Back to all articles
  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
26 Jun 2006

I finally met Terry Theise, gifted specialist importer of German and Austrian wines and growers' champagnes, in May. He had recently finished writing his 2006 German catalogue and seemed pleased with the results. I can quite see why and urge you to read the following introduction to it.

Excerpted from pp.1-5 of the 2006 Terry Theise Estate Selections catalog (available at www.skurnikwines.com).

Words and Music by Terry Theise:

I felt like Charlemagne. That’s because it snowed every damn day the whole first half of March, which no one had ever seen before. I happen to love snow, when you can provision the kitchen ahead of time and cozy up to watch it float randomly and coat the world with that sweet white silence. But I had appointments to keep and wines to spit out, so we spent the first part of the month slidin’ around wondering if we’d ever see as much as a crocus. But, I felt like Charlemagne. That’s because I got to see a thing I almost never see: the vineyards where the snow melts first. This is plain as day and not subject to interpretation. One day I left my hotel in the snow-zone and drove down to see Florian Weingart in Spay. It was maybe 33 degrees when I pulled out and amazingly ten degrees warmer in the Bopparder Hamm, without a smidgeon of snow to be seen.

This is becoming rather less important, some say, because climate-warming is obviating the search for the most favoured microclimates. Good modern growers think more in terms of a site’s predisposition, such that a Dönnhoff sees his east-facing Leistenberg as “destined” for Kabinett. Yet even so I felt the poetic pull of the old legend of Charlemagne sitting in Ingelheim looking across the river at what we now call the Rheingau, noticing the snow melting first on the Schloss Johannisberg hill. These stories matter; they comprise the texts of myth and poetry, and they help us to remember (as we taste our fourth consecutive vintage of very ripe Auslesen) that growing grapes 50 degrees north of the equator was an improbable act of optimism and resourcefulness. All these years later a few of us realize what remarkable and unique acts of beauty arise from these vines, but in the old days I guess they were just thirsty.

I’ve been doing this for twenty one years now, but I don’t know how that’s supposed to feel. I don’t discern a bit of nostalgia; it’s all as juicy as ever. It might not look like the rah-rah manic eagerness of a gent in his early 30s, but that’s misleading; the eagerness is embedded more deeply and plays as a kind of calm. When I started it was pleasingly lonesome, because it was pure; it was only about the wines and discovering who made the best ones. It was getting to know people who didn’t get many English-speaking visitors. It was about meeting the Merkelbachs of the world, showing you their wines, and carrying their lovely stories back with me like little crystal eggs.

Then came satellite-dishes and computers, and suddenly instead of being younger than most of the growers I wasulpolder. Now babies are being born and I’m, like, avuncular or something. That I can manage; it’s actually rather nice. The hard part is the politics, the need to calculate, because in old Europe one is most certainly a Figure, a personage. I adore Europe, lived there for ten years, consider myself attuned to European ways, but this part of it doesn’t come naturally. Not to a pure-bred roughneck like me. In the summer of 2003 my esteemed colleagues at Michael Skurnik Wines took an enmasse trip to Germany together, and at one point we commandeered the stage from a C/W band who’d been hired to play for us. Michael played geetar and shook his ass. Harmon (Skurnik) sang and whacked a tambourine. Andrew (Shapiro) played drums. I played banshee manic lead guitar. It was so much fun I forgot who was watching usimagine what Merkelbachs must have been thinking! The mild-mannered wine geek they thought they knew suddenly morphed into a three-headed hydra yowling away on fuzz-whipped guitar. At the same time the younger ones were probably thinking, this might almost have been amusing but what’s with the weird boogie crap? In either case, the personage they knew as “Terry” had certainly developed some weird-ass alter ego.

These days the little bastards keep getting younger, damn it, and they all seem to know one another. Johannes Geil was Phillip Wittman’s roommate at Geisenheim (the important wine-university), Andreas Adam was “Niki” Saahs’ (from Nikolaihof) roommate, and has a couple droll stories to tell! But the most important seismic shifts took place around two things: The era of the internet, and the advent of an activist wine press.

As soon as the press became important, it became the short-cut of choice for establishing reputations. Thus prospecting became irrelevant; if you were good and ambitious you were putting yourself out there and not waiting to be found.

