This is the second article of a two-part series on importers who made essential contributions to the American wine industry. The first featured interviews with Kermit Lynch and Martine Saunier. This piece explores the stories and impact of Neal Rosenthal, Rudi Wiest, and Terry Theise.
Neal Rosenthal throws open the door to his upstate New York farmhouse. Two red-tinted standard poodles spill out from either side of his legs and begin their inspection. I hold out my hands in greeting—one to Neal, one to the dogs. “You made it!” he exclaims, sounding as surprised as I feel.
I had just driven up from the city in inclement conditions and was shaken. What began as a charming dusting had evolved into a formidable snowstorm, and my flimsy rental car refused to make purchase, cutting a skittish path across the country roads. “Come on in and warm up,” he says.
Neal walks inside and relaxes into an armchair; the dogs settle to the floor to either side of him. The building we are in is but one part of a large farm that he has dubbed the Mad Rose Ranch. It functions both as headquarters for Rosenthal Wine Merchant and home of Neal and his wife, Kerry Madigan, the “mad” to his “rose.” We occupy the cozy, firelit corner of an open floorplan that links living room, kitchen, and dining room. Outside, beneath the thickening white, chicken coops, nut trees, and a large garden slumber. These are no mere affectations of a city kid turned gentleman farmer; come spring, all will be put to work. Enterprising even in his leisure, Neal sells Mad Rose honey and hazelnuts from the Rosenthal website.
Neal Rosenthal with his dogs (Photo credit: Devon Knight)
We chat about his entry into the business. “I’m a New York kid from the Upper East Side,” he begins. “My father ran a pharmacy in the Silk Stocking District, an elite and wealthy part of the city. It was one of those classic joints, with a luncheonette and a soda fountain. When someone needed a prescription, my father would mix it up himself.” Days at the pharmacy were long, and his father’s hours regularly ran from 6 am to midnight. Even with help, it was an exhausting schedule, and after a certain age, he simply couldn’t keep up. “At one point, my father got sick and converted the pharmacy into a liquor store, which had better hours. And because we were in a fancy neighborhood where people knew about these things, we had to carry a few nice wines.”
Meanwhile, Neal attempted a different path. He attended Columbia Law School, obtained a Masters in taxation from NYU, and was practicing at the highest levels of corporate law. He was also deeply unhappy. “And so I quit. In 1977, I just walked away.” He decided to reinvent himself as a writer and pen the next great American novel, but needed a source of income to sustain him. “Around this time, my parents were looking to retire, so I offered to buy the store from them and run it until I got established as a writer.”
Though he effectively grew up in the store, Neal had only a passing familiarity with wine. He remembered pondering the labels as a younger man, especially the exotic European ones, where the only clue to their contents was a foreign geographical reference. In a bid to learn more, he threw himself into the written material of the day. He became especially fond of Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine, which described the fine wines of the world in florid, emotional prose that was catnip to the aspiring writer. “But very quickly, I was once again unhappy. Wine seemed like it was supposed to be magical, but the quality of the wines I was tasting didn’t match up to the quality of the stories I was reading.” Neal had fallen in love with the idea of wine only to find the thing itself lacking. “I decided there must be poetic wine out there. And I went out chasing it.”
At this point, we move our conversation to the kitchen, where Neal starts fixing a light lunch. I lean against the refrigerator while he washes potatoes, tearing off pieces of home-baked bread and popping them into my mouth while he recounts his early adventures in wine. Though its edges have clearly been sanded by years of education and travel, Neal’s accent is unmistakable. We may have been discussing Umbria, but his softly nasal a’s and half-dropped r’s carry us southward, to the hot concrete and brunoised skyline of New York City, Neal’s very own appellation of origin.
The search for poetic wines led Neal first to Italy, by way of East Harlem. There, the Daniele brothers, a now-defunct importing outfit, kept a warehouse full of aged treasures. Neal quickly befriended the duo and would regularly stock his shelves with their selections. Through them, he learned the ecstasy of mature Nebbiolo (Spanna from the ‘50s, Ghemme from the ‘60s), and of old wine in general. “I’m disturbed now that wines get put on the market so fast and gobbled up so quickly. And winemaking has changed to adapt to this. Even for important wines, their capacity to age now is much less than it used to be, and I find that very unfortunate.”
Neal continues, “I also find it unfortunate that the young people coming into the trade don’t know the glories of drinking older wines.” To that point, releasing library vintages is something of a calling card of Rosenthal’s. But while that is certainly in keeping with Neal’s drinking preferences, it wasn’t purpose-built into his business plan. “We age wines, but often because we buy things and then can’t sell them. It can take a while to find the right community for particular wines,” he shrugs, “and then we have verticals!”
Italy was also the primary destination of Neal’s first overseas buying trip in January of 1980. At this point, the idea to import his own wine had not yet formed; he was on an approximation of today’s buyer’s junket, visiting producers from existing portfolios. In Tuscany and Piedmont, he toured with Nino Aita, a charismatic and nefarious importer of Italian wine; in Champagne, he visited with Billecart-Salmon, which was already being brought into the states by Robert Chadderdon; and in Burgundy, he spent the day with Becky Wasserman. In a similar spirit, he traveled across France with Kermit Lynch shortly thereafter. On many of these trips, he set off on some side explorations, meeting producers he would later import himself.
