Soul-Searching German Riesling with Terry Theise, Author of What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking



Are you curious about the soul-searching nature of German Riesling? Why is Riesling the best wine for tasters to train themselves to improve their skills? Why shouldn’t you approach a new glass of wine with anticipation?

In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m chatting with Terry Theise, a much-respected expert on and importer of boutique wines from Germany, Austria, and Champagne.

You can find the wines we discussed here.


Join me on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube Live Video

Join the live-stream video of this conversation on Wednesday at 7 pm eastern on Instagram Live Video, Facebook Live Video or YouTube Live Video.

I’ll be jumping into the comments as we watch it together so that I can answer your questions in real-time.

I want to hear from you! What’s your opinion of what we’re discussing? What takeaways or tips do you love most from this chat? What questions do you have that we didn’t answer?

Want to know when we go live?

Add this to your calendar:





Three of you are going to win a personally signed copy of Terry Theise’s terrific book, Reading Between the Vines.


How to Win

To qualify, all you have to do is email me at [email protected] and tell me that you’d like to win a copy. I’ll choose three people randomly from those who contact me.

Good luck!



  • Why is it important to find a passion outside of your work?
  • What are some of Terry’s most memorable moments from his childhood years in India?
  • When did Terry rediscover his passion for beautiful writing?
  • What is the relationship between wine and language?
  • How did Riesling become Terry’s North Star?
  • Why is Riesling the best way for an amateur wine taster to train themself?
  • How does Terry differentiate between petrichor and minerality?
  • What does it mean to “arrive at the rim of wine without expectations”?
  • How does the dynamic interaction between taster and wine enhance the experience?
  • Why does Terry say that wine keeps him humble?
  • What kind of mistakes are often made in wine tasting?
  • What are some of the tricks of the trade for guessing how long a wine will last?


Key Takeaways

  • Terry’s passion for German Riesling reignites my own: it is both under-valued and sublime
  • He makes some excellent points on why Riesling is the best wine for tasters to train themselves to improve their skills.
  • He makes a wise point that those of us who are passionate about our work need to have other things for which we have an equal passion to maintain balance.
  • I like his mindset when approaching a new glass of wine without anticipation or expectations to allow room for surprise and delight. If only we did that with people, too.


Start The Conversation: Click Below to Share These Wine Tips


About Terry Theise

Terry Theise is a much respected expert on and importer of boutique wines from Germany, Austria, and Champagne. He has published two bestselling books—Reading Between the Wines and What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime. His articles have appeared in The World of Fine Wine and other magazines. Terry has also won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional, Wine & Spirits Man of the Year Award and Food and Wine magazine’s Importer of the Year Award.




Tag Me on Social

Tag me on social media if you enjoyed the episode:


Thirsty for more?

  • Sign up for my free online wine video class where I’ll walk you through The 5 Wine & Food Pairing Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Dinner (and how to fix them forever!)
  • You’ll find my books here, including Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines and Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass.
  • The new audio edition of Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass is now available on, and other country-specific Amazon sites;, and other country-specific iTunes sites; and



Terry Theise (00:00):
Riesling trains you as a taster, tells you that the activity that you’re engaged in is a deliberate parsing of the flavours of the wine that you’re tasting. You’re not passive. You’re not just being entertained by some big blockbuster. You’re engaging with a rather delicate being and you’re engaged in trying to understand it and figure out what it tastes like and interpret. It’s various channels of beauty.

Natalie MacLean (00:30):
It’s a lean in kind of wine. You have to pay attention. Yeah.

Terry Theise (00:34):

Natalie MacLean (00:42):
Do you have a thirst to learn about wine? Do you love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places and amusingly awkward social situations? Well, that’s the blend here on the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie MacLean. And each week I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please and let’s get started.

Welcome to episode 247. Are you curious about the soul searching nature of German Riesling? Why is Riesling the best wine for tasters to train themselves on in order to improve their skills? And why shouldn’t you approach a new glass of wine with anticipation? In today’s episode, you’ll hear those stories and tips that answer those questions and more in my chat with Terry Theise, author of two bestselling wine books.

In my new book, Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce Defamation and Drinking Too Much, I write that I thought that strength and independence meant holding it all in and not needing anyone. That made things worse. It was only when I opened up to friends, family, and a few other women in the industry that I felt the healing, restorative power of friendship. I thirsted for it like a dehydrated plant, finally receiving the life-giving water she needed. I realized that vulnerability is the only defence. Little Miss Perfect can’t control what others think of her, only what she tells them. So why not tell them lots without editing out the nasty bits? That’s how I connect with others now, not through perfection, but through sharing my own flaws, tendencies which they see in themselves. Do you find there’s a connection between vulnerability and strength?  Let me know.

