In what I shall whimsically refer to as my “formative years,” it was less easy to find potential customers than it is now. There was no internet, or if there was one, it was primitive. Not to mention I didn’t possess a computer until 1999. Plus there was the “German wine problem,” which was that no one wanted German wine in 1985 when the Dollar had tanked and the market was flooded with cheap 1983s that needed more time to sell through.
What did exist was an organization called Les Amis du Vin, which set up tasting/educational “chapters” around the country, many of which were headed up by local wine retailers. Les Amis also published a magazine, when they got around to it, called “The Friends Of Wine,” and I wrote about German wines for them. This meant that those chapter heads – usually wine retailers – knew who I was, and that I had some credibility as a German wine maven. It seems quaint now, innocent. You know, one-eyed king, country of the blind….that kind of thing.
Yet I was conspicuous in my naïve and feckless way, and eventually I found my way to a small but growing list of potential buyers interested in German wine and/or in a clearly utopian (to the point of borderline psychosis) guy doing something so manifestly senseless it might just be genius.
Eventually these threads linked me to a young man who had, as best I recall, a wine bar in Portland Oregon (or was it San Francisco?) that featured Riesling, and who also published a little newsletter about our mutually beloved grape variety. In the interim years both he and I have become twin Colossuses in the wine industry, standing astride all that we survey with a mingling of approval and dismay. I exaggerate somewhat.
At first linked by our love of Riesling, we stayed in touch and eventually grew to be stout comrades advocating the kinds of wines we thought everyone should love. I know a few people whom I have known since those very early days, but it’s a dwindling list. So earlier this year I reached out to my old brother-in-arms to chinwag about the “olden days,” and in that process it grew clear that his recollections might be useful to me in my present circumstances. He very kindly agreed to collect his thoughts into what became a kind of testimonial, some of which he is permitting me to reprint here.
You know the man, and his work, quite well. You hold him in the high esteem he richly deserves. He is Peter Liem. The following words are his:
I am a professional wine writer and critic, and a specialist in the wines of Champagne, through my work over the last 25 years that includes a James Beard Award-winning book, an online guide called ChampagneGuide.net, and freelance writing for world-renowned wine magazines such as Decanter, The World of Fine Wine and Wine & Spirits. Formerly a wine retailer and sommelier, I also previously wrote a guide to Riesling around the world called The Riesling Report, which focused heavily on the wines of Germany and Austria. Through my experience with these wines and wine regions, I have a well-informed vantage point from which to view the career, writings and lifework of Terry Theise, and to assess the impact that he has had on the American wine industry and wine culture.
I first met Terry when I was a young wine retailer in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. At this time, he had already established a solid reputation as a visionary importer of German wines, one who not only selected wines of exceptional quality, but who also had the ability to communicate about these wines in a way that no other importer was doing. His portfolio in the 1990s already included many of the finest estates in Germany—many of my peers in the industry, in fact, relied on the Terry Theise Estate Selections label on a bottle as an indicator of quality and excellence, as I believe they still do today. Much of my own early education about German wine was through tasting the Theise portfolio, reading Terry’s unusually detailed and perspicacious writings about the wines, and speaking with Terry himself. Around 1997 and 1998, I was introduced to Austrian wine as well through his portfolio, which he had recently begun to import. Austrian wine was almost entirely unknown in the United States at the time, and while Terry was not the first person to ever import wine from Austria, he was the first to assemble a cohesive portfolio of top-quality Austrian wine in the United States and to present it in a compelling and meaningful fashion: in essence, to make an argument for why and how to drink these wines.
It was around this time, too, that he began to import Champagne from small grower estates, and in hindsight, it is difficult to overestimate the impact that Terry had on the understanding and appreciation of Champagne in the United States. Champagne is unusual among wine regions in that it has historically been dominated by large, famous brands, to an extent that virtually eliminated the sale of smaller producers in export markets. It’s no exaggeration to say that the introduction of the Theise portfolio of grower Champagnes was the catalyst for changing that, eventually, in this country. As with Austria, Terry was not the first person to import grower Champagnes, yet he was the first to select and market a portfolio that focused exclusively on high-quality grower Champagnes, immediately establishing himself as a champion and ambassador of these wines in a way that nobody had ever done before—indeed, in those early days, the concept of grower Champagne in the United States was virtually synonymous with the Terry Theise portfolio.
Yet such was the stranglehold of the large Champagne brands on the market that it was not enough to simply put these wines out there and make them available. In those days the old paradigm of Champagne was deeply entrenched, and selling small-production Champagnes from family-run estates was very much an uphill battle, waged one consumer at a time. The Theise Champagne portfolio eventually began to carve a niche for itself in the American wine market, and much of its success was directly attributable to the 20-year track record of the Terry Theise name as a brand, and consumer trust in this as an indicator of top quality. Terry’s exceptional skills as a taster, together with his erudite understanding of these wines and his extraordinary ability to communicate this in a manner accessible to layperson and professional alike, encouraged us as both wine professionals and wine consumers to explore a collection of Champagnes that most of us had previously known nothing about. There is little doubt that even considering the high quality of the portfolio itself, it would have struggled to achieve the same level of success without the historical reputation for excellence that Terry had already established for himself over his career as a wine importer.
Today, grower Champagne is firmly established in the United States, and the country boasts a number of fine portfolios of top-quality grower Champagnes, of which the Theise collection is but one. It’s easy to take the success of grower Champagne in this country for granted, and many people in the wine industry today no longer remember, or else are too young to know, what it was like to sell grower Champagne even just a couple of decades ago. Indeed, other importers of grower Champagnes today are all following the trail that Terry himself blazed before them, and thus owe a portion of their success to his efforts. As with the wines of Germany and Austria, and in fact, drawing upon his long history with those regions dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, it was Terry’s vision, his groundbreaking work with Champagne in the 1990s, and his belief in issues of quality, authenticity and expression that enabled grower Champagne to establish the foothold that it did in this country, and there remain those of us who will not let that be forgotten.
Thank you Peter.
Your words are generous, as is your willingness to share them. I worry that it may appear unseemly to publish this tribute – and I will return to tooting other peoples’ horns in the weeks to come. Not to mention continuing down the strange roads wherein I combine mysticism, effulgent emotion and stubborn opinionatedness into the sludgy cocktail of prose for which I am evidently tolerated.
But you know what?
Reading what Peter wrote, I felt good. I felt really goddamn good. I never cared about being any sort of personage and I never wanted to care about whatever “Brand-value” I may have obtained. I was fulfilled by simply doing the work.
If someone whom I respect says that the work was original and lovely, I can only try to blush becomingly, and be grateful.