Book review: Reading Between the Wines

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Terry Theise

189 pp

University of California Press

£16.95

Terry Theise, a highly respected US importer of wines from Germany, Austria and Champagne, is very much his own man. Reading Between the Wines is an eccentric mix of earnest, homespun philosophy and well-informed opinions – what the author calls “less a strict cerebral argument and more a piece of lifelong incantation.” It is surely the first ever book on wine to acknowledge Rod Stewart as one of its influences.

For somebody who at first glance represents the apotheosis of the wine geek, Theise is surprisingly contemptuous of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, confessing that “I made quite an ass of myself strutting with my sexy-pants wine knowledge, and I wasted far too much time arguing with other wine geeks to prove my alpha cred.”

He quotes Gore Vidal’s answer to the question why academic quarrels were so fierce: because the stakes were so low. This might equally apply to “quarrels” in the wine world. Thiese’s stance on several issues is far from obvious. For example, he doesn’t drink the big, high-alcohol red wines of Priorat “but I respect Priorat for its authenticity… I’m glad it exists.” Some wine writers imply that if they don’t like or drink a certain style of wine then it shouldn’t exist at all. Unlike so many of his wine trade colleagues, Theise is broadminded and munificent.

The 100-point scoring system, as pioneered by the ubiquitous and hugely influential US wine critic Robert Parker, is an obvious and easy target for Thiese’s satire. To make his point (so to speak), he scores books out of 100 and awards “Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at least a 94.”

For a British reader Reading Between the Wines is sometimes too obviously the work of an American, with dropped personal pronouns, shouting italics and words like “scritch”, “nah” and “glom” (used here as a noun rather than verb) – though it is unexpected that an American wine importer could use the term “sticky wicket” (in reference to the issue of soil treatments in vineyards).

Thiese occasionally descends into self-parody, for example describing the smell of a 1969 Beaune Bressandes as, “If truffles had orgasms, they might emit this fragrance”. Five pages before this he does a wicked parody of a bombastic Robert Parker / Wine Spectator tasting note.

Perhaps there’s too much on ex- and current wives, late fathers and adaptive and actual parents. Theise’s writings on these are touching but, with all due respect, not particularly relevant to wine.

The author describes himself as “earnest and clueless” when he was a High School English student. This talented and thoughtful man is still earnest – but he certainly isn’t clueless.

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One Response to Book review: Reading Between the Wines

  1. Monika says:

    Having Terry Thiese as a mentor early on in my wine career I was always surprised how easily I understood his “wine talk”.

    Then moving from NYC to Germany, Terry helped me find my way around the German wine world. Reading his book helped me understand the person I once knew.

    PS Stuart only you would pick up on the “sticky wicket” – ok a cricket term – but what does it mean? 😉

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