Too Much of a Good Thing...Can be a Very Good Thing!
December 4, 2014
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to have dinner with Terry Theise--highly regarded wine importer...writer (and film-maker)...speaker...and commenter on life. And, as makes sense--and I learned first-hand--to comment on life, you have to live it. Terry definitely lives life. He expresses that in his writing...it's elegant--even poetic. It turns out, so is he.
The opportunity to spend an evening with him came via a purchase at the Heart's Delight Wine Auction. Our dinner took place at Bar Boulud in Boston. After all the energy and excitement surrounding our daughter's wedding a week prior, my wife stayed home, so wine journalist David White joined. It only made sense to include someone who'd be as excited about the opportunity as I was.
Planned rendezvous was 6:30...I arrived just after 6:00 because that's when the hotel car was available. Terry was already there, sipping a glass of Champagne. David arrived a few minutes later--well early and still the last to arrive. And it turned out to be a very good thing that we got an early start--it took us six hours to drink the wine. A phrase that has been overused to the point that it has lost some meaning still seems to describe the evening: it was epic!
True wine zealots will know that Terry got his start importing riesling from Germany--and he continues to import some of Germany's greatest wines (which means some of the world's greatest wines). He also imports some of the best of Austria. But arguably, it is with Champagne that he's had his most widespread impact.
Historically, Champagne has been dominated by the big houses--the big producers, sometimes known as the grande marques (famous brands). Rarely do the grande marques grow grapes. They buy grapes from dozens--more likely hundreds--of growers and vineyards. They blend these--often from multiple vintages--to maintain the "house style." But there have always been a few growers who made Champagne from their own grapes. They were identified by an RM somewhere on the label (for Récoltant-Manipulant or Grower-Made) Fifteen years ago, those wines were hard to find in the US--making up only a percent or two of the Champagne sold here and gaining little if any recognition.
Indeed, recognition--branding was the key to Champagne. Champagne houses spent--and still spend--big on marketing. For example, it's been suggested that LVMH--which owns four of the better known houses--spends more money marketing the wines than it does making them. They market it as a luxury--which has resonated because Americans tend to think of Champagne as a niche beverage...suitable for holidays, weddings and special occasions.
Terry Theise had other ideas. He recognized that from the hands of growers who lovingly cared for their vines--and saw the grapes through the full vinification process--could come wines of great character and distinction. Wines that represent a place--a terroir--and a vintage. Wines made by someone--a person--not a corporation. Wines that aim for excellence, not consistency...because if consistency is the primary goal, there is necessarily an element of lowest common denominator. Wines not just for celebrating, but for savoring...alone and with food. He wanted to bring more of those wines to the US. He advocated for them--loudly and effectively. Through that advocacy, he personally played a major role in the dramatic increase in interest in grower champagnes in the US. When he began ~17 years ago, there were 33 RM Champagnes in the US. Now there are more than 230. He has changed the way many of us look at the region.
And so, of course, we began our evening with Champagne--the 2009 Marc Hébrart Special Club Brut. For those who wonder what the "Special Club" designation means--top grower-producers are invited to submit wines to a panel for a blind tasting. Those that are approved--and only those--can be bottled as "Special Club." And it was special. Rich but focused. Elegant. Half-way through the bottle, Terry opened a 2004 Henri Goutorbe Special Club to taste side-by-side with it. Yup. Special again. Quite different...and not just because of the additional age--it had hints of maltiness, characteristic of its terroir. Two of the best Champagnes I've ever had. If there'd also been a glass of one of the famous ~$175 a bottle grande marque Champagnes on the table--there's a good chance I'd have poured it out to get rid of the distraction. These wines were that good. So how do you get Special Club bottles? Good luck! I haven't found a single one in any shop in Washington DC. Online I did find a bottle of 2008 Marc Hébrard--yes, one bottle--at Hart-Davis-Hart. It was delivered today.
The Champagnes came first and second--so I remember them the best. Two rieslings--two consecutive vintages from the same producer--Joh. Jos. Christoffel--came sixth and seventh (yup--seven bottles, three people). I don't remember them as well--but I do remember enjoying them very much.
In between came three bottles of red. One was a Burgundy--from Nuits-St-Georges. It was really good. But I was captivated by the other two. They were from Ribeira Sacra. I have to confess they were my first Ribeira Sacras. I knew generally where it is--but that's about all. It's a rugged, mountainous region located in the eastern part of Galicia in Spain...perhaps about 100 km from the coast. The first Ribeira Sacra was the 2010 Dominio do Bibei Lalama. It's made from the mencia grape with just a drop or two of mouraton and garnacha tintorera. I found it fascinating! Elegant. Ripe. Good complexity. But no heaviness or clumsiness. My Burgundy glass was still half full when I drained the last drops of the Lalama. And all this fuss for a wine that retails in the low- to mid-$30s. We were all pretty excited about it. So Terry brought out another Ribeira Sacra that was even more affordable--about half the price. The 2012 Ventura Pena de Lobo. Also a mencia. Also excellent ripeness at moderate alcohol levels. Not as graceful or elegant as the Lalama...but still very good...and at prices that mean you can pop one any weeknight.
There was food. Quite a bit of it. And it was excellent. But it was the wine and the conversation that were so memorable. That and the coming together of three people who really enjoyed sharing them.
I could go on and on (but don't worry--I won't!). I said earlier that Terry was almost poetic. And that soulfulness permeated the conversation. I can't do it justice by quoting our conversations. But I can quote him. Not only is his book eloquent...even his catalogs are eloquent. I'll conclude quoting his manifesto from one:
"Beauty is more important than impact.
Harmony is more important than intensity.
The whole of any wine must always be more than the sum of its parts.
Distinctiveness is more important than conventional prettiness.
Soul is more important than anything, and soul is expressed as a trinity of family, soil and artisanality.
Lots of wines, many of them good wines, let you taste the noise. But only the best let you taste the silence."