A Conversation with Terry Theise

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 02-18-2015

Terry TheiseRegular 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.

How has the market changed over the past two decades?

It was really lonely at first. We got a little bit of a boost from the millennium — there was just demand for Champagne. Then it got very quiet for a couple of years and I began to wonder if this thing was actually going to work. And then, beginning in around 2003, we started feeling like there was some ignition under this idea — and pretty quickly built a critical mass around it. Sometimes, and I don’t know the details of the hundredth monkey effect, but sometimes it just takes a while for an idea to catch on — and then one spark ignites another and all of a sudden a lot of people are talking about grower Champagne.

It was a story that was very much worth telling. And people who heard the story and were intrigued found that the wines didn’t taste strange or weird at all — that actually tasted really good in an interesting way, different from the way they had been taught to receive Champagne.

That’s when it really took off. And I was incredibly pleased that it did because, well, there’s a line in one of my favorite Steely Dan songs called “Third World Man” that mentions making the sidewalks safe for the little guys. So I kind of felt like, well, this is really cool. We’re helping to make the sidewalks safe for the little guys. The big guys have had their way for long enough. In that sense, I really felt like we were watching the proletariat take back the means of production.

Has this all happened quicker or slower than you expected?

It started slower than I expected but then, all of a sudden, it started happening quicker than I expected.

When did things take off?

We really started to see a lot of growth somewhere between 2003 and 2006. And then I started feeling like, “wooh, boy, we’ve got something.” It was kind of like when you turn the flame on your gas range and it sparks, sparks, sparks, but the flame doesn’t catch. And then, all of a sudden the flame goes, “whoosh!” It was kind of like that.

It was good from my standpoint as a businessperson that we got in when we did and how we did, because we are the market leaders in the category. I mean, I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t thought it could succeed. And I am the patron saint in a way of lost causes. Not because I gravitate towards the quixotic but because I become so categorically convinced that it’s something worth doing — and I’m just going to keep banging my foolish head against the wall until the wall starts to yield. And, so it’s nothing other than conviction, maybe incoherent conviction, maybe doomed conviction, but it’s conviction nevertheless.

So when the resistance began to yield in the early part of the oughts, part of me felt like, “it’s about time!” And the other part felt like a miracle was taking place, because there’s always some little part of you that feels like, “I’m not going to succeed, this is really going fail, I’m going to make a fool of myself, everybody’s going line up to say they told me so.” So when it started happening? I kind of felt like, “well, fuckin’ A!”

I doubt they’d ever admit it, but the big houses have to be worried about their declining market share. And it seems to me that the quality of big house Champagne has dramatically improved over the past four or five years. I can’t imagine it’s coincidental.

It’s not. It’s a byproduct of Champagne being under the microscope in a way that it never was before. And what put it under the microscope was the grower revolution. Of course, our rampaging 5 percent market share does not threaten the big houses. But what does bother them is the entire dialogue surrounding Champagne is now being conducted essentially under the matrix of the growers. And also a lot of their prestige, showcase placements — by-the-glass pours at Michelin-starred restaurants and the like — that they breezily presumed was their birthright, they’re now realizing they’re going to have to compete on quality.

Ultimately, I think that the final shoe that’s going to drop is that they’re going to need to be more forthcoming with information and treat their customers like customers, and not like lemmings that they can push off the cliff of their choice.

In your most-recent newsletter, you write, “‘Champagne’ carries a charge, and even those of us who argue for its everyday usefulness at-table must admit that, emotionally, Champagne is used differently than other wines. We invest our hearts in it.” Why is that? I mean,       that’s what the big houses want. But even we admit that there’s something special about Champagne.

It is what the big houses want. They want to relegate it to this kind of beverage of ceremony, which presumes that ceremonies are few and far between. But, as you know, there are weekly, if not daily ceremonies.

But there is something evidently unique to Champagne, that it is the thing for which one reaches when one needs to either observe a particular moment of happiness or triumph or to console a particular disappointment or defeat. So, the question of why it is so unique? That’s an interesting question and I say that because I’m not entirely certain how to answer it. I’m not sure whether there’s something more than just a century of successful marketing that’s behind this reflex to reach for Champagne for charged occasions.

But if there is and answer, then I would argue that it is perhaps because of two things, one of which is lyric, and the other of which is quotidian.

The lyric one, I think, is the rising of the mousse. You can say the same thing is true of beer, but it’s more beautiful in Champagne. Here you have this wonderful, miraculous thing, with hundreds of thousands of little tiny bubbles that are defeating gravity and exploding in this gentle fragrant foam on the lip of the glass. There is something beautiful — in a kind of giddy way — about just the sight of Champagne.

