make good, so I found my way forward.
How did your relationship with Michael Skurnik Wines develop?
Skurnik was my New York distributor back in the days when I was working with Kronheim Cos., and at one point Michael and Harmon Skurnik phoned me and said, "Next time you’re in New York, why don’t we spend an afternoon together? We’ve got something we want to talk to you about." So they said, "You know, what you’re doing for Kronheim, you could be doing for us—and quite frankly, you’d probably be doing a lot better with us. We can offer you a platform that is already up and running successfully, and you can offer us profits and the pleasure of association with your portfolio." The things that I am good at are not the nuts and bolts of setting up and running a business, so I looked at it as a win-win situation. Things were changing at Kronheim, so it was easy to do.
I started with Michael and Harmon in February 1999. We had a handshake deal that we were going to work together for three years; if it worked, we’d keep doing it, and if it didn’t, we’d stop. At one point, we thought we’d make it legal. But as we talked more and more about it, we all came to the same conclusion: why would we want to line the pockets of lawyers and accountants to formalize a situation that is already functioning? It’s a system that works really well, and it’s the smartest thing I ever did in the wine business. I have nothing but the profoundest respect and admiration for those guys.
How do you find the producers you work with?
Initially, they were my buddies. They were the people who either I was closest to or whose wines I liked the most, or both. Luckily, I was able to read German, so I got some of them from reading German wine publications that nobody else in the States was reading, and others just by picking brains. You’d go to a restaurant with a sommelier who knew his stuff and you’d ask him. Or you’d point to a name on the wine list you didn’t know and say, "Who’s this?" And then you’d tell them who you were and ask them, "Who else should I know?" Keep your ear to the ground and ask a lot of questions—that’s how it happened. My first offering was of German wine in 1993; I added Austrian wine in 1994 and Champagne in 1997.
Austria was a little different. I had been turned onto the wines by [writer] Stuart Pigott, who gave me a handful of names. Luckily for me, the Austrian Wine Marketing Board had just subsidized the publication of a book by Giles MacDonogh, and I compiled a list of interesting-sounding growers from that. I also asked the marketing board if they could collect samples for me so I could pre-screen and only visit people whose wines seemed really interesting. So that is how I put the Austrian portfolio together in the early days, and then the rest of it was like a chain reaction.
Champagne was much the same. At that time I was in a long-distance relationship with chef Odessa Piper, whom I’d later marry, so the occasions of our coming together certainly involved the drinking of Champagne. We quickly ran through the small list of grower Champagnes that were available either in Madison, Wisc., where she lived, or D.C., where I lived, and we just got bored drinking the négociant stuff. At one point she said, "How far is Champagne from Germany?" I said, "Three hours, maybe." And she said, "By car? We could go there and visit some growers." Most of the names I got from Michael Edwards’s book The Champagne Companion,which had just come out, and I was blown away by how good the wines were and how unknown they were. What I always say is that I wasn’t the first person to do grower Champagne, but I was the first person to overdo grower Champagne. Most of my colleagues had one, maybe two small growers in their portfolio, but that struck me as tokenism. Given what I was seeing in Champagne—the terroir distinctions and the fledgling culture—I thought, "This is a story that is not being told." So I started with nine growers in the portfolio, and then we grew to 15. I knew that the only way to be successful was to have a mission: we’re going to let the proletariat take back the means of production from the multi-national luxury-goods conglomerates that control the big houses—as they still do—and we’re going to tell the story that artisan wine culture is alive and well in Champagne, but it needs to be nurtured and supported, and that Champagne today is like Burgundy was 25 years ago.
How much of a role do you think you personally played in the grower Champagne revolution?
I put the story together in a way that made it easy to tell. We identified the people who we thought would join us in this quest, and it was as if we stole into the big bad boardrooms of the Champagne conglomerates one night and put thumbtacks on their chairs. We didn’t terrorize them—we just irritated the crap out of them for one brief second. We snuck into their bedroom closets and put little pebbles in their shoes.