Neal brought in his first container of wine the following year. As the New York State Liquor Authority forbids a retailer from holding an import license, Neal put the necessary permits in Kerry Madigan’s name, whom he had just begun dating. “We were operating on the cusp of legality,” Neal recalls, with a clear rebellious pride. “In the early days, we would actually unload the containers directly onto Lexington Avenue.” Initially, he was importing just to supply his own store, but this quickly proved impractical. “The store was in a precarious position—we weren’t making any money. And restaurant people had begun to inquire after our wines. So we switched gears and created this whole new clientele.”
The first container of Rosenthal imports included wines from Lucien Crochet of Sancerre, Amiot and Chapuis from Burgundy, Château Hortevie from Saint-Julien, and a handful of others. Shortly thereafter, he added the Carema and De Forville estates in Piedmont, producers Neal picked up when Nino Aita’s criminal activities caught up with him. As with so many other importers, he grew his portfolio mainly via connections his producers made to their likeminded colleagues. Though occasionally, inspiration came from unlikely sources.
In the early days, one of Neal’s biggest private clients was the music agent Tommy Mottola. Mottola is perhaps unfairly remembered as Mariah Carey’s ex-husband, but he also managed such ‘80s hitmakers as Hall & Oates, Carly Simon, and Diana Ross. Through him, other members of the New York music industry got to know Neal’s store. “One day, Daryl Hall’s brother-in-law came into the shop. He said, ‘I just came back from Italy and I had the most amazing wine,’ and he gave me a bottle.” Neal stops to shake his head, “People were always saying that to me, and 99 out of 100 times, the wine would be terrible. But I fell head over heels for this one.” The wine in question was from Paolo Bea.
With no website to guide him, Neal set off to track down Bea. He managed to connect with his son, Giampiero, and they made an appointment to meet in a piazza in Montefalco during his next trip to Italy. But Neal had miscalculated the drive and showed up two hours late. “I got to the piazza and no one was there. I had neither cell phone nor address but didn’t want to go home empty-handed.” He walked into the nearby market and asked if anyone knew the Beas. Being both a smaller village and simpler time, the grocer knew the family well and called their home. When Neal got to the estate, he found a rustic and self-sustaining farm that matched the feral spirit of the wines, which had never really traveled beyond Montefalco. Neal convinced them to sell him some wine starting with the 1985 vintage. Over 30 years later, Bea remains a showpiece of the Rosenthal portfolio.
In the beginning, Neal struggled to find an audience for Bea’s “rowdy, wild wines.” He estimates that he and Kerry drank a significant percentage of them until demand quietly met, and then surpassed, supply. He remains unsure as to what caused this transition but has his theories. “I believe that, at a certain moment, too many wines out there were too modernized. They were too alike in their sameness. And it made the traditional wines stand out.”
The script for his foray into the Jura reads similarly. An early fan of his portfolio was Jean-Georges Vongerichten, “a rare chef that had a deep knowledge of wine.” The executive chef at Jean-Georges shortly after its opening, Didier Virot, was a wine enthusiast from Paris, particularly passionate about the wines of the Jura. On one of Neal’s trips to Europe, Virot armed him with a list of quality producers, which Neal took as marching orders. On that first visit, he met with Jacques Puffeney, whose wines would also become a staple of the Rosenthal book. “Everyone told me not to buy from the Jura; nobody wants them, they are too oxidized.” But Neal was smitten with the idiosyncratic wines and invested heavily, though it often took him three to four years to sell through a single vintage. Today, sommeliers clamor for these wines, and the portfolio has expanded to include seven different Jura producers.
But not all of Neal’s gambles paid off. Sometimes he was simply too far head of the curve. In 1992, with international sanctions freshly lifted and apartheid’s end imminent, Neal jumped a plane to South Africa. Thrilled by what he tasted, he cobbled together a container that featured a handful of producers including Warwick and Bouchard Finlayson. “We started showing these wines and people looked at us like we had three heads. They didn’t even want to talk to us!” Neal eventually gave up on the idea, moving the unsold wine to his personal cellar. “I tell you what, those wines are still stunning today,” his whimsical tone traced with regret. “The potential there is extraordinary.”
Neal and his fuzzy color guard walk the plates over to the dining room table. Our meal consists of scrambled eggs from Neal’s own coop, roasted potatoes from his garden, and bread he baked himself. Simple food, simply prepared—a philosophy that extends to his approach to wine. “I remember one of the first lessons I ever learned. Gaston Barthod told me in his cellar in Chambolle, ‘Laisser le vin se faire.’ ‘Let the wine make itself.’ This, to me, is essential. The greatest wines I’ve ever had were wines where people didn’t touch them too much.” For Neal, a crucial element of this is not filtering, something he asks of all his producers. “There were stories floating around of Burgundy producers whose wines were rejected from America because they threw deposits, so some took years to convince.” In part to assuage them, and partly to educate the public, Neal addresses the issue on each of his back labels: “You may find that a sediment forms in the bottle. This is a natural occurrence.”
