Regular readers know that over the past few years, I’ve become obsessed with Champagne. Last week, while thinking about how popular the region has become — and what a debt we’re all in to Terry Theise — I realized that I didn’t know why, exactly, Theise started importing Champagne.
So we connected by phone and the discussion inspired my most recent Grape Collective column. We covered all sorts of issues — from Theise’s seminal trip to Champagne to what the future of the region will look like. It was fascinating. Check out our conversation below!
David White: How’d you decide to start importing Champagne?
Terry Theise: I was already bringing in growers from Germany and Austria. So my entire mentality was based upon working with small, family producers. The background of my history with Champagne is that when I came together with Odessa Piper — then my girlfriend, now my wife — we were long distance for quite a while. She had a restaurant in Madison; I had a child in the D.C. area. So neither of us really could move.
So, as happens in long-distance relationships, you have a lot of misery and heartbreak when you’re apart. But when you come together, it’s a big celebration. So we quickly ran through all the grower Champagnes that were available in the U.S. market and I found myself thinking, “Is this really all? There have to be more good growers than this.”
So one year, in 1995 or 1996, we just made a detour to Champagne. I had a list of interesting growers from Michael Edward’s first book and other research I had done. So I thought we’d take four or five days and just check out some of these growers.
This was all personal. All I wanted to do was to buy some Champagne to ship back to myself so I’d have stuff in the cellar to open up with Odessa. So we visited a number of producers. And I came away with my mind expanded — I had not realized the profound degree to which Champagne was a wine of terroir, just like every other wine of Northern Europe.
As we’re driving back — fishtailing all over because the trunk is full of Champagne — I’m thinking about how interesting the region is. I must have even observed that out loud, because Odessa then says, “You really ought to do this professionally.”
I say, “Oh, come on, I’m already pushing a rock up a hill with German wine and now I’ve just strapped a safe to my back with Austrian wine. How much misery do you want to put me through?”
And she says, “Do you think these wines deserve an audience?”
I said, “No question about it, they do.”
And she says, “Do you think that someone will be successful with them at some point?”
And I say, “Yeah, I think so, I think the right kind of importer will be successful with these wines.”
So she says, “How will you feel if that person isn’t you — and you had the chance and walked away from it?”
The only proper response to a question like that is, “Yes, dear,” and the result is that I began to import small grower Champagnes.
Once that decision was made, I went back diligently looking to put a portfolio together — and I had a lot of assistance from the producers, because you can get a chain reaction going with growers. If you taste with somebody and you like his wines and you’re personally simpatico, you can easily ask for other addresses to visit. The growers are perfectly happy to be collegial, so I got a lot of references from certain people. So in the first year, I put a portfolio together consisting of nine growers. That’s expanded and has now reached what I imagine to be its apex of 16 growers.
There were just 33 grower Champagnes in the U.S. market at that point. There are around 250 today. Of those nine you brought in, were any already in the United States? I don’t want to ask if you stole them from other importers, but were any already in the market? Or were they all brand new?
A couple of them — one or two — were here with either small local importers or national importers who weren’t doing a very good job for them. And when I surveyed the landscape, I saw a lot of good importers had a Champagne producer in their portfolio, or maybe two, but that struck me as tokenism. As an importer, you wouldn’t claim to represent Burgundy if you only had one or two Burgundy growers in your portfolio. You want to be comprehensive. And you want to show all of the manifold expression possible from Burgundy or, as I came to learn, from Champagne. So if I was going to tell the story that I knew needed to be told, I had to have Champagnes representative of a wide range of terroirs. As I often say, I wasn’t the first one to do it, but I was the first one to overdo it. Read the rest of this entry »