These things coincided with a decline in wine consumption in general. You know the phrase; less-wine-but-better-wine, but I’ve had a chance to watch it at work in the macro-life of German wine. The marginal were being squeezed out of existence. The elderly retired with no one to continue the wineries. The audience for wine narrowed to a small geekdom of wine-heads who only wanted the best stuff, and who used the press to point them to it. Thus the enterprising grower had to go all out for glory. This meant investment in the newest geegaws for the cellar (especially if the neighbour had them) and in some instances it meant having a nose to the wind to catch the prevailing scent. What were the “approved” types of wines, what was the new Zeitgeist, and how does one get ones hands on the mojo-du-jour?

The worst of this syndrome is known to you. People crafted wines with an eye to the reviews they’d get. Everyone knows how, you know.

But there’s an immense good side to this too, a heartening presumption of excellence and integrity which rescued a potential debacle like the 2000 vintage, and which made one wise-man among the growers opine, “I doubt we’ll ever see a truly bad vintage again.” Really, I asked? Even if the weather’s truly awful? “Even then,” he replied. “Everything is different now, yields are lower, vine-husbandry is better, vineyards are healthier, people are willing to green-harvest and pick selectively, and there’s more pure competence in the cellar, more people who know what to do and what not to do.”

Another grower expanded on this idea: “In the old days you basically grew your grapes, picked them when you could as ripe as you could and made your wine. Nowadays we baby each vine, from pruning to binding to canopy management to green-harvesting; we pick by hand, we’re selecting obsessively, our yields are half what they used to be and our cellar work is more gentle and non-intrusive than ever.” I can’t help but believe. A year like 2004 would have been an ordinary vintage 20 years ago; now it’s excellent. In fact the modern tendency to pluck the sweetest cherries from nature has created a certain curiosity about the alternative. What if one did things old-school and harvested en bloc, just swept through the vineyard and picked everything: Wouldn’t that tell another kind of “truth” of the soil and weather, different from plucking the chocolate chips from the cookie? Hans Selbach said it best (Hans said many things best . . .): “You can’t go into a vineyard and first pull out the cream, then go back and get the milk and then finally the water; you have to leave it be and get all of it if you want to know how the vineyard tastes.” It is heartening to observe the many young growers exploring this idea.

Are your eyes glazing over? Sorry! I find this sort of thing riveting, if you want to know the truth. Is the “essence” of a vintage in fact the generally prevailing strength of the fruit in a vineyard? Or is it the ultra-sweet bits you pluck out? Or, both! You see, it’s the difference between asking what nature did and asking how well you yourself can “perform.” Again, there’s no right-or-wrong here, just two ways of seeing things, and serious people are talking about them. And such conversations were unheard-of when I was getting started.

I haven’t looked at lab analyses of my wines for some time now, and fewer people try and show them to me. The modern young grower is more interested in the forest than the trees. It was Helmut Dönnhoff who first graduated away from obsession over wines’ analytical values, the first among my crowd to push away from deconstructing the aesthetics of wine’s flavour. Because I respect him and he intrigues me, I realize he has influenced me.

But even seeing what he’s moved away from, we should consider what he might be moving toward. What are we trying to do here? Why shouldn’t we exercise our cerebral cortex rooting around in wine’s flavour and structure if that’s what floats our boat? Seems innocent enough.

Here’s what I think we’re after: a point of utter receptivity because we’re seeing only the wine instead of seeing ourselves seeing the wine. Oh it’s all very Zen. But I am ever-more persuaded it is the way to pleasure and sanity. If we don’t see past ourselves, our discrete palates, we can’t get past What am I getting from the wine. The process starts and ends with “I.” What am “I” getting, what do “I” think (how many points will “I” give this wine), and all I can say is if you drink wine this way I sure hope you don’t make love this way, because your partner’s bored.

Try this. Next time you drink wine, ask What is this? Not what “I” get: what THIS is. “This,” the thing outsideyou, the not-I.