When I started, there were 33 récoltant-manipulant Champagnes exported to the United States, and last year—I saw the numbers—there were 186. Clearly a lot of people swept through a door that I was holding open. That made me feel really good. I don’t think there are all that many strongly deserving growers who don’t export to the U.S. at this point. And there is another collateral benefit for which I am far from the only person responsible. You know that with Peter Liem living in Champagne and Brad Baker doing ChampagneWarrior.com and Antonio Galloni writing about Champagne for The Wine Advocate on a regular basis, there is now a discussion about Champagne that has effectively made it more difficult for the big houses to keep their secrets; they’ve had to increase both quality and access to information. That’s a nice thing to see, too, but I think Peter and Brad and Josh Raynolds and Richard Juhlin, for example, play larger roles than I do.
Do you see the movement continuing to grow?
I do see this interest continuing to grow, though I don’t see the market share ever being more than about 5%, because there are not that many good growers. But 5% would be a really nice, sustainable market share. It would provide a healthy volume of business for a small producer who doesn’t, after all, have all that much wine to send over, and I think it would ensure peaceful coexistence; ultimately, I think the big houses would be able to live with it. But the grower Champagne movement has been the most gratifying thing that I’ve done, because the story was really fun; people liked telling it, people liked selling it, and right now it’s the motor that runs our business, 14 years later. It’s a tremendously successful part of my portfolio—something about which I have very mixed feelings.
But you made a major change in Champagne. You should be proud of it.
Thank you for saying so. I’m happy about it; I’m not proud of it. Pride is a very seductive temptation for me and thus one that it’s best to keep my distance from. I’m absolutely astounded and happy that I’ve been able to deliver attention and love and good business to these producers. That’s fantastically meaningful to me. I love this bonhomie and this sense of shared pleasure in tweaking our noses a bit at the big guys. But there is a part of me that is a little angry about it, and here’s why. The Champagne story is no more interesting than the German wine story or the Austrian wine story, but it has been markedly more successful than those of Germany or Austria have been, simply because it took place in France. I will give you a vivid example of what I mean. Very few people know that in the Mosel Valley, there are more than 1 million ungrafted vines that are 65 years old or older; many of them are at least 100 years old. If that were the case in Spain or Italy or France, wine writers would be swarming over the story like fruit flies on an overripe banana, but because it’s happening in Germany, no one knows. And the reason is that there is an underlying contempt for Germany; people basically assume that nothing that happens there can possibly be as important as anything that happens in these places that we care so much more about. So that’s why there’s a little edge of frustration or anger to my feeling about the success we’ve had with Champagne. I’d just like to say to people that in these other places with the weird umlauts in the words, there is just as much cool stuff happening, and you might consider paying attention.
These are hard things to say because you don’t want to sound ungrateful, and I’m not by any means ungrateful. It is an incredible privilege to do this work and be successful at it—to wake up each morning and never have the feeling, "Oh, hell, I have to go to work today." My customers are outstanding. They’re wonderful, beautiful, astonishing people who make it possible for me to live this amazing, privileged life. But that being said, there is this sort of underlying assumption that Germany is beneath consideration. I don’t know why it is; it’s just one of those things. I think it’s death by umlauts.
And there is no red wine to speak of.
Yes, but that is a very trendy story now. Everyone wants to glom onto the German Pinot Noirs because they want to be the first kids on the block who’ve got 20 German Pinot Noirs on their list. Not many years ago, you could buy Riesling clippings from the nurseries in Germany for about 0.2 euros per vine, but the Dornfelder clippings were 0.9 euros per vine, and there was a year-and-a-half waiting list for them. And now acres and acres of vines are producing wine that no one wants to buy.
What’s your general philosophy of winemaking?