As we tuck into our lunch, I can’t help but marvel at the stage that Neal, a self-identified writer, is setting. It is as if he is trying to recreate for me the intimate connection he feels with his producers. Most scenes in that book he finally wrote, Reflections of a Wine Merchant, take place over meals like this one. He even ups the hospitality by matching wine to guest. Aware of my interest in aged California wines, he produces a 1975 Tulocay Cabernet Sauvignon from his cellar. The wine, like so many Napa Cabernets from that decade, is extraordinary, with a loquacious bouquet and velveteen texture. It also, he tells me, played a key role in his evolution as a wine buyer.
In 1979, less than two years after taking over from his parents, Neal and his then-girlfriend Kerry closed shop and headed to California for two weeks. As he was still struggling to understand wine, the West Coast seemed a more digestible first trip than Europe. In Groezinger’s, the famed Yountville wine store, Neal had purchased a bottle of the 1975 Tulocay Cabernet. The producer was already on his list of people to check out, but this was his first taste of the wine. Its remarkable quality transfixed the young couple, who emptied their bank account, purchased as much wine as proprietor Bill Cadman would sell, and hurried back to New York to spread word of their find. “The 1970s was such an incredible time to be in California wine. I don’t work with domestic wines anymore, but I still have so much respect for that era.”
“You have to understand,” he continues, with a building intensity. “I grew up during the 1960s—this was an incredibly revolutionary time. When I went to Columbia Law, the school closed for two of the six semesters, one because of a student strike, and one because the students were protesting the bombing of Cambodia.” He pauses and considers the wine in his glass. “I think a lot of what happened in the ‘70s was the leftover revolutionary attitude of the ‘60s. And I think this informed what was going on in California wine. People were stopping, dropping out, and doing what they wanted to do. Wine was a reflection of working outside of the system. At least that’s what it was to me. All I wanted to do was write, but wine just took ahold of me. And wine has been so generous to me. I am deeply grateful.”
Neal has now got himself properly worked up, drumming his fingers on the table while he talks, fingers that still seem inclined to form a fist. “We are on the precipice of losing the soul of our civilization!” he exclaims with intensity. “If we lose our artisanal touch, the joy and creativity of seeing individual work, we will turn into a culture that is totally driven by advertising and money.”
Wine, he feels, is especially vulnerable to this influence. “One of the big fears I have is that, because wine has become so important as a cultural marker, and the effect of money is so dominant, that fewer and fewer people will take the risk necessary to make truly extraordinary wine.” In his estimation, the riskiest action is often none at all. “We have the science to control it, the money to control it, but the process of making wine is not that complicated. And I think you can really ruin things by intervening.”
Our lunch finished, we linger over the final sips of wine. I contemplate the man in front of me. With handmade Italian shirt and his fingers laced genteelly over crossed knee, he hardly paints a revolutionary portrait. But his whole lifestyle, from his portfolio of wines to his bespoke clothes, represents a rejection of the mass-produced, anonymizing mainstream. And the meal he prepared was twice labored over—once when he grew the ingredients, and again when he made it. Neal continues, unaware of my mental wanderings. “Wine is, above all, an agricultural product. And when you get away from that fundamental principal, you lose something.”
Later, during my journey home, I continue the conversation in my head. As wine is an unstable middle ground between juice and vinegar, it is also a fundamentally human product. And as much as it connects glass to ground, it links people together, too. These thoughts, the wisp of wine in my system, and the memory of my day, keep my mind off the whipping snow as I drive back to city, nourished.
“This makes no sense at all,” an exasperated voice protests through the phone. “Why are you renting a car downtown? You should be renting it at the airport.” I try to explain that I’m in Los Angeles for the whole week, and the drive to San Diego falls smack in the middle of my stay, but it doesn’t land. “This is a terrible way to go,” the voice continues. “It is much better to come from the airport. There are plenty of hotels out there, near the airport. Reasonable, too. Next time you come, let me know, and I will tell you what to do.”
Such is my introduction to Rudi Wiest. Baffled by my deliberate inefficiencies, he does his best to lay out a route to his home from my non-ideal location in the heart of LA. When I arrive, slightly late, the door swings open as if he had been waiting behind it. I enter expecting a lecture but instead am welcomed with a joke. “Would you like some water? We only have German, and it is non-vintage.”
Rudi and his wife Erna are the founders of Rudi Wiest Selections. RWS is arguably the most significant portfolio of German wine in the states—a distinction it has laid claim to for over 30 years. As the producers have shuffled a bit over time, Rudi has, at some point, worked with a solid majority of the prestige German wineries. He was also instrumental in introducing dry Riesling to the American market. But though he and Erna are both German born, their path to wine, even to German wine, was indirect.
Rudi was born in a small town near the Alps just before World War II. At age 16, he and his family relocated to Flushing, Queens. “I worked in a machine shop for 60 cents an hour, the subway was a nickel, and minimum wage wasn’t even a thing yet,” he recounts. In 1954, Rudi joined the Air Force; two years later, he became an American citizen. “I was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, and got a special clearance for a citizenship hearing because I was in the service. I’ll never forget it. It lasted all of 10 minutes—the judge only asked me three questions!” He also Americanized his name around this time, capitulating to the local pronunciation of Weest, rather than the proper German Veest.
