The Tastemakers

Terry Theise, a Wine Importer Who Has Folks Talking

(James M. Thresher - For The Washington Post)
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By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

If you like wine and don't mind name-dropping, here's the name to know: Terry Theise.

"You know Terry? Terry completely changed the way I think about wine," gushes Andrew Myers, the sommelier at CityZen. Myers has known Theise for nine years but says he still gets "giddy" when Theise e-mails him. "He's the prophet, the master and the dork, too. And when he drops me a line, usually something silly and fun, it makes me think that I rate."

Derek Brown, the sommelier at Komi, says Theise "has this near-spiritual outlook on wine. He's an amazing character and a powerful person in the wine world. And what's great is that he's powerful for the right reasons."

A lot more people know Theise's name these days. In May, the Silver Spring wine importer won the industry's top prize, a James Beard Foundation medal for the nation's outstanding wine and spirits professional. The award hailed Theise for what his cult of admirers has long appreciated: his role as champion of small producers; his success in making previously obscure grapes, such as Riesling and Gewuerztraminer, trendy; and his holistic approach to the joys of drinking wine. "What's always driven me is my passion for wines. I didn't look for underdogs or small producers, but that didn't deter me, either," he says.

Theise, 54, started importing German wines in the 1980s, when most American wine aficionados had never heard of Riesling.

His inspiration: three years in Munich as a teenager -- a time, he says, "when your whole self is formed" -- then nearly a decade after college when he worked odd jobs, including a stint at the country's first McDonald's. (He was fired after six weeks.) Along the way, as a newly "serious" drinker, he increasingly was captivated by classic German wines.

In 1983, he moved to Washington and started work at Washington Wholesale Liquor. After two years as a salesman, he made his boss a proposition: If the company would send him to Germany for a few weeks, he would double its sales of and profits on German wine, which he thought was misunderstood and in need of an advocate.

The company agreed but footed the bill for just one week abroad. That summer, Theise wrote his first catalogue on a manual typewriter and ran off copies on a Xerox machine. "It was very primitive. But it worked," he remembers.

"Catalogue" is almost a misnomer for Theise's annual treatises. The slim volumes do provide tasting notes on each of Theise's selected producers: 39 in Germany, 21 in Austria and 15 from the Champagne region of France. But they also serve as state-of-the-industry reports. Theise, who says he writes from his gut with very little editing, covers wine regions, climate change, geology, personal histories and business trends. Each catalogue is a lively, opinionated and accessible read that could easily replace an expensive extracurricular wine course.

But what most makes Theise stand apart from other wine gurus is the way he describes the stuff. In his catalogues, there are none of the frothy lists of adjectives ("nutty and coffeelike, with still-fresh acidity") found in most examples of the genre. Instead, his thumbnail descriptions of the important Champagne villages describe Mesnil as "the voodoo-doll of the Cote des Blancs, blossoming trees on a humid Spring evening." Cumieres is "for lovers of pork belly everywhere -- and who doesn't love pork belly?"

Theise says he has no rules about how wines should be described. Some he calls "happy dog" wines. "They jump up and lick your face. They love you, and you love them back."

For more complex bottles, Theise tends to steer away from references to specific flavors. Describing a taste as blackberry, overripe blackberry or underripe blackberry is nothing more than "brain calisthenics," he says.

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