That’s another hot-button topic, thanks to the naturalistas and their very long list of "thou shalt nots." I have lots of collegial discussions with my producers about how they make their wines, because I want to understand what is guiding their thinking and why they make the choices they do. But I have found in my tasting life and career that there are multiple pathways to heaven. There’s the guy who’s really reductive, who prefers very minimal handling and fermenting really cold in stainless steel to keep brilliant, shimmering primary fruit—that’s one way of getting some fantastic wine. That’s Müller-Catoir, for example. And then, of course, there’s the way Nikolaihof does it, which is essentially by doing nothing. You ferment wild yeast at ambient temperatures; everything is in wood; you don’t do a lot of clarification, probably little to no fining, and minimal sulfuring; and the one filtration the wine gets is as it’s being bottled. That makes another type of beautiful wine. I have never felt the need to make value judgments or choose between those styles because, for me, the more multifaceted the winemaking, the more interesting and amazing the wines can taste. It’s like saying you want all people to be good looking in the same way. So in that sense, I don’t have a philosophy of winemaking practice—but I do have a philosophy of winemaking philosophy. I would describe it this way: no effort spared in the vineyard; get out of the way in the cellar. As Andrew Jefford famously wrote in The New France, "It’s no good being Stradivari in the vineyard if you’re Stalin in the cellar." In the cellar, the less-is-more approach is always best. If you have grown outstanding grapes, then you want to make sure that as much of their vitality and essence as possible gets into the wine. But to do that, you’ve got to start from the notion that your vineyard is as alive as you are, and that wine is basically an existential reality. Its being is already fully formed; it is already entirely valid at the point of picking. All you want to do is slap that baby on the ass and make it wail. Just transmit as much as possible of that into the bottle. And the way you do that is to understand that you are the servant of your raw material. There, in microcosm, is the difference between the Old World and the New World approach to winemaking, the former of which I wholeheartedly embrace, whereas the latter—the technological approach—I wholeheartedly deplore. A classic European vintner understands his or her role as the temporary steward of something that is larger, more eternal, than he or she is—and you feel, I think, very whole and grounded when you approach nature that way.
Margaret Rand had an interesting thesis for an article in the September 2011 issue of The World of Fine Wine . She was describing a current discussion in the wine community, with global warming becoming more and more prevalent: will vintage variation become a thing of the past? Somebody in the Napa Valley said something that I can’t believe he would permit himself to be quoted as saying: "Well, for us, vintage variation is kind of a pain in the neck. People who buy our brand want to know that they’re going to receive a predictable experience." It was so appalling. It’s like he was saying it was so great to be a winemaker except for that pesky nature.
I’ve heard winemakers in France—Burgundy in particular—talk about their vines as their children. The vineyards are alive.
Yes, I recall a video the Farm+Cellar people showed me—I can’t remember the name of the Italian grower, but he is standing among his vines, and he points to one and says, "You know, I’m just 24 years old, and this vine is over 100 years old. Why should I tell her what to do?"
Exactly. You go into nature with the notion that its aliveness is as valid as your own, and then you end up with this very collegial relationship to it, which I think is profoundly subtle and satisfying. But if you see nature as just a sort of staging ground where you can enact your adorable agenda over your raw material, if you’re acting as if you have dominion over nature, I think that you do tremendous collateral damage to your soul, if you ever had one. I get the heebie-jeebies when I am up in Napa. Please understand that the law of generalities always applies to stuff that I say or anyone says. Generalities are never more than generally true—but they exist for a reason.
You are a champion of wines that have been for the greater part of your career the unheard-of, uncool wines: German Rieslings, Austrian Grüner Veltliners, and no-name artisanal Champagnes. How has the situation changed since you started, and how does it feel to finally be a rock—or should I say "soil"—star?