While in the service, Rudi dedicated his free time to the study and enjoyment of jazz, which remains a consuming passion of his. He attended a staggering number of concerts, squeezing into the cheap seats in the back of the hall, far away from the tables that ringed the stages at Birdland, and other clubs where Count Basie performed. He even joined a military band, for which he played piano and the electric accordion. But though his ear for music led him to speak pitch-perfect English, Rudi remained something of an outsider, with certain cultural subtleties lost in translation. “When I made a joke, they didn’t laugh,” he recalls. “And when they made a joke, I didn’t laugh.”
He met his wife Erna in 1959, the year she emigrated from Germany. As their families are related through marriage (but not by blood), Rudi was dispatched to pick her up from the airport and instructed to act as her guide. Love came rapidly to the young pair, and a year and a half later, they were married. Their affection for California was also quick to blossom—following a brief honeymoon, they cancelled their tickets back to New York. Initially, they settled in Pasadena, where Erna put Rudi through school by working as a cosmetologist. After college, in 1974, Rudi got a job with PacBell up in San Francisco where he worked as the “answer man for the western states systems.”
“It was in San Francisco that I realized I could taste,” Rudi confesses. He and Erna face me across a small round table, straight-backed and so close together that their shoulders nearly touch. When Rudi speaks, it is rapidly and with great energy, though his body barely moves. We are in the kitchen of their quaint suburban home, where they have resided since 1978, surrounded by house plants and appliances. Large, brightly colored canvases featuring abstract scenes cover most walls, an intriguing contrast to the otherwise conventional interior. “We used to drink Lancers and Mateus and thought that was just great, but then we joined a couple of tasting groups.” Tasting groups were popular social organizations in San Francisco around that time, sort of like wine-centric country clubs. Emboldened by his talented palate, Rudi applied himself to wine with the same rigor and intensity with which he had previously studied jazz.
But though Rudi could taste circles around the other members of his club, they had one major advantage over him—cellars. “I was so upset that these guys in my tasting group had cellars and I had nothing, so I wanted to find a way to get one. I approached Boutique Wine Importing and asked if they had representation. I said, ‘Let me sell and I’ll take the commission in wine.’” As Rudi was still working as an engineer, he could only peddle wine on the weekends. “I added other books, too, like Martine’s. And I was Kalin Cellars’ first salesperson.” Over time, this experience won him not only a wine collection of his own, but a slew of significant industry contacts.
During this time, Rudi came to know Kermit Lynch. One of their favorite topics of conversation was Thomas Jefferson. “We used to analyze the wines that he wrote about. He was very hot on the wines of Brauneberg, but I told Kermit I had never had a good one.” One day, an excited Kermit rang up Rudi. “Kermit told me, ‘I think I found a beauty!’” The wine was a 1971 Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr, of which Kermit had acquired six bottles at auction. “I said, ‘Fritz Haag? Never heard of him!’” The extraordinary wine thrilled the young German, who yearned for the chance to sell it. As the estate was not currently imported, Rudi approached Chris Hildebrandt of Chrissa Imports, the same man that had given Martine her start. Hildebrandt agreed to import Haag, and the first container dropped in 1977, full of the lauded 1975 and 1976 vintages. Rudi showed them to a collector in Los Angeles with a taste for German wine. He ordered $20,000 worth of Riesling, including six cases of 1976 TBA, today a legendary wine. “That was the first big sale I ever made. I went home and thought, ‘This is easy! Nothing to it.’”
Over Christmas 1977, Rudi’s tasting group met for dinner at the Carnelian Room on the top of San Francisco’s Bank of America building. Two of the wealthier members knew of Rudi’s vinous extracurriculars and approached him. On something of a whim, they had decided to import wine, only to realize they had no way of moving it. “They came to me and said, ‘We have two containers on the water. If you agree to sell them, we’ll give you a third of the company.’” Rudi seized the opportunity and added their wines to his weekend stack. Six years later, in 1983, his partners wanted out. Rudi, now living in San Diego, bought their shares and quit his day job. “Now I had my own company and the chance to ask myself, ‘What is my passion? What do I want to sell?’”
His first thought was Burgundy, and he briefly imported Robert Arnoux along with some Bordeaux brokered by Masters of Wine Michael Peace and Anthony Hanson. But Rudi quickly found these areas to be already thick with American importers. One day, a glance through a Berry Bros. & Rudd catalog showed that certain German wines were selling for more than Château Lafite. A lightbulb went off. “I said to myself, ‘No one’s really doing anything from Germany. I should focus there.’”
Rudi’s first impulse was to import Fritz Haag. Haag was still with Hildebrandt so wasn’t personally available, but he connected Rudi to a handful of his colleagues, all of whom were eager to export. In this way, the founding five producers of Rudi’s portfolio became Zilliken, S.A. Prüm, Mönchhof, Milz, and Vereinigte Hospitien; they were soon joined by J.J. Prüm, Karthäuserhof, and Egon Müller. Lovers of German wine will recognize these as some of the world’s finest makers of Riesling. But even with the undeniably high quality of the wines, their selling was a challenge. “The two world wars weren’t exactly a great advertising program,” Rudi wryly admits. That said, the market had nowhere to go but up. “Before I started, German wine in the US was just sort of silly sweet sugar water. There were not enough vineyards in Piesport to make all the Piesporter that was sold. I think a lot of it came from Algeria.”