Here’s a review from Nancy Hall in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “Like the other books I’ve read from Natalie, this book is not only well-written, but you feel as if you are on a journey with her as a woman. It made me feel both happy and angry. As an introvert, I find social media to be intimidating, so I applaud her for being able to work in that world, even while nearly becoming unhinged by the tirades of the online trolls. I applaud her for coming out on the other side, and I love the expression, you are stronger than you think. Natalie, you are much stronger than you think. It’s a fantastic read”. Thank you, Nancy.

If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear from you at [email protected]. If you haven’t got your copy yet and you’d like to support both it and this podcast, please order it from any online book retailer no matter where you live. Every little bit helps to spread this message. I’ll put a link in the show notes to all the retailers worldwide at Okay on with the show.

So before I introduce our guest, let me say that one of you is going to win a personally signed copy of his latest book, What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime. I love that title. All you have to do is email me at [email protected] and tell me you want to win a copy, and I will pick one of you randomly from those who get in touch all back to our guest.

Terry Theise is a much respected expert on an importer of boutique wines from Germany, Austria, and Champagne. He has published two bestselling books Reading Between the Wines and What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime. His articles have appeared in The World of Fine Wine and other magazines. Terry has also won the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional, the Wine and Spirits Man of the Year Award, and Food and Wine magazine’s Importer of the Year Award. And he joins us now from his home near Boston.

Welcome, Terry. I’m really looking forward to this, but before we dive into your wine career, tell us a bit about your childhood. Your father was the European director, I believe, of Voice of America. So why didn’t you get into radio or maybe even music?

Terry Theise (05:30):
I did get into music actually.

Natalie MacLean (05:33):
You did? Okay.

Terry Theise (05:33):
One of the things that I wanted to do practically from the time I was 13 years old was to be a rock star. And I played the guitar for about 40 years. I mean, the quick answer to the question is pursuing a career in the music business meant doing a lot of things that I didn’t feel like doing, trying to rehearse in someone’s mother’s basement, humping heavy gear around, playing gigs in front of four people and not getting paid, and for that matter, also breathing in a lot of cigarette smoke. So I sort of looked at the lifestyle and just thought it’s not as pretty from the inside. I can continue to play the guitar for my own pleasure and amusement, which I did for a really long time, and that actually leads me to a point that has been important in my life.

I think that those of us who are passionate about our work, and I’m sure you are as well, need to have things outside of what we do for a living for which we have an equal passion. Some sort of equal and opposite passion that has nothing to do with what we do to earn money. And so for me, for all these years playing the guitar was that passion and I just loved it. I mean it was like another limb. I can remember once walking around my apartment looking for the guitar only to discover after a few minutes that it was already around my neck.

Natalie MacLean (06:57):
Wow. I love that.

Terry Theise (06:59):
My dad was mostly a bureaucrat but partly a broadcaster. And when I was an undergraduate, the year and a half that I was an undergraduate, I did a shift at the college radio station. One of the things I wanted to do in my feckless youth was to be a disc jockey. But again I mean one has one’s youthful dreams. All of these things, by the way, kind of swam around in what I took to be my mind until I was in my mid twenties, and that’s when wine kind of came along and rescued me.

Natalie MacLean (07:31):
Okay. Well, before we get to that, I want to hear a little bit more about your childhood because you moved around a lot because of your father’s position. You were in New Delhi, and I know you’ve spoken about this previously, but for our listeners, tell us about some of the more memorable moments there.

Terry Theise (07:48):
Well, I was there from the age of six and a half to the age of eight and a half. So it was a really wonderful time in a little boy’s life and there could have been no more wonderful place to spend it. We didn’t have TV. We didn’t have any of the distractions that a first world child would have, and so I had to learn how to amuse myself. So I did a lot of playing and a lot of imagination sorts of things. And we were told when we arrived that we needed to employ a number of people to take care of the household. And I remember that my father particularly balked at this. He didn’t like the idea of having a retinue of servants, but he was told appropriately that it was both culturally and economically necessary. It gave work to a number of people who otherwise wouldn’t have it. So we had a nanny and we had a gardener and we had a cook, and we had a cleaner, and we had a tailor who came around a few times a week operating a manual sewing machine with his toes and making clothes for the family. And we had a barber who came around every couple of weeks to cut our hair.