It was guerilla warfare initially. You really had to try and isolate one or two opinion leaders in each market, like Daniel Johnnes, Andrea Immer, Scott Carney, and Steven Olson in New York; Renee-Nicole Kubin and Mark Ellenbogen here in the Bay Area; and in Chicago, Joe Spellman, who actually gave me a nice launch at Charlie Trotter’s. So I always tried to sniff out enlightened somms who would showcase me, particularly in places that were visible to other wine people—you know, industry watering holes. I started with the intelligentsia and hoped that it would spread outward from there. Of course, we needed retailers and the press, because that’s where we would get our volume. In those days, the power of Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate was much greater than it is now. It was an expedient that I couldn’t afford not to take. So it’s not like I sold my soul to Parker, but it was something we needed to do. I felt I had an obligation of honor to do the best job I could for my producers—to generate as much business as I could in the quickest possible way.
The most satisfying part of it was the slow build of on-premise sales, which began to reach critical mass in the mid-to-late ’90s. It stopped being quite so hard and lonely. I think the highwater mark of that phase was around 2003. But thereafter, a very interesting thing happened. That generation of sommeliers moved onward and upward, and the younger people who replaced them had their own fish to fry. For example, many of them looked at Grüner Veltliner as kind of a ’90s thing, and they also needed to be re-educated about German Riesling more or less from scratch—which was that much more difficult because of the industry’s shattered personality. Germans couldn’t figure out what identity they were going to present to the export markets, so these young somms would say, "We’ll revisit them when they get their act together." And the other thing was the emergence of so many wine regions that had never been available on the market before. So a lot of young, creative-thinking somms found it fascinating to get really cool wines from all these hitherto-unknown places, and they saw Germany as belonging to this stodgy, dusty old category that they called "the classics." So, you know, we were kind of damned in either direction—both damned and dammed, actually. Although obviously I sell much, much more German wine than I sold 10 or 15 or even 20 years ago, it hasn’t gotten any easier. I’ve got more people I can talk to, for sure, but my gut sense is not that I can heave a big sigh of relaxation. I’m still pushing that rock up the same hill.
The next generation has got the Internet; they’re not learning in the way you did—by walking the vineyards. So how do you stir up their passion for and understanding of German wine?
First of all, I’m assuming that they really are interested in wine and food together; otherwise, what is their raison d’être ? And German Riesling with residual sugar is the world’s single most flexible wine for pairing. So it should be front and center in their sensibilities, and any remaining barriers—some of which they built themselves—are fairly easy to sweep out of the way. I think the fundamentals of German Riesling can be imparted to someone in five minutes of conversation; the rest is basically bureaucracy and nomenclature. How much of that do you really need to know? When I do waitstaff seminars and people say, "Why is it so difficult to sell these wines?" I say, "Look, if you have on your list the Pascal Cotat Sancerre Reserve Les Monts Damnés and you want to sell that wine to somebody, do you approach the table and say, ‘I recommend the Pascal Cotat Sancerre Reserve Les Monts Damnés Mis en Bouteille au Domaine, yadda yadda yadda’? No, of course not! You have a shorthand. You say, ‘I have a really good Sancerre for that.’ So you don’t need to go to the table and say, ‘I have a Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese Gutsabfüllung blah blah blah.’ You just find a shorthand."
The other thing has to do particularly with the Master Sommelier community; in order to attain the distinction, you have to do so much cramming that you become kind of overstuffed with information—it’s like education by gavage . But an ounce of charm and conviction could kill a ton of knowledge, particularly tableside. So if you’re grinning from ear to ear as though you have an incredibly delicious secret that you’re maybe willing to share with the guest provided he’s nice enough, and he asks you, "What? What are you smiling about?" and you say, "I have a wine that will rock your world with that dish; it’s just amazing," then you’ve excited that person’s curiosity and your passion is infectious. That’s better than saying, "Well, what you need for that is a wine with a lot of extract and an acidity of at least 9 grams per liter, and maybe a little residual sugar and low alcohol would be nice. We could go to the Mosel in Germany and find something like that, or maybe the Rheingau." No, no, no, no, no! That’s too much information. Master Sommeliers to me are the titans of the wine world. The things that have to be understood in order to earn that distinction astonish me. But it can be a very heavy bag that you don’t want to drag around behind you.