The portfolio quickly expanded. One of Rudi's first and most important moves was to advocate for dry Riesling—a style that ran counter to what the American drinking public expected from German wine. “Around 1985, I started getting into dry Riesling. At that time, there really wasn’t any market for it in the US.” First to open his eyes to the style was the Pfalz producer Pfeffingen. “And then someone suggested we speak to Weil, whom we worked with for nearly 10 years.” Meanwhile, his buddy Haag had ascended to become president of the VDP, an organization with which Rudi would become very closely affiliated, and the driving legislative body behind the elevation of dry wine in Germany.
Germany’s international reputation may have been a hurdle to wine sales, but its nomenclature was an even bigger problem. As renowned wine critic David Schildknecht recalls, “The average grower in early to mid-1980s was producing double the bottlings that the same estate likely produces today.” This is because the inclination of the time was to craft the full range of Rieslings, from Qualitätswein up through the Prädikat chain, for each of their vineyard holdings. Rudi actively campaigned to simplify this, especially at the lower price points. “I started with the QbAs. I said, ‘Let’s leave the vineyard off and just state the variety.’” He then pushed his producers to do the same for their Kabinett wines. “I thought we should reserve the single vineyard stuff just for the very top level.” Adding, “The producers fought me, but I’m pretty stubborn. And I am most proud of this.”
Rudi’s next major endeavor was to promote German wine beyond Riesling. His own journey in that regard began in 1984, when Salwey approached him at a European wine festival. “A guy came up to me, and the first thing I noticed were his eyebrows—you could have braided them. He tasted through my wines, and said, ‘These are great, but where I’m from, we make dry wines. Come visit.’” Rudi made an appointment and rented a car; as the route was longer than he anticipated, he arrived quite late. “I got off the freeway close to midnight, near the Swiss border. The fog was so thick I had to drive with the door open just to see the road. At 1:30 am, I reached the house and blew the horn.” Unperturbed by the hour, Salwey led Rudi to the cellar, where they tasted until 6 am. His distinctive wines were swiftly added to Rudi’s book. “Salwey specializes in the Pinot trio. He makes one of the best Pinot Gris around. And it really expanded the way I taste German wine.”
Rudi is a fervent proponent of German Pinot Noir. Beyond Salwey, his other major producer of the grape is Fritz Becker, whose vineyards span into Alsace. “There are records of Pinot Noir being made and sold in Germany since the year 1000. Between then and now, it has been forgotten. The German climate favors Riesling and white grapes, but Pinot Noir is truly a cool weather variety.” Rudi finds German versions to be not only a value compared to many French and American Pinot Noirs, but also very compatible with food. “I once took a bottle of Becker Pinot Noir to a friend’s restaurant and asked him if we could taste it alongside the California Pinot he was pouring by the glass. I said, ‘That California wine is only good to put in a fountain pen and write with!’”
Though a tad incendiary, the above highlights Rudi’s long affinity for working with restaurants. This allegiance was forged early on. “The 1984 vintage was challenging and there were virtually no Prädikat wines; they were all QbAs. This, of course, followed the fantastic ‘83s.” Rudi continues, “But when the ‘83s came out, there was a three-to-one relationship between the Deutschmark and the dollar. With the 1984s, that went the other way, so the cheapest ‘84s were as expensive as the top ‘83s.” Retailers balked at the price difference, leading Rudi to look elsewhere. “This was a good thing, as it forced me to sell to restaurants,” where the buyers were less sensitive to price.
“Today, the job, the task, is restaurants, restaurants, restaurants,” Rudi explains, adding, “We are in every three-Michelin-starred restaurant in California; I had a glass pour at The French Laundry the day they opened!” Rudi pauses and reaches for his Gerolsteiner, his large turquoise ring catching the light as he raises his hand. He and his wife are both dressed neatly, in some sort of leisure suits. They look as American as their English sounds, with the only hint of their European origin being their modern eyeglasses—his matte gray, hers neon orange and purple. “I have nothing against retailers,” Rudi continues. “You can actually sell more cases through them, but the exposure isn’t there. One case of by-the-glass means 50 different people try that wine.” He takes another swallow. “And from my perspective, I think the battle for German wine will be won in restaurants.”
He then details for me the various wine and food revelations he has made over the years, stories that are typically followed by the sales they inspired. The versatility of German Pinot Noir was a major theme (“I sold Chris Miller at Spago $13,000 worth of German Pinot in a single day!”), but so was Silvaner with raw fish. “I once did a dinner at Per Se. They insisted on matching hamachi with a sake. When the dish came out, I saw the sake was 17% alcohol. I asked them if the fish was dead, or were they trying to kill it twice?” Alinea was more open to his pairing suggestion, and they went through 30 cases of Erste Lage Silvaner. Similarly, Blue Fin in Times Square served a Silvaner by the glass for 15 years. “And I hate that stupid story about serving Auslese with dessert. The dessert has too much sugar for the wine. You ruin the both with that pairing. Put your Auslese with cheese. Never red wine with cheese, never. The tannins,” he practically shouts, “forget it!”
Rudi has every right to dwell on food and wine combinations. He has played an essential role in shaping how Americans pair food with German wine. Perhaps his biggest achievement in that regard was his insistence that sweet German Riesling was the perfect match for a broad spectrum of Asian and/or spicy cuisines. That idea has become so pervasive that many treat it as an essential tenet of wine. I personally never even considered that this notion had an origin, and that origin was a man I might someday meet. “Slowly but surely, I expanded the idea that I want wines in my portfolio that work with food,” Rudi tells me in his staccato clip. “In selling German wines, I teach everyone to look at the menu first. We don’t want to sell anyone wine where the food doesn’t work with the wine. We would rather not sell it at all.”
