This is simultaneously the hardest and easiest column for me to write. Easy because it concerns Terry Theise, my personal wine hero (and writing hero, and life hero), and I have waited a long time for the opportunity to write publicly about him. Hard because the stakes are so high: if I fail to convince you to form a long-term relationship with Theise’s work, then I wonder why I speak about wine at all.

If you love wine for its particulars but also for its metaphors; if you cherish delicacy, beauty, clarity and harmony over bravado and impact; if you agree at least partially that wine is ultimately not really about wine but is rather just one particularly useful pathway to the transcendent, then you too may come to view Theise as your guide.

It’s due to Theise more than any other single person – his crystalline palate; his unyielding devotion to his winemakers as humans; his passionate, rambunctious, irreverent essays in his own wine catalogs and now in a book, “Reading Between the Vines” – that most of us know the first thing about German and Austrian wines, not to mention have come to appreciate Riesling as the most beautiful and complex grape on Earth. Theise has also exposed the corporate culture of the international champagne market and pointed the way to grower-made champagne (or as he calls it, “farmer fizz”).

He represents, powerfully, for the sensitive sensualist in all of us. “There aren’t a lot of emotional introverts getting the word out,” he told me. “It’s important to applaud that quiet, delicate temperament and encourage that sort of person – to say, ‘Your perspective is incredibly important.’ “

This from a guy who says he’s “most of the time thinking about sex, baseball and rock ‘n’ roll.” Most of us who read Theise (as you can online, or by buying his book) adopt a kind of WWTTD-bracelet approach to life.

Although he has one of the finer palates in the world, he’s unconcerned with analyzing wines to death. “Most people think only what they’re supposed to think about wine,” he said. “They treat wine like their life, as something that needs to be wrestled to the ground. We’re constantly being showered with beauty, but we affect an indifference to it that takes greater effort than would be required to just let it in.”

Worse even than indifference is adherence to preconceptions, which afflicts so many wine consumers when they encounter sweetness. Some Rieslings are perfectly dry (like the outrageous value Leitz Einz Zwei Dry “3,” $15), but a misconception persists that a touch of sweetness is anything other than life- and food-affirming. How to dispel this? “It’s hard, but my only real advice is to make yourself into a pure, blank receiver.” His wines beg us to meet them with our full array of sensual receptivity in the moment, rather than a scorecard.

“I approach this as an aesthete,” he said, but he’s an earthy one. His wines can be pounding-your-hands-on-the-steering-wheel-pop-song like the Gysler Silvaner 2009 ($14 liter) or quietly majestic like Donnhoff Oberhauser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett 2009 ($25). They can be lusty, waxy and lipsmacking like the Gysler Scheurebe 2009 ($17 liter), or spacious, oxygenated and spicy like the Darting Durkheimer Nonnengarten Riesling Kabinett 2009 ($17 liter).

They can educate: Berger Zweigelt 2009 ($14 liter) shows the significance of integrity over concentration, as it combines dense red fruit and prosciutto without any squeeze-in-there-guys cloying or whump. Or they can seduce and sizzle: Messmer Spatburgunder ($19 liter) shows why so many of us are hooked on German Pinot Noir, wrapped as this is in silk, smoke and sand.

For Thanksgiving, I provided an array of the above wines as well as some others from Theise. I didn’t push it or gush over the wines unless someone asked, and they were there among other bottles people had brought: California Pinots costing twice as much, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Burgundy. The Theise wines disappeared the fastest. For all their soul, all their distinctiveness, all the care that went into their making and their selection, they’re above all delicious and approachable.

“Not every wine needs to rock our world,” Theise said. “Just laugh when you’re tickled, and let it all be fun.”

 

Joe Appel’s day job is doing lots of different things at Rosemont Market and Bakery. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]