Taking on Theise

Michael Nagrant / 01.29.08

Terry Theise, the Lon Chaney of wine

Terry Theise is a man of a thousand faces. Well, at last five or six. In the introduction to his 2007 German wine catalog, the legendary importer’s Fu Manchu-ed visage and hands are engaged in a range of poses including rapture, self-strangulation, a Humbert Humbert-style leer, mock-contemplation and a potential gang sign (Austrian Riesling represent.)

Theise’s pictorial is accompanied by a “War and Peace”-length manifesto punctuated with quotes from poets and philosophers. Some of his personal tenets: “Harmony is more important than intensity”; “The whole of any wine must always be more than the sum of its parts”; “Soul is more important than anything, and soul is expressed as a trinity of family, soil and artisanality.”

Theise’s wine writing these days bemoans the travesties of aging and celebrates the mini-triumphs of life. Interspersed between his existential musings are provocative missives that plead with winemakers to banish natural cork in favor of screw-caps and for wine critics to abandon flowery prose. Of such writing, he says, “…a certain wine tasted to a certain person like candied yak spleens dipped in sorghum. What’s the value of this information? Will the wine smell and taste identically to you, weeks, months or years later?”

If Robert Parker, the founder of Wine Advocate, is the wine world’s stodgy king, then Theise is its impatient prince provocateur. A local sommelier told me he once told Theise about a Japanese “robo-sommelier” that, when a writer put his arm against the robot’s taste sensor, identified the writer’s hand as Prosciutto. Theise allegedly responded, “I wonder if he scratched his crotch, if the robot would identify it as white truffle?”

Theise is as serious and accomplished in ferreting out some of the world’s best grower champagnes—German and Austrian Rieslings and indie-rock-style varietals like Gruner Veltliner—as he is irreverent. Along with Parker and Kermit Lynch, another superstar wine palate and importer, these dudes are a rare cluster of grapes, a mythological vineyard on their own. Just as we might look for the labels with drunken kangaroos or sunglasses-wearing goats to inform our wine-buying decisions, sommeliers and small proprietors look to Theise for theirs. Though, if you pay attention to the back of the front and labels at your local liquor store, YOU can also look for Theise’s (and his employer, Michael Skurnik Wines) and Lynch’s imprints.

With all this in mind, when I heard Theise was in town for his 2008 spring tasting (an unveiling of 130 or so of his new discoveries primarily of 2006 vintage), I ran over to 160 Blue last Wednesday to sip and discover. In addition the local sommelier cabal, I found a collection of wine-ravenous restaurateurs and chefs including Roland Liccioni of Old Town Brasserie and Drew and Susan Goss of West Town Tavern sniffing, slurping and spitting. Because of the influential culinarians in the room, it’s a good bet many of the bottles from the tasting will make it on to local wine lists in the next year. Some of the bottles are already available at Sam’s, Binny’s or online at klwines.com. Here are some of my favorites:

Pehu Simonet “Selection” Brut, N.V. (Verzenay): This bad boy is a Hemingway short story of a champagne that starts out bright and simple, but finishes muscular and mature.

Reisling and Gruner Veltliner: As surely as a rolling stone gathers no moss, Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, varietals which tend to grow in mineral-rich rocky soils, gather the flavor of all rolling stones.

2006 Nigl Gruner Veltliner Kremser Freiheit: While many Gruners taste as if you were licking a piece of chalk, the sweetness here balances out the usual dryness.

2007 Selbach-Oster Riesling Kabinett: Everything from Selbach is ridiculously drinkable, but this bottle, which strides the line between high acid and residual sweetness with the aplomb of Mary Lou Retton on a balance beam, will probably be the value of the bunch—a perfect accompaniment for a spicy meal at Lao Szechuan or Spoon Thai.

2006 Selbach-Oster BernKastler Badstube Riesling BerenAuslese: Skip the crème brulee and Tiramisu. This late-harvest syrupy treat is the only dessert you need. According to winemaker Johannes Selbach, there was a lot of botrytis in this batch, aka Noble Rot, basically, a benevolent gray fungus that produces very concentrated sweet wine. If this grosses you out, I’m guessing you hate blue cheese too, and I’m sad for you. That’s cool though, as there’s not much of this wine to go around.

2006 Spreitzer Oestricher Lenchen Riesling Spätlese “303”: According to estate owner Andreas Spreitzer, in 2006 his vineyards saw a variety of terrible conditions and more rain than Seattle. As a result the grape yield was low and flavors very concentrated. While it’s not as viscous, the sweetness here is comparable to the Selbach BA above at about a third of the price.

2006 Darting Dürkeimer Nonnengarten Riesling Kabinett: With a ton of apple and citrus hitting the tongue, this bottle is fruitier than the clock-wearing reality-television lover, Flavor Flav. Best of all its $15.99 for a one-liter bottle at Sam’s—perfect for a BYOB match with the Chiles en Nogada at Mundial Cocina Mestiza.

This article first appeared in a slightly different form in Newcity