As of today, Rudi and Erna have spread both their message and their wines to all 50 states. They both still work full-time, though their son, who decided he didn’t like wine after 20 years with the company, recently left the business. Their current portfolio is the largest it has ever been, with around 25 producers in the roster. Rudi lists their names and specialties out loud, with intense pride and a mounting enthusiasm. There’s von Buhl, making Sekt as good as Champagne, he assures me. And another estate run by five generations of women that will hopefully be a VDP soon. His raises his gaze up to the ceiling and smiles, as if in fond remembrance. “I love the people over there, they are so dedicated, intense, relentless. And they are nuts in the vineyards. Rebholz tastes every vine for his Grosses Gewächs. Every vine! And will flag unworthy ones. Who does that?” I smile back at him, finding more than a little similarity between the man in front of me and the producers he so admires.
After our conversation and my laptop battery both run out, we make our goodbyes. Rudi follows me to the door, loading my arms as we walk with a few of his favorite things—a book on wine pairings, a Maria Schneider CD, and extraordinarily precise directions home.
Terry Theise pours a cup of Imperial silver needle jasmine tea. “Don’t freak out,” he warns me. “I put a pinch of sugar in it. I like to take this tea halbtrocken. You don’t taste the sweet, but it covers the bitterness.”
He serves us in mismatched mugs, in accord with his mismatched house. No upholstery pattern is repeated, and books and papers are piled everywhere in haphazard stacks, one balancing a houseplant. The overall atmosphere is at once manic and calm, and also decidedly academic, like a professor’s residence. I count at least three different tea kettles. All that is missing, I think, is a talking mouse and a rabbit with a pocket watch.
“You are catching me in one of the two grand moments that define summer. One is when you get the first wild salmon, and two is when the fresh-picked second flush of Darjeeling starts to arrive.” Terry fusses about the kitchen. His broad and friendly face, anchored by a gray-brown mustache and soul patch, transforms dramatically while he speaks; his long, arched eyebrows are especially active, leaping and falling in time with his disquisition. He looks like a non-menacing Jack Nicholson, though it’s not impossible to imagine him hacking through a wooden door. Especially if there were a particularly delightful Riesling on the other side.
Terry Theise (Photo credit: Gabe Clary)
It is a beautiful day in June, and our conversation eventually turns toward the weather. “I have seasonal affective disorder in reverse—I get very bummed out in the summer,” Terry reveals. “Winter is cozy. Corduroys and sweaters and braises, all those murmur-y sweet warm earthy things.” His voice takes on a lilting tone. “And I love the light in winter. I even like the short days. When daylight is at a premium, it helps you to appreciate it. In summertime, the daylight pushes down on you like an anvil on the back.”
Such an evocative and contrarian sentiment is typical of Terry, a man who is nearly as well known for his philosophical musings as his portfolio of wines. He first came to wine as a writer and has continued to write despite the mercantile direction of his career. His catalogs are the stuff of legend, thick with often extremely personal reflections on that year’s vintage and wine selections, sometimes the trade in general. He has also written two books, the second of which, What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime, is set to come out this fall.
I ask Terry about his origin in the wine industry, and he takes me further back. “I was born at Cooper Hospital in Camden, New Jersey, in the middle of August 1953. The date of my birth is controversial.” Terry arches an eyebrow. “I was born out of wedlock, and before my mother gave birth, my adoption had been arranged. The amended birth certificate that adopted kids get said my birthday was August 14. When I finally met my biological mom, I asked her if August the 14th meant anything to her. And she said, no, but the 15th does.” The second eyebrow lifts to meet the first. “I said, ‘What do I do about this?’ And she answered, ‘Party for two days.’”
He grins widely and continues. “Fast-forward a bit: now she’s a bride in her early 20s, and she and her new husband conceive a baby. And they give birth to a daughter whom they name…” he pauses dramatically, “Terry.” He presses the palms of his two hands together, as if in prayer. “I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. But I do think that there can be un-seeable patterns along the periphery of our subconscious lives.”
If Terry’s metaphysical conclusion sounds unrelated to wine, it’s not—at least, not in the way he approaches the subject. For him, wine is far more than just a beverage. It is an agent of beauty, of emotion. And like his un-seeable patterns, these ideas run through all his writings. His catalogs may expound upon the particularities of a vintage or the passing of a generational torch, but spiritual themes are always present, tickling the edges of even his more mundane essays.
When Terry was a child, his adoptive father worked for the US government, a job that saw the family regularly relocated. They lived in such disparate areas as Washington DC and India, but it was Terry’s middle school years in Munich that affected him most deeply. There, his father ran Voice of America, an international radio broadcast, to which Terry would stay up late and listen. To his delight, Radio Albania would come on at midnight. “They would start by playing the Albanian national anthem,” Terry recalls. “Then they would read the news in English. It was amazing, like something The Onion would write. ‘The dripping muzzles of the capitalist wolves,’ and stuff like that.” Teenage Terry also started a rock band called the Plastic Association. “We were supposed to be called Plastic Surgery, but our drummer was Italian and didn’t understand, so that’s what he put on his drums.”
