twitter facebook instagram
  • May 9, 2017
  • What Riesling Has Done for Me

  • by Gabriel Clary

Riesling Fellowship at The Beekman hotel in NYC on April 18, 2017. (Photo by Ben Hider.)

I had the privilege of attending a dinner last week to honor “Three Visionaries in German Wine”Terry Theise, David Schildknecht, and Rudi Wiest. They were recognized by Wines of Germany for their “outstanding contributions to German Riesling” and named the Riesling Fellows 2017, joining the ranks of twenty other wine professionals, like Jancis Robinson, Paul Grieco, and Hugh Johnson.

Each one of the honorees gave a short speech. They were all excellent, but I’d like to draw special attention to the words that Terry shared with us, as well as some of the very poignant things that David said about the nature of what makes German Riesling so complicated.

Selling German wine can feel like a Sisyphean task—just explaining the intricacies and variables can be exhausting. Where do you start? There is so much inherent complexity that the pure deliciousness of the wines can get lost in trying to separate where the wines fit in our own minds. But simplification at the expense of individuality and expression of place isn’t preferable. David Schildknecht says:

It really is the stylistic diversity and the diverse talents of Riesling that are both one of its principle glories and also one of the things that drive us all crazy. Riesling is not a single thing that you can point to. If we want to talk about the virtues of Riesling, we automatically have to make things a little bit complicated. We have to talk about virtues that transcend the easy things to talk about, which is the style of the wine—if it is sweet or not and what the body in terms of alcohol is. We are not going to get over the diversity of Riesling. We have to continue to talk to people about the fact that German wine is not one single thing, it is many things. The commonality with the other great wine-producing areas are the great vineyards and the great producers, the dedication that these growers bring to their wines.

We have to accept and even embrace the fact that German wine is both complicated and delicious. If we can accept that the complications might be the cost we pay for the diversity in the wines themselves, it’s not a high price.

Below are Terry’s full remarks. It was, in my mind, a brilliant speech, but Terry said that these statements were “unpolished” and off the cuff.

Terry Theise: Hi, guys. I will be brief. One of the 19th-century Russian novelists once wrote that if you want to shut a man up, give him an award. So I will be brief.

When I actually started doing this in earnest, in 1986, the German wine market was dormant, let’s say. Part of the reason that I felt that way was because German wine wasn’t being sold and marketed properly. So, I set about modeling myself after Kermit Lynch and Robert Chadderdon and people whom I admired. And I thought, naively probably, that if only we could buy and sell German wine that way, we’d make everything better. In a couple of small ways I was right and in a number of large ways I was wrong, but really good things happened along the way.

One of them was that after a few years of beating my head against the wall, starting to see the lay of the land, I started to see who my competitors were. And in so doing, I realized that I had not actually broken the mold, the mold had already been broken by a gentleman who is sitting here at this table and who, in his own way, enacted a profound revolution in the way that German wine was bought and sold. Without deliberately standing on top of Rudi Wiest’s shoulders, in effect, I was thus doing. You know, we don’t really know each other, and yet we’ve competed against each other for 32 years now. The sum total of our contact was one sort of clandestine meeting at Rex Wine & Spirits in Washington, D.C., and one telephone call where we essentially just pissed and moaned at each other about how difficult it all was.

But, looking back on it, I realize that 32 years competing against another strong alpha, selling a difficult category of wine in a relatively indifferent market could easily appear to be a kind of zero-sum game. In order for me to win, he must lose, and vice versa. But, in fact, Rudi Wiest and I have competed against each other for 32 years quite civilly and even cordially. And I would say, that if you want to look at an example of a paradigm of honorable and mutually respectful competition, his relationship with me is that example. It takes two to tango and I want to pay tribute to not only all of the magnificent work that Rudi has done all these years but also to his being a gentleman. We’ve competed so beautifully with each other and against each other and that means a great deal to me. So thank you, very much. I also found out tonight that he and Erna have been married for 52 years. Dude, that takes some doing.

You know, I didn’t want to turn this into an Oscar acceptance speech where I’m trying to remember to thank everyone. First of all, there are way too many people for me to thank and I couldn’t compress the number into the small amount of time that I’ve given myself here. But I also want to pay tribute to David in a way that might surprise some of you. David’s work speaks quite eloquently for itself. Far be it from me, or any of the millions of David’s intellectual inferiors to point out the genius of his synoptic mind and the passion with which he has extolled the virtues of Riesling for many years, but what I want most to say about David is that you understand, in an unusual way, friendship. You’re a true and loyal and good friend. David is true-blue. It has been an honor and a joy and privilege to be your friend, lo these many years. So, thanks also for that.

One of my angels is here tonight. I am so touched that Howard Goldberg was able to get down here to witness this event. Even my rococo vocabulary is inadequate to convey the nature and depth of my affection for Howard. Howard was the first person to write about me. It was a piece that was published in The New York Times in the summer of 1987. I have it mounted so that the paper won't fray and it’s sitting on a table in my office. Partly it’s kind of cool to see it there. I mean, you can affect indifference to these kinds of things, like “yeah, I was in The New York Times,” but you know, that’s an affectation. Just like tonight, it’s an affectation. I’m like, touched beyond words about this, but I’m trying to be cool. The other reason I have that picture up in my office is because I had hair in those days. It’s three-dimensional evidence. “Shi..God. I used to look like that!”