And you become very humble in the process, too. Nobody comes out the other end who isn’t humble and passionate and really good at tableside.
Right. So I think the shorthand answer, which seems a little glib, is that you sell the wines by being inordinately passionate, relaying your conviction in an incredibly charming way, and trying not to take no for an answer. Of course, that is a sticky wicket tableside, because you are there to provide hospitality, and what you really want to do is to invoke euphoria. But you always have to know when to withdraw.
Yes, like when the guest says "I’ll have the Opus One with my ceviche." It’s like the oysters-and-Barolo example in your book. I cringed.
I wanted you to cringe. I wanted you to shudder. But in the end, you bring the guests what they want.
How important is it to select a wine that pairs well with food?
It’s tremendously important to me, although it wasn’t when I started. I sort of spontaneously found my way to wines that worked well at the table, because those were the types of wines I happened to prefer. I was influenced by David Rosengarten and Josh Wesson; their Wine & Food Companion, a newsletter I subscribed to very early on, really raised my consciousness, and it was highly gratifying to have them tell me, "Hey, you know what? You have the kinds of wine that really go well with food." I was like, "I do? That’s cool—maybe that’ll help me sell them."
As I started thinking about it more and more and was becoming more successful, calling on better restaurants, even being able to afford to dine in them from time to time, it naturally occurred to me that wine was kind of a liquid extension of the flavor that was on the plate. There are all these flavors in your mouth: some of them are in solid form, some of them in liquid form. It seems entirely prudent to care at least a little whether those flavors are harmonious. After all, we wouldn’t say that it doesn’t matter what discordant flavors we put on the same plate. We would never say, "Oh, you should eat whatever sauce you want with whatever protein you want. Above all, be faithful to your own taste." Nonsense. So then I began to care more about it, and gleaned that the wines I liked to drink and the wines I was selling were especially flexible and graceful with food. I leaned more toward the idea of wine being accommodating and flexible, rather than trying to find some happy medium or platonic perfect match for any individual dish. I like a bottle of wine that arrives at the table and says, "How can I help?" as opposed to one that arrives and says, "It’s all about me, I’m here. Stop what you’re doing and pay attention. I got 96 points."
And now the winemaker’s name is on the front label rather than the back!
That’s right, on a bottle that weighs 1.3 pounds. The table is listing to the starboard side as soon as the bottle is placed on it.
I can verbalize the list of ingredients that make a wine flexible. We all know that it’s low alcohol, lack of oak, acidity, gracefulness, transparency. A little residual sugar is, I think, tremendously helpful; it’s one of the things that makes food sing. We all know that, and the people who read this will know that, but for me the guide was always that the wine should be like a good dance teacher. You think, "Oh, I’ve got two left feet, I can’t do it," but a good dance teacher will get you out onto the floor and show you how graceful you are.
All of us—you, me, everyone who reads this—have had that astonishing tantric experience in which we’ve just had a fantastic wine and a fantastic dish, and they combine to create a third flavor that wasn’t inherent in either of them alone, and we can’t fathom how it could happen and are just blasted into orbit. Once that happens to you and you realize that miracle is out there, a part of your heart continues to pursue it—fruitlessly in most cases. But it’s lovely to remember that it was so ecstatic, and a glimpse of the possibility of its recurrence is what keeps us studying in wonder this whole business of trying to combine flavors in a nice way.
In your book, you dismiss the usefulness of blind tasting, comparing it to bench pressing 300 pounds as a skill that won’t help your everyday life. What would you suggest, then, as a method for learning to recognize the awe-inspiring variety of wines around the world?