Natalie MacLean (09:02):
What a charmed life.

Terry Theise (09:03):
It was a lovely life, and I learned how to play cricket and actually got really good at it, which was bizarre. But I can tell you one small anecdote that I think kind of encapsulates the kind of life I lived in India. We had a very small lawn in front of our very small house, and in a corner of this lawn was a papaya tree. And during the few weeks that the papayas were ripe, the gardener would scramble up the tree and I would stand underneath it and he would toss the papayas down to my outstretched hands. And at one point or another, I remember my mom asking him well why don’t you just carry the papayas down and give them to him? And he said, as if it were self-evident, oh he likes to catch them. And that’s India. One of the things that I love about that culture is Indian people seem to have been born with an exquisite knowledge of how to be with kids.

They seem to see right into your soul. I mean, as a little boy in a strange culture, I thought that this was absolutely wonderful. I mean, I just loved so many of the people that I came to know over there. I loved our nanny. I loved our cook even though he was an appallingly bad cook. I had a teacher in the international school that I went to, third grade teacher whom I adored and who discovered my interest in religious mythology, Greek mythology, Roman mythology, and of course is very rich Hindu mythology as well. And when she learned how fascinated I was about that, she actually kept me after school to give me one-on-one lessons in all of these myths. Which again, I mean, I just look back on it and I just think as we think all the time about our lives, if only I had known then how golden it was and how fortunate I was, but you live it.

And these days I look back on it and I think it’s this kind of glowing little jewel in my past. And Natalie, I don’t know whether I actually remember it, it’s so long ago. Sometimes you remember a kind of film that you have made of it that you’ve played over and over in your mind, and you don’t know if you’re remembering the thing or if you’re remembering the film you made of it. And they call that cinematic memory. There’s actually a phrase for it. But at any rate, it was really good. I think it continues to nourish me to this day. Living abroad a lot meant that when we came back to the US, I was always both the new kid and also the strange kid.

Natalie MacLean (11:37):
Right, so you were always the outsider.

Terry Theise (11:38):
Exactly. I was both the outsider and I was also the possessor of privileged information that I knew more about the world than these provincial kids to whom I returned and who thought I was weird.

Natalie MacLean (11:52):
So you could be a bit smug as well, even though you’re being rejected by other children.

Terry Theise (11:59):
Smug, me?

Natalie MacLean (12:01):
No, never.

Terry Theise (12:02):
This kind of patterning of being an outsider turned out to replicate itself when I began selling enormously unpopular categories of wine.

Natalie MacLean (12:13):
Yeah, that’s true. And also I think it serves you well in your writing. You always have that extra sensory perception of the outsider, which has translated well for you in your books, I must say.

Terry Theise

Thank you.

Natalie MacLean

Okay, so yes, absolutely. Your father gave you one book that had a big impact on your life. What book was that?

Terry Theise (12:31):
The thing that I remember in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I spent four weeks at a music camp that was only 17 miles away from Woodstock. And my dad gave me a copy of the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. And I wasn’t much of a reader at that point. I mean, not that many adolescents really are, although I hung out with a lot of people who were readers because the nerds were the only ones that accepted me.

But I read that book with the perception of a 16 year old, which is to say very little perception at all, but it made an enormous impression on me first. I think that in some odd way, some osmosis, I was able to recognize that this was actually beautiful writing and that language could be used to create beauty. And there was a lot of drama in those stories, especially the early ones. So that sort of appealed to me. When I was a little kid, I used to love to read. And then as a middle schooler, I got away from it. At that point in my high school adolescent life, I hadn’t really returned to it. This book reminded me that reading was something I liked to do. So that was kind of life changing.

Natalie MacLean (13:44):
Yeah, absolutely. And you have such a passion. We’re going to get into the wine in a minute, but you have such a passion for both wine and words. Do you hold them in equal esteem or do you think one gets edges out the other? If you had to choose between these two children, wine and words or language, who would you save first in a burning house?

Terry Theise (14:03):
Oh God. Terrible question. It’s kind of a sequence. I don’t really know that you can say that one prevails over the other. Let’s say that the wine comes first and then the words need to be summoned in order to apprehend the wine. Even if you’re not describing it to another person or writing notes for yourself while you’re tasting. The impressions that you register tasting are registered in language.

