Conversations With Terry Theise – Part 1: Terroir

Several weeks ago, I received an email from an old friend, Terry Theise. Wine lovers will recognize his name: Terry Theise introduced my generation and probably a few others to fine wines of Germany, Austria and Champagne. He helped launch the “grower Champagne” movement by clueing us into the exciting 5% of Champagne not made by the big fancy houses. He may not have totally succeeded in nurturing us past our fear of sweetness in Riesling, but his fans know that his wines and palate are impeccable, and wherever he points us, adventure awaits. Terry’s annual importer catalogues were must reads — wine pun alert! — about the latest vintages. His two books, “Reading Between the Wines” and “What Makes A Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime,” are thought-provoking, thirst-inducing romps through Terry’s mind and palate. His prose seems fanciful, a stream of consciousness that seemingly spins tangents into the ether, yet always spirals back to land right on target at the point he was aiming for all along. Wine mellows most people; it supercharges Terry Theise.

Where’s the sommelier with my Riesling?

Terry will most certainly demur about this description of his writing talents, but you can be the judge by checking out his website,, where he posts tasting notes and thoughtful articles on his blog. Which brings me back to his email.

Terry had seen my column about a movement to make wine lingo more inclusive, and he took that opportunity to reconnect with a proposal: A written conversation, over email, about various wine topics, where we would pretend we were conversing across a dinner table, only with the ability to edit our remarks and without our wives rolling their eyes at our pontifications. We would each use the exchange as we see fit on our respective sites. He sent me a list of questions, which I eventually answered. He posted them recently here.  

I hope to draw on more of this exchange (and I sincerely hope some future ones), but for now I want to highlight my question to Terry and his response. My question focused on terroir, and was prompted by reading some of his tasting notes on new releases from winemakers he introduced to U.S. consumers.

The following is part of my email exchange with Terry, including some conversational responses he added for his post linked above, and a few commentary asides from me.

DM: “Sense of place” and “terroir” are two concepts central to our modern view of wine. (Similar, to be sure, especially as one is an attempt to translate the other.) If we really want to taste the place in the wine, we should visit the place. Your intimate knowledge of the vineyards that produced the wines you brought to thousands of thirsty American wine lovers is an essential ingredient in your tasting notes that we have enjoyed all these years through your annual catalogs and now your website. For your customers and readers who haven’t been there, you bring us that much closer. You give us a key of sorts to unlock that “sense of place” when we taste the wine. 

TT: Aw, shucks … 

DM: Your travel and professional dedication to meet with your producers is not the only reason your tasting notes are so wonderful. Your personal perspective, your sense of whimsy and romance also shine through. And this could be another discussion: People say the winemaker should be considered part of a wine’s terroir — perhaps the reviewer or importer should be too? You certainly get your reader salivating for that wine. Or am I getting too close to arguing that terroir is just marketing hooey? As a writer, I’m always conscious of the need to make a wine relatable to my readers.

So here’s my question: [DM: FINALLY!] For someone to experience the sense of place, this essence that for many defines fine wine, is it necessary to have been there corporeally? As in, having visited at least the region, if not the specific vineyard? How important is travel to wine appreciation?

[DM: Here you will see the weakness of my question, which Terry zeroed in on immediately: the word “necessary.” When arguing with a shape-shifter capable of seeing through arguments from a 1080-degree perspective, avoid absolutes such as “necessary.”]

TT: So, to answer the question you posed … The crux word is “necessary.” It seems fair to say that one can’t fully experience a sense of place without a limbic connection to it, that is, without having been there. 

[DM: I’m glad Terry explained what he meant by “limbic connection,” because defines “limbic” as “of, relating to, or being the limbic system of the brain,” which quite frankly does not help, and violates the essential rule against using a word to define itself.]

TT: That compels the next question, which is: How crucial is that phenomenon to wine appreciation? And the answer to that one is, it depends on what one wishes to derive from wine appreciation. For someone like me, travel was crucial. It wasn’t a duty or a box I needed to check to establish my bona fides, but rather something I was deeply driven to do. It deepens the “sense” of wine in every way. You could say it provides the umami to the experience of wine fascination.

