Riesling buzz, grower Champagne, 2009, nude breakfast – Terry Theise

Is Riesling a hard sell? Has the bubble burst on his Champagnes made by those who grow the grapes? Just how good is 2009? On Tuesday, I pulled wine importer Terry Theise aside at the trade tasting of his New York distributor, Michael Skurnik Wines. We discussed these topics–and more. To the tape!

2009—great vintage or the greatest vintage?
Whoa! A Stephen Colbert question! I can’t pick a side! I don’t know. I’ve tasted too few. The only things I’ve tasted is what we have here. Certainly in Champagne, they are over the moon about it. You know, Tyler, honestly, when the reports started coming in about 09, I found myself not especially eager to read them. I’m not sure that the market is really kind of dilated to receive another superb vintage. All of us merchants are contemplating that fact that we used to be able to rely on a vintage bounce if the vintage was perceived to be exceptionally good. But there have been so many good vintages cheek by jowl that at this point that somebody for whatever reason is not ready to buy wine is left completely cold by the argument that it’s a great vintage. That person will just say, “Hey, there’ll be another one in a year or two. I’ve got no money or no space in the cellar or whatever, I’m just going to miss it.”

So I just looked at 2009 in Germany at least and said, short crop: will have upward pressure on prices. Outstanding quality, which means there won’t be very many of the wines of the types that I need. So I just kind of looked at and thought, hmmm. I’m sure when I taste them I’ll come back excited by them. Irrespective of the quality of the wines, speaking from a purely mercantile sense, it is the wrong vintage for its moment. Mind you, 2008 was the right vintage for its moment and thankfully there are still plenty of 08s available. Plentiful, not overripe, gave a reasonably decent sized community of wines that could retail for under $25 and was what we really needed—and still need.

On that note, Riesling is very popular now, but how about Riesling over $30?
Still a very difficult sell. I would say two things to that. First, I think the popularity of Riesling is occurring in the echo chamber of people who like Riesling and like talking about it and writing about it but don’t necessarily like purchasing it, particularly in its dry form. I think there’s more chatter about Riesling—which is good—than there is real discernible commercial activity. That being said, we’re selling three times more Riesling than we did in the nineties, so all these things are relative. For public attribution, obviously one wants to be able to say, “yay! It’s gung-ho! Everybody’s crazy about it! We can’t keep them in stock!” But Riesling is a niche market. It is a growing niche. It has room to grow more. The question is whether it will or should emerge from the niche. And it’s really important to keep that “should” in that sentence. Dry Riesling is a niche of the niche.

Why is dry Riesling less popular?
I wish I knew—I truly don’t understand it. I can only infer from experience: even drinking great dry Riesling is an experience that seems too cerebral for a mass audience. I don’t see it that way. I like cerebral wines. But that’s not my sine qua non. I also like sensual and hedonistic wines and there are plenty of dry Rieslings that are sensual and hedonistic. Look at Brundlmayer or Hirsch or the best of Nikolaihof or the best among the Germans as well. My own sense is that five to 10 years ago, Riesling was definitely in on the ascent. Right now, it’s kind of flying in circles, it’s in a holding pattern. It doesn’t really have a landing vector yet. It’s still being talked about but the chatter is not being reflected in the kind of numbers that would give me the impression—look, we’re doing well, more than surviving. Look around you. But let me put it this way: you have a lot of people who have eagerly come here to taste Riesling. But when they go back to their stores or restaurants, and they start looking at what they order, suddenly the budget parameters start to shrink and they lose their courage, they lose their nerve. They’ll say “this is the only slot we have for Riesling,” or “It’s only this amount of shelf space,” or “it only has this amount of wine list space.” To which I would say: make it more! You have a lot of wine that you don’t need on your list.

I was in a restaurant in New York last night—I won’t say the name—overwhelmingly a fish-oriented restaurant. The wine list was half and half red and white wine. What’s all that red wine doing on that list? It doesn’t belong it doesn’t work with the food? Why is it there? Eat a piece of branzino and have a Gruad Larose with it? I shudder to think about what’s going on in people’s mouths. Why is it there? What we need to see is people who are saying we have 35 chardonnays on the list and six Rieslings. We’re going to have 27 chardonnays and 13 Rieslings. And that is something that we’re not really seeing. It used to be that we’d see people with two Rieslings on the list and now they have seven. Great. But when you actually look at the best value for money, the wine works best with the food, the thing that will be the most nourishing for everybody in the process from an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual standpoint, it’s not reflected in what’s out there.