Natalie MacLean


Terry Theise

So you’d have to say in that case that the wine comes first and the language comes second. So the language would perhaps be the thing that lingers. But you probably know this too, Natalie, the longer we go about this thing, this tasting wine thing, drinking wine thing, the more we’re able actually in the moment of tasting to banish language. And sometimes we’ll taste the wine and you know immediately what that wine’s story is. You get it. You rock it. You have its gestalt, you have its details, you have it all, and you don’t actually need to put it into words. In fact, stopping to put it into words seems like a pain in the neck.

Natalie MacLean (15:06):
Or a diminishment of the wine itself, or the experience I should say.

Terry Theise (15:10):
Yeah, exactly. Because you have this incredible visceral moment of connection between this sensory input and you registering this sensory input, you realize that you were born to be together. The wine is potential energy. It’s inert until it reaches the taster. The taster brings the wine to life, but wine also brings the taster to life. And so you have this fabulous charge of energy that’s passing between these two things. And yes, you’re right language is hugely important to me on a number of levels. I remember something Dylan Thomas said when he was a child. He said he loved the sound of words even when he didn’t know what they meant. He just loved the way they sounded. And when I first read that, I thought, wow I thought I was the only one. And to this day, there’s still some words that appear on the printed page and I just think they’re beautiful. I just look at them and I think they’re lovely regardless of what they mean.

Natalie MacLean (16:06):
Does one come to mind?

Terry Theise (16:08):

Natalie MacLean (16:09):

Terry Theise (16:11):
There’s one.

Natalie MacLean (16:11):
Almost onomatopoeia, like it’s just evanescent.

Terry Theise


Natalie MacLean

Yeah. Love that.

Terry Theise (16:16):
This kind of breath that you use to say that word is a lovely cleansing breath. Evanescent.

Natalie MacLean (16:23):
Wow. Yeah. I love it. Love it.

Terry Theise (16:26):
Alright, we’re off and running.

Natalie MacLean (16:28):
Yes. Alright, so then getting into the wine more specifically, how did Germany and more specifically Riesling become your north star, as you say?

Terry Theise (16:38):
Well, I was living in Germany at the time. I dropped out of college. My then girlfriend and I intended to just do the hippie thing. We were going to go to Europe and we’ll backpack and yada yada. And we ended up in Munich because of course I had lived there as a middle schooler in my dad’s family, and I wanted to go back. I still had family friends there, one of whom told me that if and when we ran out of money that the local army base actually had jobs for American civilians. You didn’t have to be active duty. So I thought, well we’ll never do that. But lo and behold, we did. And so we ended up staying in part because we were so poor that we were never financially far enough ahead to actually travel very much. And when we finally got to that point, it was like well, I don’t want to leave now. Now we’re finally at a place where we can see stuff.

Okay. So in the middle of that decade, around the age of 25, I got bitten by the wine bug. And we were in Germany at the time, and so it was the closest place that we could travel to explore and get into wine. In those days, German wine wasn’t uncool. German wine, as far as I could understand, was considered to be firmly established as among the classic wines of the world. So I didn’t know that I was exploring something that was kind of infra dig or uncool. As far as I knew, I was in the mainstream of what was regarded as classically great wines. So thankfully for me, because exploring Germany first was really great on a whole number of levels. First, the friendliness and hospitality of German vintners, which amazes me to this day.

Second, the way Riesling trains you as a taster, I mean as a formative taster. Riesling tells you that the business that you are engaged in. I don’t mean capital B business, I mean the activity that you’re engaged in is a deliberate parsing of the flavours of the wine that you’re tasting. You’re not passive. You’re not just kind of being entertained by some big blockbuster. You’re engaging with a rather delicate being and you’re engaged in trying to understand it and figure out what it tastes like and interpret its various channels of beauty. So in that respect, the best way I think for a fledgling wine taster to train him or herself is with Riesling or wines like Riesling that are delicate and that do engage together with you as opposed to, as I said, big wines that are kind of a passive entertainment and they just kind of push you down and say, well you just sit still and I’ll put on a show for you.

Natalie MacLean (19:25):
That’s right. It’s a lean in kind of wine.

Terry Theise


Natalie MacLean

You have to pay attention. Yes, absolutely. Did you have one of those aha wines that said, oh my gosh, I need to have more of this?

Terry Theise (19:36):
It was actually early on in the process. You actually charged, created the process one might say. We were drinking wine. We were buying plunk from the supermarket. And we would drink a couple bottles of wine over the weekend. And at one point I remember liking one of those bottles and going back to the store a couple of weeks later and it wasn’t there. So that told me when you like something hurry back and buy more of it. So that means in your home you have more bottles than you are going to drink that evening, hence it is the beginning of the building of a cellar.