The Theise family eventually moved back to the United States, but Terry returned to Munich at age 20. Though he still harbored musical fantasies, he found touring to be “a real pain in the ass,” and turned his attention to writing. He contributed reviews to New Musical Express, Crawdaddy, and other magazines while holding down small jobs. Essential to the rock and roll lifestyle, Terry reluctantly decided, was an appreciation of wine. “The first wine I ever drank was at a Faces concert. Rod Stewart swigged from a bottle of Mateus rosé and passed it along to the crowd.” The communal bottle, warmed by eager hands and breath, made its way to Terry, who took a sip. “I hated it, but I wanted to be a rock star, so I thought I needed to form a relationship with the stuff.”
A few years later, Terry accidentally bought a bottle of wine that said Riesling on the label. “Most of what I was drinking was along the lines of Blue Nun,” Terry admits. “Then, all of a sudden, there was this wine that had this freaky volume of flavor. And weird flavors like petrichor, herbs, tarragon, and lime zest. It was unfathomable. And I was so compelled by it, I decided my wine luck couldn’t be random. I had to learn whatever minimum I had to in order to find my way back to wines like this.”
With a proselyte’s zeal, Terry borrowed some wine books from the library and began touring the countryside. “I went looking for specific vineyards, like Graacher Himmelreich. I knocked on doors, tasted in cellars, and started creating a mental database.” Terry set aside music and began writing about wine, primarily for the publication Les Amis Du Vin. He was assigned to cover a large Baden co-op, an experience Terry found distasteful. “This turned wine into an object, and I had already decided it was a fellow being.” He continues, “My formative wine experiences were small family estates whose wines were based on the property that they came from. To me, that was the fundamental identity of what wine really was.”
In 1983, after 10 years in Munich, Terry returned to Washington DC. Though he continued writing, a more stable source of income was required. He interviewed around and was eventually connected to importer Bobby Kacher, who landed him a position with his distributor, Washington Wholesale Liquor Company. “It was a shit job, an utterly shit job. Obviously, they had hired me to placate Bobby. I was given a pittance of a salary and a sales run made up mostly of accounts we had been thrown out of.” Terry nonetheless applied himself. Five years later, he was heading the fine wine division.
One day, an idea struck. “We were selling German wine that we were buying from other importers. I walked into the office and said, ‘What would you say if I said we could double the amount of German wine we are selling and double the profit of what we sold?’” His bosses, skeptical, asked for the catch. “The catch is you have to send me to Germany for two weeks.” A few days later they agreed, though granted him only a single week of travel.
Terry cobbled together a small but remarkable portfolio of producers that included Strub, Selbach-Oster, and Willi Schaefer and brought in the first shipment in 1985. “I was the one-eyed king in the land of the blind,” Terry remembers. “There really wasn’t a German importer in the DC area at that point, so I stood out.” His bosses were impressed. “We combined the importer’s and the wholesaler’s margin and were still offering prices below what they had been.” But Terry felt increasingly burdened by having to sell the other wines in the company’s book, and eventually left to focus on his own project. “I was able to take my portfolio when I left, but I didn’t have the money to hang my own shingle. So, I shopped that model around to other distributors.”
Terry and his wines bounced around a bit, but slowly things got easier. “The double-edged sword was getting Parkerized in ‘89/’90,” he recounts. “Once I was well-reviewed by The Wine Advocate, my business tripled overnight. It was euphoric.” This sudden success put Terry at a crossroads. He finally had enough momentum to strike out on his own but knew that independence would come at a cost. “I had seen how it was for other importers and how much of their time was spent doing compliance, admin, talking to insurance, etc. Basically, not spending a whole lot of time doing the thing they wanted to do in the first place—fine wine.”
In the end, he decided the gain in money was not worth the loss in quality of life. What he needed, he decided, was a reliable distributor with which to partner. “Around this time, Skurnik entered the picture. The brothers came to me and said, ‘You should do this with us.’” They entered a long negotiation, all conducted via fax, and officially joined forces in 1999. “One of the reasons we have worked so well together is that we very clearly demarcated our own domains. They may have been amazed at how quickly I gave certain things up. Operations and money is all on them; artistic and brand decisions are all me.”
Terry chooses this moment to graduate us from tea to Champagne. He produces an assortment of wide-mouthed flutes (also mismatched) and serves the basic non-vintage from his newest producer, Glavier. “This is a Richard Juhlin glass,” he says, gesturing to the vessel in front of me. “I think it is the least bad glass for Champagne.” He frowns into his beverage, and his eyebrows threaten to slide off his face. “Champagne is weird. It is a beverage that defies one’s efforts to treat it correctly. If you serve it warm enough that the aroma and flavor are expressive, then the mousse dissipates too quickly. But if you serve it straight from the refrigerator, you have a beautiful mousse with subdued aromatics.” He gives the wine a tentative sip. “Hence the flute. And small pours. But then you have all these bubbles exploding right in your nose,” he sighs.