Perhaps you’ll experience the loveliest of ironies; when you relax the “I” and receive the world, the world charges you with its perfect reality and suddenly your “I” becomes larger than you ever imagined. But you have to be calm. Trust your senses. Let the wine in. You might find it becomes more vivid now, and you slowly cease to care about the brain-game of dissecting. Who cares what’s on the lab report? Peter Jost put it well. “Describing a wine by its analysis is like describing a beautiful woman by her X-ray films.” I think this is why we love old wines as we do. It isn’t only that they’re lasted so long; in fact I doubt we truly realize the existential truth of the old vintage on the label. What does “1949” signify? It’s absurd, unless we were alive then and remembered. Sometimes even then.

Great old wine is evocative, this we know. It has to have been meaningful wine to start with, nothing industrial or “manufactured,” a wine of identity and connection to earth and family. But mere evocation would seem innocuous enough; maybe it could float you into a dreamy mood or make you lambent and warm. But this is more. Great old wine seems to have distilled reality. All of reality, not only itself: old rooms, echoes of the cooking of many meals, smells of worn clothes, the prevailing atmosphere of the time it was made. And like a distillate, it is almost too concentrated to apprehend. Thus we are at once granted entry into a world and a place of soul we never get to see, and it’s so sudden and unexpected that we are disarmed and laid bare.

I used to work with a guy named Anthony Austin. If you knew Anthony I’ll bet you remember him; he is a very dear man, as well as the only man I have ever seen land a plug of spat-out-wine into the bucket while being technically unconscious. Poor guy was wiped out with jetlag,but he hit the bucket. Anyway, Anthony didn’t say a lot, and was hardly what we’d call “emotive”, but one year we were tasting at Christoffel, and Hans-Leo brought out a bottle of his `76 TBA for us. This is an especially sleek and silvery citizen of this sometimes-blowsy vintage, and I was so lost in it I barely registered my surroundings. But when I looked up I saw Anthony’s eyes were wet. I wanted to hug him. I knew that feeling, the way it steals over you. It doesn’t build, it suddenly takes you over. And you wonder How did it know where to find me? How could I have not known (or forgotten) it was there? What made me think I could live without it?

Sometimes I want to call this the “Oh so that’s what it’s about” moment, because it feels both entirely natural and also unequivocal. A couple months ago I sat on the warm terrace of Nepenthe (that most sublime of restaurants) in Big Sur, enjoying a moment of solitude and a badly-needed morning tea. The Pacific was 800 feet below me and as still as a mirror on the windless day. Whales spouted, big-winged birds floated, and the beauty was almost a rebuke: Don’t you dare think you can do without this, Buster. I felt like I was who I was meant tobe, and that feeling always seems to be stunning. But the best thing of all is you don’t have to contrive some big vast rapture in order to know this moment: It can live, and lives very easily, in a single sip of wine.

One year when I travelled with a group of customers to Schmitt-Wagner, he brought out a treasure remarkable even by his standards, an Auslese from the great 1937 vintage. I had tasted the wine once before (this is a generous man) and I waited for what I knew would come. As the wine was poured the group inhaled audibly at the color, and I saw many faces grow meditative as they sniffed those first mysterious fragrances. But when you expect to be moved you’re too self-conscious and you can’t be moved. That was me. My guests had walked through that little tear in the curtain out into the other world. I was happy for them.

Someone asked Herr Schmitt, “Did you make this wine?” “Oh my goodness no, I was just a child,” he answered. Then he grew pensive and said “But I do remember being a boy of six, picking the grapes alongside my grandma,” and then I lost it. I was looking at his hands just then, as it happened, the hands of a vigorous old gentleman still ruddy from a life in the open air, and I suddenly saw the child’s little hands inside them. And saw the child trotting along at his grandma’s side, happy to be included in the general activity, proud to be useful, there among the vines. And now it was sixty-four years later. The wine in our glasses was enthralling enough to us, but to our host it was the pure blood of memory, bound to the filaments of his earliest joys, with affection and usefulness. This is a man of Wine, I realized. This is what it means to be a man of wine.

This ‘37 called to us from across a passageway to a world we barely know. But to Bruno Schmitt it called across each of those sixty-four years from small sweet memories. I was so lost in my vision of the boy that I registered the 70-year old face of the man to my left with a small shock. He had passed his life in wine, I thought. He didn’t choose it because he thought it was gracious or sexy or romantic. He chose it (if it were indeed what we would call a “choice”) because it needed to be done and it pleased him to do it.

