Book Review: "Reading between the Wines" by Terry Theise

It’s easy to forget, with the seemingly eternal chase for points and press accolades, that wine, at its essence, it about us. That seemingly benign juice in the bottle, at its best, has the potential to be transporting, to reveal to us not just previously unfamiliar aromas and flavors, but to connect us to places and people--including our innermost selves--we otherwise never would have been lucky enough to come across. But only, according to Terry Theise, when those wines are real, honest. This, you could say, is one of the guiding lights, and certainly one of the catalysts, of his thesis in his newly-in-paperback edition of the excellent Reading between the Wines (University of California Press, 189 pp.).
We might call this work a vino-philosophical manifesto, and its central claim--that wine matters far more than so much of our modern wine culture gives it credit for, or, worse, allows it to--is passionately, eloquently argued. Indeed, it’s virtually impossible to read this book and not find yourself moved by Theise’s deeply held conviction regarding the primacy of wine and its symbolism. And, occasionally, the real-world impact it has on us.
“...[If] I ask myself what is the net effect of what I do,” writes Theise, one of the most important wine importers of our time, “this voice propels me through ever more big-picture considerations.” And then he’s off, tracing the logical implications of each answer, Wittgenstein-like, to larger and larger conclusions. He ultimately arrives here: “In short, I have to assert values. [Italics his.]...In delineating these values, I find I can’t escape matters of the soul...If soul enters the question, you can’t select what it inhabits, because soul inhabits either all of it or none of it. So what I finally end up doing is placing wine in the context of a life of the soul...So now I am defending and delineating the idea of living with conscience, gratitude, eros, humor, all the things soul imbues us with...”
And so it goes. Occasionally, this tracing a statement out to its logical conclusion leads to fuzzy language and the rare overwrought turn of phrase. It occasionally makes this 189-page volume read as longer than it really is. But the audience for this book--and I count myself among it, and happily so--won’t mind. Passion, after all, should be difficult to always keep in check. And Theise is a man who backs up his passion with a knife-like incisiveness in understanding the nature of a region, a winemaker, a particular bottle. Occasional density of language is a small price to pay in the service of noble ends that are exuberantly achieved with wit and stunning intelligence.
He also dives headfirst into most of the major issues roiling the wine world today, and his remarkably catholic approach to reading and thinking (and, of course, tasting) allows him to present his views in a deeply intelligent and witty style. As you’d perhaps imagine, Theise takes issue with “awarding” wines a specific number of points based on some sort of supposedly objective scale. To illustrate this, he draws a comparison to the plainly ridiculous notion of scoring, say, works of literature:
“I give Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at least a 94. That ranks it among the great literary scenes of all time, along with Stavrogin’s confession (95) Levin’s day with the Threshers (97), Gerald’s walk to his death in the mountains (94+), and the death of Ben Grant (99).  I didn’t used to give scores to great scenes in literature. But eventually I came to realize that all pleasure is a commodity, and I owed it to myself to quantify the little suckers. So now, when I read novels, I’m constantly thinking, How many points is this scene worth?
This is where Theise is at his strongest: Throwing into glaring relief the absurdity of our contemporary wine culture’s insistence on commoditizing wine at the expense of its deeper purpose, and scoring all wines against each other in some sort of vinous vacuum, instead of, as he says, appreciating the “aesthetic moment” of a “true” wine on its own merits, and in the unique context of our own “souls.” It’s lofty language, to be sure, but this is lofty stuff he’s dealing with here, and worthy of his words.
This book is not a primer on a region or a grape variety like so many others on the ubiquitous “Food and Drink” shelf at the store, but, rather, a heartfelt plea to make the most of our wine lives--and, as a result, our lives in general. In discussing this, Theise takes us into the tasting rooms and homes of a number of the remarkable men and women he’s been fortunate enough to work with over the years. These are some of the most affecting scenes in the book. I honestly cannot remember ever before having cried while reading a book on wine, but his evocations, his recreations, of the death of a dear friend, or the wormhole-like connection to the past afforded by a great old bottle, or just a particularly lyric turn of phrase--these all lend Reading between the Wines an occasional sense of the elegiac. Which, as anyone who’s ever contemplated the last sip of a particularly great or emotionally important wine knows, is what wine requires: Like the birth of a child, the uncorking of a bottle of wine begins its inevitable trip toward oblivion. That's life; that's wine: It's the most basic, profound connection. If wine isn’t worthy of the level of consideration and care that Theise offers it, then nothing is.
This book, then, does more to elucidate what’s so important about wine better than any other I’ve read in recent memory. It’s an affecting, thoughtful, and often beautiful exploration of why wine (or, more specifically, what Theise would call true wine) matters as much as it does. The world needs books like this as much as it needs the wines that Theise cares so deeply about, and has worked so hard to introduce to all of us.

[Note: Cover photo courtesy of the University of California Press.]