The quotidian one is that the carbon dioxide delivers alcohol into the bloodstream more efficiently than it does in still wines. So, all things being equal, you’re going get a quicker buzz from Champagne than from still wine. If I want to get an audience on my side, I will sometimes say, “That feeling of drinking a half of glass of Champagne on an empty stomach is like having nitrous oxide without having to go to the dentist.”

When asked if you’re “proud” of launching the grower revolution, you’ve said that you “can’t think of it in terms of pride.” How come?

Oh, it’s simple. It’s because pride is a temptation of mine and one to which I really ought not to succumb. So I resist feelings of pride whenever the temptation arises. It’s not good for me to be proud. It just makes me into a person that I don’t like. So, I would rather try and remain grounded and just say, “Look, it was a joy and a privilege that by dint of my energy, among other people’s energy, a good thing was brought about.” To feel proud of it makes it too much about me and not enough about the thing that was done.

As you know, I visited Didier Gimonnet in July. And while telling me that his wines “aren’t trendy,” he pushed back against the current obsession with what he called “single expression” wines — single-vineyard wines from a single vintage. Of course, you’ve criticized the obsession with zero dosage wines in Champagne.


Lots of hot producers are obsessed with the singular right now. Is that good or bad for Champagne? What are your thoughts on these single expression wines?

I think it’s mostly good for Champagne and I certainly think there’s room for all of it. Look, I’m a German wine merchant — so the more specificity and particularity of origin a label conveys, the happier I am. But that doesn’t mean I look at a guy like Didier and feel like he has his head in the sand or he’s lost in the past. He has a fairly narrow pantry of ingredients and a sincere belief that blending — in his case as he does it from his surrounding area, which is relatively small — is going to give him wines where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He comes by that belief honorably and sincerely. And in the final analysis, it doesn’t matter to me whether I agree with him theoretically because I love the results. His wines are stunning.

That’s the long answer to your question, which can be answered much more briefly by just saying there’s room for them all. And to the extent that there’s a wave of producers who are really interested in identifying origin vineyards, they’ll pull Champagne a little more in that direction — which I think is a good thing. But the other thing that’s going to happen is that in the fullness of time, they’ll begin to realize that not every individual piece of land was kissed by the angels. Some vineyards are not so remarkable that one needs to bottle wines from them alone. But you only arrive at that understanding by trial and error, so we have to let it play out.

You’ve obviously had a huge impact on the U.S. marketplace. Who in modern Champagne deserves the most credit for bringing the region to where it is today — growers are finally excited about terroir and treating soil responsibily. I’m sure you’re seen many more old photos of Champagne than I have, where the soil is just totally devastated.

And full of plastic garbage.

It seems like there are a lot of very serious growers taking their vineyard work very seriously — I’d guess that the number is higher than ever before. Who in Champagne deserves credit for this? Does it go to someone like Selosse?

I’m not really sure that you can lay it at the feet of any one particular producer or even producers, plural. I think it arises out of a sensibility that if we take Champagne seriously as wine and we want others to do the same, then hadn’t we better treat our vineyards with more respect? So, that’s kind of where I think it’s coming from.

When did growers there start taking their region seriously? France is extraordinarily provincial. I’m sure plenty of serious growers there never drank wine from outside Champagne until recently.


So sure, thanks in part to people like you, we now treat Champagne as wine. But when did folks there start treating it like wine?

There always were a few. There were enough for me to put a good portfolio together and continue to add to it starting in 1997. But I think the idea began to gain critical mass in the last 12 to 15 years as more and more people were doing it — and as people were talking about the people who were doing it.

Champagne was a backwater for a really long time. It’s really an isolated wine region; the closest neighbor is Chablis, which itself is isolated. But I think the internet probably had a lot to do with that as well. Because of the advent of social media, a new generation of producers from all over France were able to exchange ideas. So it’s a combination of things happening all at once. And it’s really going take at least a generation for Champagne vineyards as a whole to recover from the abuse that they suffered for so many decades. But it’s starting. It’s a good thing that it’s starting. And one of the really healthy signs is when you start to see negociants doing it.


So if you look at what Roederer’s doing and what Jacquesson’s doing, they’ll begin to put an impetus behind a wave and eventually the others will be shamed into following suit.

Roederer is transitioning all its vineyards to biodynamic, right?

Exactly. Which they can do because they own something like 70 percent of their vineyards.

What’s next for Champagne?

I don’t see grower Champagne entering the mainstream, but I do see growers entering the “hip” mainstream. You know what I mean about the distinction? We’re not going to have grower Champagne at the Olive Gardens of the world. But we’re going to have growers in many, many more fine dining restaurants. That’s a process that’s already started — and I think there’s momentum behind it.

In the region, there will continue to be good growers who weren’t growers before; there will be young people whose parents sold grapes to negociants. Soil will be treated better and the overall quality of grower Champagne will increase inexorably, but slowly.

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