Drawing to a close, I’m thinking of a winery, and excuse me, but this is not a German winery. There is a winery in the Wachau, in Austria, named Joseph Jamek, with whom I used to work. When you go to taste at Jamek, you taste everything else first. You begin by tasting Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, I think they still make, Gelber Muskateller, Grüner Veltliner, Rosé, etc. etc. And then the Rieslings come out last. On the last occasion that I visited there, the Riesling was placed on the table and lifted it to my nose and evidently, without volition, I let out this enormous happy sigh. The producer was right behind me and put his hand on my shoulder and said something I will never forget. He said “Yes, Terry, I understand completely. Sometimes I think that every mouthful of wine that is not Riesling is wasted.”

In some respects, it’s a little embarrassing to receive any sort of recognition for what I supposedly have done on behalf of Riesling. And the reason I say that is not false modesty; I have plenty to be modest about. When I think about what I may or may not have done for Riesling, it pales in comparison to what Riesling has done for me. It’s impossible to imagine life without it. The particular form of beauty that Riesling occupies, not only emotionally and spiritual and not only sensual beauty, but intellectually beauty is something that if I consider my life without it, it would have been a life of poverty. So whatever I’ve done for Riesling, is the tiniest fraction of what Riesling has done for me and continues to do for me.

Thank you so much.

Photo by Ben Hider / Courtesy RF Binder.

Terry Theise has loved German Riesling since first tasting it 38 years ago and has been buying and selling the wines for 31 years. He is the author of Reading between the Wines (University of California Press, 2010).

Gabe Clary has worked in restaurants and in retail shops on both coasts before joining Skurnik Wines and then Terry Theise Estate Selections in early 2011. His love of wine and fascination with Riesling is unquenchable.

  • John Trombley says:

    It’s very good to read about Terry and David, whom I have had the honor to have known for years, and whose work has been seminal in supporting my own love of Riesling, starting with that first ‘Wake-up’ call from one of Riesling’s former competitors, a half-dozen year old 1976 Felix Anheuser Kreuznacher Vogelsang Optima Beerenauslese, which at that stage of age and ripeness (and, I’ve come to understand, in such a place and such a vintage) gives a pretty fair imitation of one of Riesling’s complex manifestations.

    As I went on, I was later introduced to wines that Terry and Rudi brought in (I think David was selling, brrrr, RED wines at the time). Not all of their efforts primarily pleased me, but they all challenged me to be open to an experience of German wines that had better grow stylistically, geographically, and intellectually.

    Then came that Gumpoldskirchner Gruner Veltliner Spätlese (from another source) drunk at about 10 years old. It really was subtle, powerful, rich. But where was the overall impression of sweet harmony coming from? It would take much more thinking and drinking to tease out an answer. I drank every bottle of it available on the shelf where I found it in order to unsuccessfully pursue it. Thus the discovery for me of the beginnings of the suggestion for me of Austria as having its great place in the sun as a source of its own inimitable expressions of Rieslings and Riesling-family wines, now much better defined than then in the marketplace. I even along the way drank a truly forgettable half-bottle of Austrian wine which became memorable when I found it on a list of those adulterated with ethylene glycol-like substances, and watched with dismay as Austrian wines in the early 1980s become completely locked out of the US market. And now I rejoice to see the results of so much blood, sweat, and tears bring me the likes of Terry’s Nikolaihof client’s wines.

    These three gentlemen, whether they are aware or not, are travelers with me and those like me on the pilgrimage that Riesling evidences in certain lives, a rich and deep one.

  • Andrew Bair says:

    Hi Gabriel,

    Thank you for the article and the transcript/summary of Terry’s speech. As always, Terry is a master of words – even when I don’t necessarily like a wine or a producer as much as he does (I’ve never “gotten” Alex Gysler’s wines), they are a must read for me. I have always enjoyed reading his tasting notes, articles, etc., which are in a class by themselves. Terry, Rudi, and David have all been incredible advocates for German wine, and it’s hard to imagine what the German wine scene in the United States would look like without these three men.

    On a completely different note, I have never had anything from Felix Anheuser (Paul Anheuser yes; Felix no), and Optima has yet to make my life list of grapes tried. That being said, some of these inferior grapes are capable of making wine that are quite enjoyable in their own right, even if they never hit the same notes as great Riesling will. Earlier this year, I opened a bottle of a 1971 Niersteiner Klostergarten Morio-Muskat Auslese from the defunct Eugen Wirth. As many of you know, Morio-Muskat is hardly considered one of the more successful German crossings, but this wine was nicely balanced and quite compelling. Its goes to show that there are always exceptions – maybe there’s still an exciting bottle of Optima out there. (Wirth’s 1971 Niersteiner Hipping-Rehbach Riesling BA was also impressive.)

  • Leave a Reply