Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise

Book Review

I had originally thought that I’d simply include Terry Theise’s recent book Reading Between the Wines in my upcoming holiday gift-guide post. But I found the book so refreshing, thought-provoking and emotionally evoking, that it merited a post all of its own.

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To put it into context, Terry Theise is somewhat of a legend on the US wine scene. Charismatic, forthright, a tad opinionated some might say, Terry certainly knows his stuff. For almost thirty years he has been the champion and importer of some of the most wonderful boutique wines from Austria, Germany and Champagne.

On a recent trip to Europe I brought the book to read on the plane. So enthralled I read it twice – once on the way over and again on the way back – this time taking notes. I have met Terry once or twice and hence his soft-spoken, yet confident and articulate voice resounded in the back of my mind as I devoured every page. The book is a compelling read. Unlike many other wine books that focus on telling you lots about different wines and wine regions, Reading Between the Wines is delightfully philosophical and showcases Terry’s life and love affair with wine. It draws you in as a thinker, makes you wonder and even compels you to argue back at times.

Without spoiling the read for any of you I thought I’d pick out some of my favorite themes and passages.

Early on in the book, Terry writes, "Wine is like a shy dog. Lunge for it and it backs away. Just sit still and it draws nearer." A comforting, welcoming sentence that serves to intrigue and draw you further into the book.

In Chapter Two he attempts to codify a set of First Principles of Wine, outlining eight aspects of flavor that he believes count and four that don’t. Of those that do count I was particularly taken with ‘Deliciousness’ – because it is a word that I often use to describe a wine that I like, yet not so often used by professional critics and writers. Maybe it sounds too pedestrian, but to me it is wholly important in a wine. Interestingly, the attributes that Terry rates as least important include "power, ripeness and concentration" – words that we frequently come across in wine descriptions.

Later in the book, he revisits the theme of deliciousness and attempts to define the term. Importantly he believes that a delicious wine has charm. "It creates a response of palpable delight." he writes. He also notes that charm is a flexible virtue, as capable of being found in the most simple of wines as well as the most complex and is not easily reducible to a recipe or formula.

At the end of the day one usually likes to unwind with a delicious, companionable wine. As I alluded to in my post on Thanksgiving wines, the wine should suit the occasion. Not every situation merits a complex, demanding wine. As Terry puts it, "Great, complex wines are wonderful, enthralling, life-affirming, soul-stirring, but it is worth asking whether they are relaxing. Good, simple wines are. Good, simple wines speak to our spirit of play and ease and repose, exactly because they don’t demand our exclusive attention."

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Possibly a more contentious discussion in the book is around ‘remystifying’ wine rather than demystifying it, as we so often attempt to do. In the book, Terry is unapologetic that wine indeed has a mystical facet for which we as wine professionals should not apologize for or be embarrassed by or try to quash. ‘We need not demystify wine, but try to remystify it’ he argues. What Terry is really saying here is that wine is a complex subject, and therein lies its strength and source of fascination. Whether as an amateur or a professional, wine takes you to all corners of the earth, expands your cultural horizons, brings you right back to the core of nature herself. It is agriculture, botany, geology, ecology, chemistry as well as patience and passion. Isn’t it a shame to dumb it down? Re-mystifying, in my understanding is not about being pretentious or condescending, but rather about safeguarding the irreducible magic and fun of wine.

Finally, as many of you know I am a huge Riesling fan. I was especially taken by Terry’s definition in the book of Riesling wines "Riesling is so digitally precise, so finely articulate, so pixilated and pointillist in detail that other wines seem almost mute by comparison." While obviously strongly biased, it does give a flavor of the passion with which this book is written.

A wonderful read or gift this holiday season. Enjoy!

&ubll; Find the book: Reading between the Wines by Terry Theise. Published by (University of California Press September 2010). $16.47 from Amazon.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She hold the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

Related: Heard it Through the Grapevine by Matt Skinner

(Images: Mary Gorman)

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