Blind tasting is tremendously useful for honing your palate and developing your chops, but once it’s outlived its usefulness, it can be discarded. It’s just that simple. Every now and again, when I’m visiting a producer and he brings up some old bottle from the cellar and asks if I want to know what it is, I’ll say, "No, let me taste it blind." Because I kind of enjoy revisiting that muscle and seeing if it still works—if I can still, by deductive process, figure out what vineyard it’s from and what quality level and vintage it is. It’s fun, but where that passage in the book came from was an underlying position that I feel from a lot of wine-industry people: that nothing anyone says about wine is valid unless it can be demonstrated in a blind tasting. "Terroir is not valid unless you can taste it blind." "The only way to guarantee your objectivity as a taster and certify the results of comparative tastings is to taste blind." I just don’t see it that way; in fact, I think those statements are the opposite of the truth. So I want to try and demolish some of the shibboleths about blind tasting, the myths about its usefulness. That’s why I said what I said in my book.
But when you’re reviewing or judging wines, having that brown bag and not knowing whether the bottle is $100 or $10 can be helpful.
If you need to taste blind to guarantee your objectivity, then you are not professional enough to taste at all. It is not only a skill level, it’s an ability to understand the difference between your subjective palate and your objective palate. I think that just requires agility and talent and a reasonable maturity of judgment. As a tool for strengthening your concentration level, blind tasting is very helpful. I would say it is indispensable—until you can dispense with it. And then please do dispense with it.
How does wine tasting relate to your interest in perfume?
Cat Silirie [executive wine director of Boston’s Barbara Lynch Gruppo] gave me a copy of Luca Turin’s book The Perfume Guide, and it was really a rude awakening for me, because a lot of the things he finds repugnant are things I happen to like and vice versa. Unfortunately, when people like us get into fragrance, the opportunity to wear it is relatively nonexistent, because we’re tasting all the time. The fragrances I like for myself, personally, are ones that are not especially floral or fruity; they go in a grainier or more herbal direction. It also seems to be inevitable that if I really like a fragrance, it’ll be off the market in a year. I like Sagamore and Homme de Grès, and I like Pasha de Cartier, which is one of the ones that Turin thought was awful. But I think most modern fragrance is gaudy and vulgar.
What are your plans for the future?
More of the same, but deeper and sweeter. I don’t plan to expand; my portfolio is really well balanced and modulated right now. I’m not going into other regions. I want to continue to identify and promote the larger values and beauties of what all this entails. There could be another book. We’ll see—I don’t want to be like one of those rock bands that has a really good first album, and because it’s successful they feel like they have to do a second album, and it ends up consisting of the songs that weren’t good enough to make the first album plus a few things they threw together. I’m going to write a second book when I have an irresistible urge to write one, which will be when I feel as though I’ve got something vital to add to what’s already been said—and I haven’t gotten to that point yet. After all, this book was gestating for 20-odd years. I like writing, though, and of course I’ll continue to do it in some way.
That may sound like a vague answer, but that’s just what it is. I want to keep doing what I’m doing, but deeper and sweeter, and in a way that’s more consciously grateful and loving and passionate and successful. There’s another part of me that’s gotten a little ornery, though, as I’ve gotten older. Sometimes I feel as though it’s self-evident that many of the world’s most absolutely miraculous wines give people an experience of such rarified beauty—so why don’t they get it? They’re not paying attention.
Maybe the wines are too quiet and we’re overstimulated.
Yes, there is definitely that. But you hear all these things, like the pause between the musical notes or the last line of a poem, which is the silence that follows the actual last line in the poem. Robert Frost said that if you write a book with 24 poems in it, the book itself is the 25th. All those kinds of things—those little beats occupying the silent instants of living—are things that I feel a bit more tangibly as I get older. And these are the wines that embody that kind of thinking and feeling. They seem to me to be wines that not only give us pleasure and delight, but actually improve our lives. Cultivating an appreciation of the virtues of these kinds of wines makes us, I think, sweeter and kinder and humbler and better people. And maybe that’s the kind of work I want to do for the next 10 or 15 years.