Wines made by such people glow with the value of human care and enterprise. These vintners don’t seek to reinvent Wine. It is enough that the beauty of wine renews, always, that every year threads its way into a great story. It nourishes us to take such wines into our bodies, because by doing so we are connected to the deliberate rhythms of the world, and to our human place in it.

These ideas have started to become my schtick; they’ve crystallized out of my experience over the years into something that looks like a contribution I can make. Thus I write and talk about them. If you actually read this catalog (you have my sympathies) you might imagine I think about these things a lot, but the truth is I hardly think of them at all. I do if I have to, and I have to now. In my daily life I think mostly about baseball, sex and guitar solos. So, when I all-of-a-sudden am blindsided by an incandescent example of everything I think is important about wine, it wipes me out. And thus, I sat weeping in front of eleven of my customers and tried not to let them see.

Charles Simic once defined poetry as “three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley” (thanks to Molly McQuade for the quote). The basic enigma that changes the lens by which we receive the world. The more I get into wine the less reducible I feel it to be. Its enigma deepens even as it appears to grow more transparent. It is helpful to see wine connected to gardening, to making things grow, and it’s even more helpful when the person encouraging the growing is companionably connected to the earth; most of all, when he sees the thing through to completion. Which, in wine, means to produce and to bottle it.

It’s different when you go there; all wine is. Otherwise it’s just a bottle and a label (and a flavour you can quantify if you’re into such perversions), disconnected from its taproot. I try and have my gang with me as much as schedules allow, because they need to be there too, not to sell more, but to better know what they’re selling. One of the loveliest things about artisanal wines is the imbuing of the grower’s spirit. This isn’t literal; a slim shy guy doesn’t necessarily make slim shy wines. But something of him gets into those wines ineluctably; it can’t be helped. It’s why you suddenly “get” the wines only when you meet the (wo)man, sit with him, look at the things he looks at every day, dip your feet into his vineyards, listen to the local birds.

None of this is valuable if the wines don’t taste good. Josh Greene’s interview with me for Wine & Spirits suggested that superb quality was a secondary consideration for me, but the truth is I barely consider it at all: It’s a given. There is a “professional” intelligence that seeks to guarantee every wine tastes good every time. But after all these years I want you to know who you’re buying these wines from. And what it all means.

There’s an old story about a man who approached three bricklayers. Asking what they were up to, the first replied “Isn’t it obvious? I’m laying these damn bricks.” The second fellow was less truculent. “I’m making a wall,” he said. The third guy seemed nearly beatific. “What am I doing? I’m helping to make a cathedral.”

I know by now that I’ll assemble an excellent group of wines. People will like them, they’ll perform, they’ll get you laid, all that. I like selling wine too. It’s pleasant to contribute to the material prosperity of good growers. But when my son asks me to explain what I do, it can seem paltry. I’m just another schlub sellin’ stuff. Just laying bricks.

But I know better. By telling you how meaningful and lovely this culture is, I’m doing my weensy part to keep it alive. My real job is to nurture this and pass it on intact. This was good. People made this, and it was good. Thus I speak my truth.

We who care about wine often circle that thing we see as True, each in our way. Karen MacNeil wrote these lovely words:

“So what is it about wine?”

Perhaps it is this: wine is one of the last true things.

In a world mechanized to madness, a world where you

can’t do anything without somebody’s cell phone clanging

in your ear, a world where you can wake up to 67

innocuous emails all of which exude infuriatingly false

urgencyin this world of ours, wine remains utterly simple.

Pure. Unrushed. Archetypal. The silent music of

nature. For seven thousand consecutive years, vines

clutching the earth have happily thrust themselves

upward toward the sun and given us juicy berries, and

ultimately wine. And so it is that wine ineluctably connects

us to that earth. We don’t have to do anything. We

drink . . . and the bond is miraculously there.”

When I received her letter I wrote her back, saying, in part: Your words are true and lovely. I only ask that we remember, not ALL wine fulfills such a noble purpose as you describe. I believe it is important to always distinguish between industrial wine wine as “product” and agricultural wines, which are the earth’s emissaries of meaning. Maybe even more important, I believe we need to alert readers to beware of wine as “lifestyle accoutrement” or as a badge signifying “gracious living” because, as you so well know, millions of people drink and love wine who don’t know or care about living “graciously” as defined by the glossy magazines. Wine has nothing to do with finding oneself gorgeous; it has everything to do with finding the WORLD beautiful, and feeling that little happy shock that it’s inside you to feel, and that it matters.