Natalie MacLean


Terry Theise

Okay or a collection, call it what you will. One time at my local supermarket, I bought a bottle of something called Riesling. I had never had Riesling before. I’d heard about it sort of vaguely. And I thought this seems to be a thing, let’s taste it. And I remember the wine very well. It was a 1971… from this big giant Mosul co-op, which is the Riesling. The supermarket had it. And when I tasted it, I thought this I don’t understand at all. This is completely unlike anything that I’ve been drinking. I was drinking all these kind of fruity lead kind of wines. Suddenly I’ve got this wine that has this enormous volume of flavour with no fruit that I can discern. It’s all this other stuff. And I didn’t have words for it back then. Now you would call it petrichor or crushed rocks or even the M word mineral

Natalie MacLean (21:04):
Petrichor. Is that different for you from petrol?

Terry Theise (21:07):
Yeah, Petrichor is. It is a word. It’s not one of Terry’s made up words. It’s a smell that’s in the air when it begins to rain. And it…

Natalie MacLean (21:15):
Like a very wet stone?

Terry Theise (21:17):
But it’s a very distinct smell, especially when it hasn’t rained for a while and it begins raining. Just go outside and sniff. And it is a unique fragrance that you can’t experience it any other way, and it really is remarkable.

Natalie MacLean

Love it.

Terry Theise

Sometimes at the early onset of a thunderstorm, you’ll smell it also.

Natalie MacLean (21:35):
Like that charged air.

Terry Theise (21:36):
Exactly. So you get that kind that petrichor flavour will sometimes show up in, and it’s not related to petrol which is, as you know, it is a TDN. It is a terpene. That’s another whole geeky sort of thing. So this wine sort of sent me back to school. It was an unknown substance, and I was so curious about it. I just thought, I don’t understand this at all but it’s enormously intriguing and I need to discover more. So I set about just finding whatever Rieslings I could. And then I was lucky enough to find the Hugh Johnson Wine Atlas, the first edition of that, at my local US Army library amazingly enough. And that was what sent me off. That was when I realized, okay I need to get deeper into this. And in order to do that, I need to travel to wine regions. And the closest ones were locally. They were in Germany where I lived in Munich…

Natalie MacLean (22:29):
Right. Well that makes sense.

Terry Theise (22:30):
Four and a half hours from the…

Natalie MacLean (22:32):
That first aha wine that says, I don’t know what this is but I need to find more of it. But also then I need to put words to it so that it’s not just as you’ve said accidental. It’s deliberate in terms of finding it again, because you can identify it and describe it. Yeah, that’s very good. And you said Riesling is a great blessing and a small curse. I love that. What do you mean by that?

Terry Theise (22:55):
I think the great blessing of Riesling is, like I say first of all it’s inherent beauty and the way it trains you to be a taster. Not to mention the fact that because it is still a category that’s out of the mainstream. It is a buyer’s market for Riesling. And so Riesling is perennially undervalued per dollar spent. You get more back than you do with practically any other kind of wine. The small curse, I think, is that it spoils you for wines of lesser virtue, lesser complexity, lesser intrigue. And it can make you dismissive in some respects of wines that are really perfectly good, but they’re not Riesling. And it took me a long time to outgrow that. I needed to outgrow that but it was also part of outgrowing my own youthful pretensions and snobbery and all the rest of the stuff that we all outgrow one hopes. So that’s the small person reasoning. Riesling will spoil you.

Natalie MacLean (23:52):
Yeah, I like that. Well, it’ll ruin you for other things. Okay. And you once wrote that a wine, I don’t know if it was a German Riesling, tasted like clowns at a circus.

Terry Theise


Natalie MacLean

Which wine was that? I want some clowns in my mouth, I think. Maybe not. What did you mean by that?

Terry Theise (24:07):
I remember the wine. And the reason that I remember it is because David Skurnik actually referred to it in a piece that he wrote for World of Fine Wines about tasting language. The wine was from a grape variety called Scheurebe. And I believe it was a Cabernet and it was produced by an estate called Christian Ham Bernhard, whom I represented for a number of years. I didn’t say that it tasted like clowns. I said that the image that it called to my mind was clowns doing their pratfalls because the wine was kind of giddy and ridiculous. And so it was one of those things where I was starting to write a tasting note, doing the usual thing of kind of spinning out all the associations and the associative language. And I stopped for a moment and I just thought I’m really wasting this wine. This wine is just a three-ring circus of ridiculousness. And so I just wrote the image that occurred to me and the image was, when you taste this wine you can see all the clowns doing their stunts and their pratfalls and all the rest of it. And I just left it in the note because I thought that’s a truer way to depict this wine than to do the usual it tastes like crank fruit and cassis and sage and blah, blah, blah.