Négociant champagnes have been having a tough time right now; what about grower champagnes, by contrast?
We’re doing all right. We had a surprisingly good year. It was not quite as good as 2008. But we all know the figures: we see the CIVC shipments are down by whatever it is, 30%, but we were down nominally, a single digit. Our sales have been pretty good. So in that sense, from the marketing standpoint, having been doing grower champagne for 11 years, the campaign has been successful. If you just look at the numbers, there were 33 RMs [a designation on the label for those who grow grapes and make wine -ed.] when I started, there are now almost 180. It was 0.62% of the market in 1997; it’s now 3.05% of the market. So that’s been completely successful—I have no complaint whatsoever about my grower champagne business or the willingness of people to embrace the idea. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it has been shooting fish in a barrel but it has been the easiest sale I’ve ever made.

It’s French and not German. It’s champagne. It was the right idea for its time. It was the right idea period. It was the last place in France that was dominated by negociants, everywhere else in France, wine drinkers had learned to seek out the best domains. So that’s all you had to do, is ask why stop at Champagne? It was an easy argument to make for journalists particularly because it was a great story. I remember I told someone who was doing a trend alert for TIME magazine and we were on the phone, and I was riffing, and said “Champagne is the last place in the wine world where you can watch the proletariat taking back the means of production.” And she was like, “Whoa! That’s a really good quote! How do you spell proletariat?” It was an idea that was immensely appealing, especially to Americans with our love of the underdog.

Then the fact that the big houses continued to conduct themselves in such an incredibly cynical and smarmy manner, just played into our hands. So with my farmer fizz biz, I’m like totally cool. Thank you. You all get it. I love you. Thank you for sticking your necks out. I appreciate it.

One-liter bottles appear a trend now with many good ones here today. A wine for the times?
Very much so. Easy drinking, good value. One thing that I like about the one-liters especially the ones with crown caps, is that they emit an aura of unpretentiousness. [Such as Hofer and Berger –ed.] But when you taste the wine, it’s surprisingly good. It’s been for us, mostly an Austria phenomenon and mostly a Gruner Veltliner phenomenon. It’s mostly been a way for people to easily enjoy and appreciate Gruner Veltliner in its lighter echelon. You don’t really see liters of Riesling in Austria because there’s not enough Riesling made. But we do liters of Riesling and Silvaner from Germany. They do okay. But they don’t do as well as the Gruner Veltliners do. Again, I think it has to do with it being Riesling. I could have utterly delicious, dirt cheap outstanding dry Riesling from Germany and it would be twenty times a harder sell than the Austrian Gruner Veltliners. I don’t know why!

So that’s why you hear me sounding a little bit cynical about hearing all these people talking about Riesling: why aren’t they kicking some ass?

It sounds like it was actually a good year for you last year. Yet for your tasting catalogue last year, you appeared topless but this year, in a bathrobe. Why the modesty?
I think that there were still some people who were getting over the nervous and psychological shock of seeing me topless and I just don’t want to be responsible for people having somatic breakdowns. So yes, we decided it was going to be a Riesling for breakfast theme. And I don’t eat breakfast in the nude, sorry.

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21 Responses to “Riesling buzz, grower Champagne, 2009, nude breakfast – Terry Theise”

  1. A couple of consumer observations on Riesling:
    This is a wine that I’m spending time on right now trying to get to know. My early experience with dry Riesling was that once it was dry, you could no longer taste the fruit. I’ve had enough now that I know that’s not always true, but I’m still not sure how to reliably pick out one I like other than to go back to the same labels, which is fine, but limiting. The other issue is that German labels are very tough for consumers to figure out if they don’t speak German. I’ve been buying German wine on and off for about two years now and I still need a crib sheet when I go to the store. I’ve found off-dry Rieslings to be more consistent in taste and quality, even at inexpensive prices. The vast majority of wines I drink are dry, but there’s a lot of appeal in a little sweetness and an acidic finish.

  2. Great interview. Terry Theise has always done right by me.

    I wish the local wine shops would stock more Silvaner and dry Rieslings. They are great food wines and usually easy on the wallet as well.

  3. I love German Rieslings (perhaps I’m biased because I was born in Germany)!!
    And Terry Theise rocks!
    I also think the 1-liter bottle is a great idea (altho will that become the 1-liter BOX before too long?)


  4. Great interview. I appreciate Terry’s honesty and senses of humor and proportion. I’ve never been disappointed by one of his wines.

  5. Christine,

    Good post with vaild points. Please take 30 minutes to learn about the German terms for the types of Riesling and it will help you a ton when it comes to making selections. They have had a nice run of good vintages lately so there aren’t many you will miss with but there are some who do it better than others and once you learn a bit about the styles via the designations you will be able to hone in on the ones you like.