[DM: Whoa. Soundbite alert!]

TT: Regarding the possibility that “terroir” risks being just so much marketing hooey, my definition of terroir is narrow, and therefore (in my view) defensible. It is this: Terroir describes a cause-and-effect relationship between soil components and wine flavors for which no other explanation seems possible. It is a basis for the concept of spirit-of-place, but only that — a basis.

[DM: I’d pat myself on the back for eliciting this bon mot from Terry, but I have a feeling he’s said it before. That doesn’t make it any less valid, though.]

DM: That’s a rather Holmesian reference. It reminds me of the Great Detective’s advice to Dr. Watson: “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I hope I’m quoting that correctly, lest the Baker Street Irregulars start haunting the comments.

[DM: As I read over this now, I am also reminded of the deductive tasting technique taught by the Court of Master Sommeliers: By eliminating wines because certain characteristics are not there, you narrow the possibilities to identify the wine you’re tasting.]

TT: I always liked that statement. I also tend to think that when we have a weight of empirical data that seems to lead to a particular conclusion, until it is disproven it might as well be true. But if it ever is disproven, then we shouldn’t cling to it.  My problem with expanding the definition to human influence, weather, one’s own responses or anything else, is that once you throw all these things into the definition, you’re saying that everything that has an impact on wine is part of terroir, and that is a conceptual chaos, in my view. Obviously, all those things are part of the mix, but what comes first? 

Yes, the concept has been misapplied in service of “marketing hooey” — [DM: Another note to self: Don’t be too cavalier with your references.] — and it’s annoying as hell, and does harm. Just because some wine-romance is bogus doesn’t mean that all of it is. But that’s where you and I come in. How are our innocent readers supposed to tell the authentic from the bogus?

The experiences you describe would be thought ephemeral by certain people, but they aren’t. They’re part of one’s response to all the things behind a wine’s aesthetic attractions, they show that we can respond to wine from depths of our natures, and the wider the emotional/spiritual contexts, the richer our accord with wine can be. But naturally, it begins with the desire to bring that about, or at least to bring something about, which takes us back to your first question: 

[DM: BOOM! Here we go — order out of chaos!] 

Must one travel to wine regions? My answer is no, but that’s because of the word “must.”

[DM: My exact word was “necessary,” but okay, they’re both imperatives.] 

In fact, I think we self-select; that is, people who grow curious about wine, or who read about it or see pretty pictures in wine books can easily think “It looks like fun to go there.”

[DM: Gratuitous plug opportunity for my recent column on George Rose and his amazing photography of California vineyards.]

To sum up, I think a concrete definition of terroir is easily possible, whereas the idea of sense-of-place is bound to be ethereal. But ether is real, after all! It’s fine to stop at “Something is happening to me that I don’t have words for, but I like it.” 

And you’re right, if you’ve been to Tuscany you’ll never drink Chianti the same way again. Must you go? Of course not. Will you benefit from going? Of course!

About Dave McIntyre

Wine columnist for The Washington Post, co-founder of, and blogger at Dave McIntyre's WineLine (
This entry was posted in Austria, Champagne, Germany and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Conversations With Terry Theise – Part 1: Terroir

  1. Allen Clark says:

    Great, great discussion. Liked it so much, I read it twice (once on Terry’s blog).

    I’d like to report that the last part of it prompted me to book a flight over the pond and set up appointments to visit several producers in Terry’s portfolio, but… I already did that, weeks ago. 🙂

    Not being in the trade, my dilemma is always that I’m torn between visiting wineries that appeal because they are new/unknown to me vs. old favorites where I’m certain to enjoy the wines (but where’s the adventure?). So I wind up with a selection that attempts to satisfy both desires in the very finite time available. Usually works out OK.

    Meanwhile, looking forward to Part 2.

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