Natalie MacLean (25:16):
How did people react? Did you get any reaction from that tasting note?

Terry Theise (25:20):
Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I published so many tasting notes, Natalie, in my catalogues over the years. Honestly, the only reactions that I can recall getting from my tasting notes is when they were either salacious or had a lot of swear words in them. Otherwise, my poetic tasting notes really nobody said all that much to me about them, probably because they thought I was ridiculous, but maybe because they were shy to talk to me about them.

Natalie MacLean (25:46):
Sure, sure. Absolutely. And how you say you try to arrive at the rim of the glass without expectations. How do you manage to do that?

Terry Theise (25:55):
It really is difficult. Some of it has to do with simple repetition. Eventually when you’ve done it for enough years, you’re sort of on a form of autopilot. Done it a lot. You know how it works. So some of the kind of preliminary thoughts that you would bring to a glass of wine when you were less experienced, you don’t need them anymore. You can really come sort of tabula rasa. You can come neutral. I think it’s a really lovely state to be in because it enables you to simply receive the wine without having judged it in advance or even anticipated it in advance. Sometimes anticipation can be really good, and other times it’s best if you banish it. Because if you’re approaching a wine in a state of anticipation, you’ve sort of precluded the possibility of being surprised unless the wine confounds your anticipation.

Natalie MacLean


Terry Theise

But if you approach it without anticipation, then you’re going to be nothing but surprised. But it’s hard to do. And when you start talking about how to do it, you start sounding like a zen master. And I’m not a zen master and don’t wish to sound like one although sometimes I can’t help myself. But in my second book, I do a kind of a dual chapters where in one chapter, it’s sort of like a Finnegan’s Wake chapter. I describe the entire arc of a day that brings the taster to the glass of wine that he’s going to drink that evening.

Natalie MacLean


Terry Theise

So everything that led up to it. So the entire human context that leads up to the first sip of that evening’s wine. And in the second chapter, I try to banish that completely and just say, what is the wine outside of that human context? What is it in and of itself? If this is even something that can be gleaned, and I’m not all that certain that it can. But in my work now that I’m doing for the website, now that I can taste at home in circumstances that I control and most important a tempo that I control and have all the time in the world to write and dream and pace the kitchen.

And that has really unlocked something I didn’t even realize was imprisoned until it was unlocked. And it ends up demonstrating an enormously dynamic interaction, really a charged interaction between the taster and the wine which exists when you give it space and time to exist. And I’ve been finding –  I’m tasting generally pretty good wines because I’m tasting what my erstwhile growers send me –  but even when I taste something that’s kind of mundane, I’m still fascinated by the nature of the interchange and also the language that arises from it. And one of the other things that I found is really interesting is that the language that arises from it is less flowery than any language that I ever used before. It’s really visceral. It’s really direct. It’s really matter of fact. It’s got fewer adjectives and more verbs one might say.

Natalie MacLean (28:59):
Well, that makes for better writing too.

Terry Theise (29:01):
See, it’s really dangerous to ask me a question because the next thing you know I’m like eleven paragraphs on.

Natalie MacLean (29:07):
But they are nicely formed paragraphs, though. Good punctuation. No dangling thoughts, participles.

Terry Theise (29:14):
This is the only thing that dangles often mean.

Natalie MacLean (29:17):
So cool. No wonder you said Riesling German Riesling attracts philosophers or philosopher wannabes. So I guess aside from the fact wine is so vast, is there anything else about it that keeps you humble? You’ve said this wine keeps you humble. In what regard?

Terry Theise (29:34):
Well first of all, the mistakes you make.

Natalie MacLean

OK, Right.

Terry Theise

And if you’re not making frequent mistakes engaged with wine, then you’re not paying attention at all.

Natalie MacLean (29:42):
What was the biggest mistake you’ve made?