  6. I am delighted at the present commercial state of affairs with Riesling, arguably the finest white wine grape in the world and my personal favorite along with Chenin. Other than a few BAs and TbAs, Rieslings are fortunately not in the sights of wine trophy hunters, and this means that I can get great wines from Germany, Alsace and Austria at a small fraction of the price of top Chardonnay without, to boot, running the risk of Premox.

  7. I think that a very real problem with riesling continues to be the perception to non wine geeks that riesling is the liebsfraumilch from the supermarket. I mention riesling to my somewhat knowledgeable wife and friends and they invariably start to moan about sweet wine. I also find some of the entry level dry rieslings less than compelling and it is a hard sell then for people to go to tier two, if that makes any sense. In any case, the association that riesling has as anonymous and cloying seems far harder to shake even than say what Chablis went through and I can’t say as that I know why.

    I am glad to see the rise of grower champagne, but I long for the day when champagne really has anything at all to do with the proletariat. I laugh at the idea that everyman drinks at the $30 a bottle and up level and I think we all know that this is ridiculous. Cava is the sparkling wine the people can afford if they know enough to buy it, and if not they drink inferior american bubbles at twice the price. I complain about it all the time here, but even as much as I spend on wine I just have a hard time drinking champagne more than maybe once a month because the cost is too high for what you get I think. I’d rather drink a cava AND follow it with a great wine from somewhere else, or I’d rather drink three bottles of muscadet, or two of good riesling, so maybe Terry wins either way.

    In any case, don’t mean to be too negative, because I really do enjoy most everything I have tried from Terry’s portfolio and his is a name that, when in doubt, I trust on the back label of a bottle as a sign to swing away. Maybe I should have led with that!

  8. Riesling is a hard sell to the consumers simply because they don’t get it. While 95% of wine drinkers take a sip and swallow (no tasting process) they immediately will label it as sweet.

    When I teach wine classes I get the bulk of students saying it is sweet. Next we learn the tasting process and then they realize it is more sour and balanced.

    I would say educating the consumers on how good German Riesling is will be the key to more sales.

  9. I love Riesling and love Terry Theise! A few years ago I was buying wine for World Market, when one of my distributors gave me Terry’s catalogue. I was already really into Riesling, so I read it cover to cover in one sitting. It is a fun, informative read. I highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in wine. It can be downloaded online.

    At the time I had to buy all my Rieslings, for personal consumption, from distributors “under the table”. I couldn’t bring more than one or two decent Rieslings into the stores, because they wouldn’t sell. People who “liked” Riesling came in looking for blue bottles. I had very little success hand-selling good Riesling to these people. I had more success selling the better Rieslings to people interested in other quality whites.

    I agree with Terry that more people should be interested in Riesling as a food-friendly wine, and stop being scared of a little residual sugar! You know you like sweets!

  10. Tyler,

    Thank you for bringing Terry’s opinion to the blog. He is great to have around. I would recommend to any Riesling Geek to download his yearly catalog online on the Skurnik website.

    Riesling is the fastest growing varietal in the US among the top ten varietals. I think the appreciation for those wines is growing. I wish this would come more from restaurants than from retailers and that they would consider a balanced mix of foreign and domestic (bit self promoting here of course).

    By the way, I’ll be in NYC in March if you want to chat about domestic Rieslings.



  11. John Glas and Michael refer to the popular view that Riesling means sweet, even cloying.

    Part of the blame for this must lie in a strange reluctance of producers, particularly in Alsace and New Zealand to label the degree of perceptible dryness/sweetness; I sometimes have unpleasant surprises even from my own cellar in pairing such Rieslings with food. They must lose a lot of sales because of this blurriness. Some producers like Zind Humbrecht have realized the problem but indicate the dryness/sweetness by numerals which themselves need decoding. Others, like Trimbach, have a dry house style but the consumer has to know that.

    Most German wines which are exported have some residual sugar but also balancing acidity which means that they are lively and far from cloying. The official German labelling system, once learned, is about the most informative and explicit in the world, so that there should be no surprises, were it not for the annoying tendency in recent times to declassify wines meeting the higher (sweeter) criteria, e.g. Auslese, into lower (less sweet) categories, e.g. Kabinett. Additionally the German definition of “trocken” (=dry) can be criticised for allowing too much Residual Sugar (9g) but it also requires compensating acidity. A very important fly in the ointment is that many German producers opt out of the official system and have their private systems, e.g. Grosses Gewächs, etc. with no dryness/sweetness indicator; one is supposed to know and perhaps Germans, to whom most of these are sold, do know?

    Austrian and Australian Rieslings are mostly reliably dry. The higher grades of the former, e.g. Smaragd, are often quite high in alcohol which can give rise to perception of sweetness by some. I am not sure where US Riesling fits into this picture.

