A Riesling for no reason

Terry Theise.

Terry Theise. (Michael Skurnik Wines)

It’s an early Monday afternoon, and I’m starting the week in a wonderful way — playing hooky and attending a wine tasting in south Seattle hosted by one of the world’s great vino importers, Terry Theise. The other 20 or so people in the Triage Wines warehouse tasting room are retail and restaurant folks who are there for work, albeit pleasant work.

Theise, who flew in from the East Coast for Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Riesling Rendezvous, is showcasing the latest vintage of German and Austrian Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners and French Champagnes he’s selected from small artisanal producers. Four of the growers have come from Europe to join him. He flits around and offers morsels of the improvisational wine meditations he’s become famous for, such as: “There are wines that let us hear the beat of time between the tick and the tock,” he wrote in a recent issue of The World of Fine Wine magazine.

In May, Theise won the James Beard Foundation medal as the nation’s top wine professional. He’s credited with popularizing Riesling and Gruner Veltliner, which many Americans hardly knew, and convincing Americans to take a break from Veuve Cliquot and try small grower Champagnes such as Gimonnet.

While his thick annual catalogs are full of poetic musings on beauty and truth, he can be caustic about wines that he thinks waste his time, such as Washington state’s much-touted Rieslings. He considers Riesling the world’s greatest wine, and insists that it should taste of minerals. If it tastes too much like fruit, “the grapes have probably been grown somewhere where they shouldn’t be grown,” he has said.

His harshest comments are off-the-record. But when asked about The Seattle Times wine writer Paul Gregutt’s raves for Washington Rieslings, Theise says: “I’m happy for people growing Riesling anywhere and trying to do the right thing with it. But there’s a tendency in the wine business to be excessively generous with praise. Wouldn’t it be better, with tact, to give them a reality check?”

The warehouse turnout seems small to me for a city like Seattle with a big wine reputation. Theise says his new vintage tastings draw 300 in New York and 200 in Chicago and San Francisco. Later, he told me he also got a disappointing turnout of about 130 at his Riesling Rendezvous tasting the next day, when a sellout crowd of 220 was expected. Theise is pleased that Riesling has gained popularity, but thinks it’s too subtle and complex for a mass audience (“If that makes me an elitist, so be it.”). He drinks it with everything except lasagna, pizza, lamb chops, and unsauced red meat. “Other than that, I can’t think of many other things Riesling wouldn’t be plausible with. It may not hit the bullseye every time, but it will hit the target, the arrow won’t fly off into the woods.”

At a Vietnamese restaurant in the International District after the tasting, I drink a Theise-selected 2006 Hirsch Riesling Heilgenstein from Austria with my lemongrass sea bass, and I see his point. Every sip is thought-provoking, even if it’s not a perfect match.

Here’s how Theise describes the Hirsch in his catalog: “It’s almost pathologically exotic … peppers and mint; dense, stormy; the palate is haunted … it takes your palate and slams it against a wall of smoky minerality; it doesn’t finish since it won’t LEAVE.”

He also has some incisive things to say about wine guru Robert Parker and his 100-point rating system. I highly recommend reading Theise’s wine writing. The Parker comments are at page 137 in the German wine catalog. They are hilarious.

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