Terry Theise (29:43):
Well, I made mistakes as a merchant and as a selector. Occasionally, I would make a mistake by not noticing a certain flaw. And I think each of our palates is oversensitive to some flaws, normally sensitive to others, and insensitive to a few. And I was relatively insensitive to volatile acidity, partly because you really didn’t see VA very often in Rieslings, those kinds of wines. But when I started adding more red wines to my portfolio, I found I was overlooking a lot of reds that had levels of VA that were disturbing to some of my tasting companions.

Natalie MacLean (30:24):
And what does that smell like to you, volatile acidity? I know you’re not sensitive to it, or you say it or not.

Terry Theise (30:30):
Well, vinegar.

Natalie MacLean (30:30):
How do you look for it? Vinegar. OK. All right.

Terry Theise (30:34):
It’s the scent that the glass of wine, you have had a few drops of vinegar added to it. The mistakes that I made mostly, which I learned to stop making, were predicting how a wine would develop. And I’ve come to believe that that’s really a fool’s errand. We can understand certain things about how a wine will develop and there are tricks of that trade. But figuring out the arc of development of any given wine, let alone a whole vintage, let alone how long it will last, how many years it will live, and what chapters it will pass through as it’s developing, man, you just don’t know. You just don’t know. And honestly, it’s a coin toss trying to figure it out. And when I found myself just making error after error after error in those prognostications. I said well something here is just kicking my butt and is trying to teach me a lesson that I’m stubbornly unwilling to learn. So I finally got to the point where you can’t do it. You can’t do it.

Natalie MacLean (31:34):
So do you no longer put drink by dates or maturity dates in your notes?

Terry Theise (31:38):
No, I stopped doing that after a while. People would ask, they’d say well how long should I keep it? And I would say, I have honestly no idea. You should keep it until you can’t resist drinking it. It’s always better to catch a wine on the way up than to catch it on the way down.

Natalie MacLean (31:52):
That is true. It’s such a sad state when you discover something that would’ve been great and you’ve opened it too late.

Terry Theise (32:00):
I know. It’s so sad.

Natalie MacLean (32:00):
That is heartbreaking.

Terry Theise (32:01):
But it’s funny. It is heartbreaking but in a weird way. If it’s your last bottle and you are opening it with your heart already broken because it’s your last bottle. If the bottle is too old in a weird way, it almost like it’s like oh now my heart isn’t so broken anymore because the wine’s no good anymore.

Natalie MacLean (32:22):
I guess in a roundabout way.

Terry Theise (32:25):
It’s paradoxical.

Natalie MacLean (32:26):
But what are the tricks of the trade for guessing how long a wine will last? I mean, if it’s, I guess quote unquote well-made or has all those preservatives like tannin, alcohol, sugar, acidity. I mean, are there any other tips you would give for me?

Terry Theise (32:42):
One is, this is going to sound kind of geeky, but one is the development of the tertiary finish in a wine. There isn’t just one aftertaste. There’s the first little shimmer of aftertaste that lasts maybe 10 seconds or 12 seconds on your palate, and that can sometimes lead seamlessly into a tertiary aftertaste, which is more the kind of lingering flavour of the umami of the wine. Sometimes that…

Natalie MacLean (33:06):

Terry Theise (33:06):
… finish will actually disappear and you’ll think well this wine was kind of short. But then a few seconds later, this other finish arrives and you think, oh it’s not so short. After all, there was just a pause in the progression of its aftertaste.

Natalie MacLean (33:22):
And by aftertaste, are you referring to specific aromas like your violets or your whatever?

Terry Theise (33:27):
The tertiary finish, like I say, it’s kind of the umami of the wine. It’s the things that are the hardest probably to find words for. But if you pay attention to it, if it lingers cleanly, if it remains clean and stable for the 20 or 30 or 40 seconds it takes to finally fade, then you’ve probably got a wine that’s got a good developmental arc in front of it. If on the other hand, it becomes decadent in any way, if it starts to taste oxidized or if it starts to taste volatile, then you’ve got a wine that doesn’t have a lot of life in front of it and one that you should probably drink sooner rather than later.

Another way of looking at that is the empty glass. Although you have finished the glass, set it down, let up 30 seconds go by, pick it up and sniff it. Now, what’s happening in the empty glass? Again, if there’s oxidation, if there’s an acidification, i.e. volatile acidity, then you have an unstable wine that probably doesn’t have a lot of life ahead of it. But if it’s clean, then you’re in good hands with that wine. And in some cases, and this is the thing that is most amazing, you’ll go back to that empty glass and there’s things in it that you couldn’t taste in the wine. Suddenly you have this miraculous whole new set of aromas and you just thought, whoa where did those come from?

