Serious Reads: Reading Between the Wines, by Terry Theise

Book Reviews

Drinks-related books to add to the stack on your bedside table.


[Images: University of California Press]

Reading Between the Wines by noted wine importer Terry Theise is a wine book that's so stunning, your glass will never look the same. It's not a conventional wine tome: there are no charts, or lists of flavor profiles, suggestions for food pairings, or instructions on how to sniff, swirl, and spin wine through your mouth like liquid gold.

No, this book is part philosophy, part love letter to the importance of cultivating a craft, and part moving defense of the sacred aspects of wine, and why place and people are essential to our enjoyment of what's in the glass.

The book is ripe with both useful information and stirring paragraphs about the profound role wine should play in our lives. The central argument is this: that "wine can be a bringer of mystical experiences." But there's a catch. Theise doesn't believe all wine is capable of such greatness. Thus, the importer of boutique German and Austrian wines and Champagne, begins his carefully crafted argument for "real" wine—and against Robert Parker and the globalization of taste.

"Real" wine, according to Theise, is rooted in "family, soil, [and] culture as well as the connections among them." Real wine is authentic—its grapes are grown in the soil that most helps them shine, and tended by hardworking people passionate about both the land and the glass. As Theise presents it, it's a world without egos. This hardly seems possible, yet is alluring because it helps prove his point: there's tradition here. According to Theise, the producers he works with are people who care little about tasting menus or numbered scores, and a lot about a reliably transporting sip. To forsake these winemakers, small wineries, and lesser known varietals in favor of a Costco Cab is like dismissing a drippingly-sweet heirloom tomato in favor of a pale red orb shipped in from South America.

Theise is a master of metaphor. He compares wine to baseball and music and wine experts to the most capable masseuse or car mechanic. It's reductive but effective. Elite wine drinking often poses as a secret club. High bottle prices not withstanding, Theise argues that our palates are trainable, and that by carefully considering what you drink, you'll learn more from experience than from blind tasting or expensive classes.

Good wine experiences, invariably, lead to the book's second dictum: that we must be "prepared for wine's mystical capacity." Theise helps with that preparation. He's a fine writer, and his poetic ramblings about provocative wine experiences are vivid and not at all pretentious. Other wine books can bore with lengthy explanations of winery lunches and drinking prized vintages culled straight from the cellar. Theise is opinionated but humble—he cares deeply about the composite of flavor, enjoyability, and craft. I can happily picture him on a balcony in the Alps, drinking Muscat straight from the bottle. His hedonistic joy is both approachable and appealing.

In the end, that is what makes this book convincing: Theise's clear passion for wine, his thoughtful arguments for the connectedness of people and place, and his articulate prose easily move one to be more attentive to the cellar. That the book also offers a philosophy for living well is simply a bonus.

About the Author: Anne Zimmerman's first book, An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher, will be published by Counterpoint Press in March 2011. Discover what fuels her writing at the blog Poetic Appetite.