For his first 10 years as an importer, Terry’s portfolio was exclusively German. Then, in 1994, he introduced Austrian wine, which was followed by grower Champagne in 1997. I ask him what it was like to sell German wine in the 1980s. “If I hadn’t been so young and passionate, I would have realized what a fool I was,” he tells me. “But I had a profound belief in what I was doing. I wanted the whole world to awaken to the incredible beauty of these wines. Instead, it went in fits and starts and never really took off.” Terry delivers this last sentence with a trace of bitterness, an emotion that is also occasionally found in his writings. “Then Austria came along, and I took the problem and doubled it.”
He expands upon this thought. “Austria was hard because the only thing people knew about the wines is that they put antifreeze in them. What saved those wines for the market was that strange late-1990s vogue for Grüner Veltliner spurred on by that generation of hipster somms.” In reflection, he finds the glycol scandal was a blessing for Austrian wine. “That whole thing created an enormous opportunity for the industry to rise from the ashes. It gave what was likely Europe’s most dynamic young wine producers the chance to tell their own story.”
Though all its components are groundbreaking, the Theise catalog is likely best known for its collection of grower Champagnes, a fact which both pleases and irks Terry. “The revolution that was going on in Champagne with the growers was equivalent to the revolution that had happened in Burgundy 30 years prior, when it used to all be négociant.” He tops us up with another small pour. “When I first started, I said, ‘Listen, Champagne is a region of terroir, and the only way to enjoy that is to drink growers. We all aren’t going to be invited to Roederer to taste 30 vin clairs from around the region.’” These wines were difficult to move at first, until the sommelier community seemed to suddenly collectively embrace them. “When I began, there were 33 RM Champagnes exporting to the US. Now there are over 300. I feel pleased about that, but indirectly I also feel a certain anger, because the value of what my growers are doing in Germany and Austria is every bit as significant as what’s going on in Champagne.” Terry’s eyebrows dance to his shifting emotions. “No one seems to accept that anything that goes on in a German-speaking country can be anything other than trivial. Champagne worked because it was French, and because it was Champagne.”
Champagne also worked for Terry because of his intense commitment to the category. “I wasn’t the first person to do grower Champagne; I was the first to overdo it,” he explains. “I thought you needed a multitude to make a point. Because if you were going to say that Champagne was a wine of terroir, you had to show a bunch of terroir.” He feels the same way about wine lists. “Wine lists convey so much without saying anything. If you go to Craigie On Main and open the list, Riesling is the first thing you see. The meta-message is that this is the most important thing there is.” Occasionally, getting buyers on board with this concept required a strong hand. “In the early days, I would taste people on a range of grower Champagnes and they would say, ‘These are all good. Can you send me a case of Pierre Péters?’ And I would say ‘No. I can send you a few bottles of each wine; that way you have a grower Champagne section. Because if I just sell you the Pierre Péters, it will be lost among your Grandes Marques and it won’t move and in eight months you’ll call me to pick the wine back up.’”
This tenacity served Terry well with Champagne, and it helps keep his blood up for other, as-yet-unwon battles. For several years now, a major theme of both his portfolio and his catalog essays has been the promotion of sweet Riesling. While the growing category of dry Riesling has undeniably expanded Germany’s US market share, Terry laments that sweet wines are getting set aside. “The issue of sweetness in German wine is such an unnecessary debate,” he says with a sigh. “For me, with Germany, you can have a bipolar thing, where the dry wines are often too dry, and the sweet wines are often too sweet. But there is this golden place in the middle!” he asserts. “Of all the flavor components in the world of wine, none is misunderstood as much as sweetness. And that is because when people hear sweet, they think Twinkie when they should be thinking apple.”
Terry reflects on the evolution of German wine. “There was an era where German wines became too sweet,” he allows, “from 2003 through roughly 2010/2011. It was partly vintage and partly out of score chasing.” But dry wines have undergone a transformation as well. “With dry Rieslings, 15 years ago, almost all were repulsive; 10 years ago, some were repulsive; today, most of them are at least okay, and some are world class. Dry German wine is improving all the time. This has to do with climate change, and also a generation of producers that didn’t come of age in the era of sweet wine.” As is his wont, Terry turns philosophical. “The larger question is, even if we acknowledge that dry German Riesling deserves its place among the noble citizenry of wines, we have to ask ourselves what has been lost in order for that to be gained.”
Listening to Terry, I’m struck by how similar his speech is to his writing. I use bigger words when I write than when I speak because I own a thesaurus. Terry is a thesaurus. And his writings are a treasury of poetic observations and big ideas, infused with an abundance of feeling and peppered with the occasional expletive. He wants to sell you wine, of course, but he also desperately wants to draw you close and whisper to you about the things he loves.
“If I had been able to make a living as a wine writer, I would have,” Terry muses. “It would have been a mistake, but I would have done it.” Thankfully, he has found a way to balance his commercial calling with his creative inclinations. “I have enjoyed the grounding of the buying and selling of wine. But at some point, I had to discern what my contribution to this world really is. Am I content to just be an agent through which cases of wine are moved?” He thumbs at the stack of papers by his side, worrying over his legacy. Then he takes a deep drink of Champagne and smiles, blanketing the bitter with sweet.
This is great, required reading, thanks, Kelli. And if you ever get an eighth day in the week, I'd love to see words on some legends Frank Schoonmaker, Robert Chadderdon and the like. Just if you have some extra time!
Thank you, Dan! Added to the suggestion box. ;)