Natalie MacLean (34:49):
I love that tip. Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to try that.

Terry Theise (34:53):
And it works with every wine. It works with anything.

Natalie MacLean (34:56):
Wow. So why didn’t you become a winemaker then or even a sommelier?

Terry Theise (35:00):
Too much work. I mean, honestly, thats the truth of the matter. Obviously as a merchant, I was interested in winemaking, and I learned a lot about it from talking with vintners all the time. But I kind of looked at it and I thought this is pretty sweaty difficult work. I’ll just take care of the aesthetics. Thank you very much. It’s funny I never had that ambition. Obviously, many of my colleagues in the business did and do. Some were really hands-on. I mean, Robert Catcher, for example, is kind of famous for being almost like a shadow vigneron to the producers that he represented. But I just didn’t have that goal. I liked observing from a position that one could call maybe critical remove.

Natalie MacLean (35:45):
And yet you said there was a lot of slogging around of equipment when it came to the musician. Surely there’s a lot of slogging when it comes to cases of wine as well.

Terry Theise (35:53):
Oh yeah. Cases of wine, that was yeah it was all part of it. Back in my very early days, when I didn’t have any help, and containers would arrive and I would go out into the warehouse and get dirty, helping the guys in the warehouse unload the container, and I actually really loved that work. It was great exercise. You got all those really good exercise endorphins would be released. I loved the comradery working with the guys, the jokes that would go around back and forth and the teasing and all that stuff. And the other thing was that I was enormously excited to see my babies. I would taste the wines over in Europe. I would remember how they tasted. I would sell them. Finally, the orders would begin to arrive low these many months later. And as soon as the door opened on the back of the container and I saw the boxes, I was like my babies, they’ve come home.

Natalie MacLean (36:49):
It sounds like you’re running an adoption agency or something [laughter].

Terry Theise (36:52):
Exactly. I just wanted to throw my arms around them.

Natalie MacLean

That’s great.

Terry Theise

Those days are gone by the way. When I have to carry cases of wine down to the cellar right now, it entails the consumption of a great deal of ibuprofen.

Natalie MacLean (37:03):
Oh, yeah, I hear you. I have a ready supply of that. But you must also have slogging sherpas now working with you.

Terry Theise (37:10):
Oh, these days not obviously. I’m just a retired old geezer. So when I get wine at home, I have to take it to the cellar by myself.

Natalie MacLean (37:17):
Oh, I see. OK.

Natalie MacLean (37:23):
Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoy my chat with Terry. Here are my takeaways. Terry’s passion for German Riesling reignites, my own. It is both undervalued and sublime. Number two, he makes some excellent points on why Riesling is the best wine for tasters to train themselves on in order to improve their tasting skills. Three, he makes a wise point that those of us who are really passionate about our work need to have other things for which we have an equal passion to maintain some sense of balance. And number four, I love his mindset when approaching a new glass of wine without anticipation or expectations to allow room for surprise and delight. Now, if only we did that with people too.

In the show notes, you’ll find a full transcript of my conversation with Terry, links to his website and books, the video versions of these conversations on Facebook and YouTube live, and where you can order my book online now, no matter where you live. That’s all in the show notes at Email me if you have a sip, tip, question or if you’ve read the book or are reading it at [email protected].

If you missed episode 201, go back and take a listen. I chat with Valerie Kathawala about why Riesling is a four octave diva. I’ll share a short clip with you now to whet your appetite.

Valerie Kathawala (38:56):
Riesling can do everything. People need to stop talking about it in a defeatist way and talk about it as the world’s great white wine.

Natalie MacLean (39:05):
You call it a four octave diva. Are you referring to the stylistic range from bone dry to sweet, to all kinds of textural things and weights?

Valerie Kathawala (39:16):
Right, depending on where it’s grown, how it’s grown, it can be everything. It can be something dancing and lazy and sparkling. It can be something anxious and serious that needs 30 years of age. Even make an orange wine out of it. And you can play with its tannins in various directions. So I’m a big believer it would definitely be my desert island wine.

Natalie MacLean (39:43):
If you liked this episode, please email or tell one friend about it this week, especially someone who’d be interested in the wines, tips, and stories we shared. You won’t want to miss next week when we continue our chat with Terry. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your glass this week, perhaps a soul searching for octave sling. You don’t want to miss one juicy episode of this podcast, especially the secret full bodied bonus episodes that I don’t announce on social media. So subscribe for free now at Meet me here next week. Cheers.