Other goodies in my bag-o-truths are that agricultural wines are always more interesting than industrial wines. That doggedness in the vineyard and humility in the cellar are vital to the making of wines of consequence. That wine is a context containing soil-borne flavours their LANGUAGE spoken with various ACCENTS according to which cellar-work a given grower prefers. That removing any PART of this context from wine does injury to its being (and if we do love wine, why deliberately injure it?) . . . .

Europeans are more aware than we Yanks that people actually existed before us, they’re aware of the real size of their place in the cosmos. They listen to the soil and work to do its bidding. They know that the Riesling vine is the poet of their corner of the earth. They want to hear the poem. They want us to hear it. And so they work to bring the words clearly onto the page. And they are aware they do not, themselves, CREATE those words. The text is created somewhere else, below the ground.

The growers themselves are seldom aware of their roles as protectors of an ancient verity. They just do what they do. But the net result of what they do, FOR CIVILIZATION, is to protect and nurture individuality against a rip tide of uniformity, to protect humility in the face of an arrogance that presumes we have dominion over nature, and to protect humanity, the connection of the worker to the work. Their wines aren’t Things, but rather Beings: the grower knows them, knows each plot of land, each vine in many instances, knows how the grapes looked and tasted when they were picked, knows everything that went into the growing season, knows how the must behaved before and during fermentation, and knows in some inchoate way the connection between the land and the wine because he is steeped within the nexus of that connection all the time. He has absorbed it into his basic experience of reality, it is no longer an abstract idea he thinks about. It is simply how things are.

“Whoever discovered water, it certainly wasn’t a fish!” But you can only know this by paying attention. And you can’t pay attention if you aren’t close in. Only the artisanal grower has access to “the murmurings of the earth” (in Matt Kramer’s phrase) and only his wines permit us to listen in.

Marcel Deiss gave a wonderful quote to Andrew Jefford for The New France:

“What is a man? A man is the network of all

his genes; that’s his “possible.” Beyond

that, though, a man is all he’s learned. Every

day he lived, he learned. He suffered; he

became enthusiastic; he fell in love; he

became disappointed. When I meet someone,

what do I want? I want what he has

lived (his vécu), his humanity; I don’t want

his genetic material. Why, when I taste a

wine, do you want me to taste its genotype

and not its vécu? A vin de terroir is how a

vine communicated everything that it has

learned beyond its genotype. And this

apprenticeship is the cultivation of depth.”

And you think I’m metaphysical? But why should we care about all this? Isn’t it enough that wine tastes good? Hmmm. Well, why should we care about the loving, tender and passionate feelings that arise during lovemaking; isn’t it enough that sex feels good? We should care because it exists. And because the capacity inside us to respond also exists.

But we needn’t care if we don’t feel like it. Wine will meet you wherever you are. If you only want some of what it has to give, that’s what it will give you. Yet I believe we are creatures in search of meaning. We crave it, each in our ways according to our temperaments, but we emphatically do NOT wish to live without it.

What is wine trying to tell us about the earth? What is it in wine that transmits the message? (André Ostertag has a great line: “With Riesling, all the stones of the world find their unique voice.”) Why does the earth want us to hear its message? Why was wine chosen to convey the message? Now I’m not of a particularly speculative bent myself; I don’t worry about these kinds of questions. Yet I presume upon a world in which they are LEGITIMATE questions, and I do think that wine is a conveyor of meaning. Certainly not all wine, maybe not even much wine, but a few wines, those that express a spirit of place and which are uncompromisingly, distinctly, themselves. “Made” wines wines intended as Products, wines fashioned according to commercial formulas, wines made in very large wineries, wines made by technocrats, wines made without reference to a grape’s natural habitat and/or without consideration of a sense of place such wines have a kind of half-life; they are without soul.

They might taste good; they often do. They show great. They can show the ASS off your palate but they are meaningless. Wine-like substances. Junk-wine.