    It is amuses me somewhat that the “average” consumer, presumably a Chardonnay lover, complains about sweetness in Riesling. It is my own perception that most Chardonnay, with the exception of real Chablis, is distinctly sweet.

  12. “I think the popularity of Riesling is occurring in the echo chamber of people who like Riesling and like talking about it and writing about it but don’t necessarily like purchasing it…”

    I like Theise, but this is pretty cheap of him. The people who love Riesling best tend to be the people he accuses of failing to lobby strongly enough for them: sommeliers, wine retailers, wine writers, people who are “in the business.” One attribute shared by these folk is that they tend not to make very much money compared to many other professions. For alot of us, buying multiple bottles of Riesling (or any wine) at the $30+ price point is a fairly significant investment and not something we can do frequently. If Theise wants to get his undies in a bundle about this, he should pick on people who actually have money to burn on wine: stockbrokers, doctors, investment bankers, etc. Just because we “in the biz” can’t afford to buy $30+ wine by the case doesn’t mean wouldn’t “like” to purchase it, and don’t do so when we can. I can’t remember the last time I bought a $30 Cabernet Sauvignon; I bought three bottles of Keller 07 von der fels @ $36 just last week.

  13. Forgot to mention that the International Riesling Foundation has a taste scale that can be printed on labels (we do that on ours) and that help consumers understand the impression of sweetness of any given Riesling. For an FYI.

  14. Scan data and consumer research tell us that interest in and purchases of Riesling are still growing, but German wines have lost their momentum. Price probably has a lot to do with this, but there may be more to the story. Riesling consumers are an interesting crazy quilt of people with different takes on the grape, from casual quaffers to Alsatian mavens.

  15. Eboracum: Clarifying a detail about Smaragd with a latin reference…A group of growers in the Wachau created Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus an organization which signed the Codex Wachau specifically defining their philosophy of winemaking. Smaragd, Federspiel, and Steinfeder are terms only applied to wine produced by members of the Codex Wachau, who produce wine only in the Wachau DAC.

    Smaragd– (it’s the common name of the Emerald Lizard which lives in the area) is the denomination of the best…Wachau wines with an alcohol content of more than 12.5%

    Federspiel– (name comes from falconry…the device used to lure the prey back to the glove…like they used at the Jet’s game yesterday) Wines with alcohol level between 11.5% and 12.5%

    Steinfeder–(name comes from the local name of Steinfedergras, a feather grass that grows in the immediate proximity of the vines on the terraces..These wines of less than 11.5% alcohol are feather light…ergo the name.

    (BTW, are you a Noo Yawkah, a Brit from York or a lover of Latin?)

  16. Great interview…we were at this tasting as well and our first stop was the Champagnes. Found the pourer’s spiel about Meunier being an under appreciated grape that can be made into an elegant wine interesting. (And what is this trend to drop the “pinot” from pinot meunier?)

  17. I work at a winery and I love well made Riesling. More often than not when I buy Riesling, it’s from Germany, Alsace or Austria.
    The problem is that the average American wine drinker (not the wine enthusiast) can’t tell the difference between “sweetness” and “fruit”.
    I have had people in our tasting room taste an unoaked Chardonnay at 0.1% residual sugar and tell me it’s too sweet.
    Some have also had it drilled into them that they are not “supposed to” like sweet or fruity wines.
    I am convinced that the best way to sell Riesling is to call it something else. There is a strong prejudice against Riesling out there.

  18. A quick note for Aaron – Thanks for your interest in the Keller. I noticed that Binny’s in Chicago is closing out the end of the 07 Keller Von Der Fels for $25. If you are in the area, you might want to swing by.

  19. I’m a Brit called York and wasted 10 years of my youth learning Latin.

  20. The primary problem with German dry riesling acceptance in the US, is the demand for such issues in the homeland translating into higher prices. Under $20 can score a 9% ABV Riesling of near greatness, especially if it is a Theise closeout ;-). Under $20 can not buy a GG or even Keller’s base dry offering – Von der Fels. Sure, Keller’s Abtserde @ $100+ can punch (out) with Chablis Grand Cru, but this is not common knowledge. BTW Von der Fels is much better with food than alone. One way to look at it, is that lack of acceptance of Riesling in general will make it easy for us Rieslingheads to find great wine at great prices and the downside is Terry can’t buy a NetJet share.

  21. The reason is easy more riesling would be sold if it was offered, so many sommeliers boast that they love riesling but few offer a decent one BTG or a series of them that would help to educate the palates of their customers. Instead of burying it on back shelf in the middle of your wine list, feature it!! When a good customer walks in pour them a glass on the house, my god I would rather give away riesling than shots of jager! Do flights of say a Austrian/German and Alsatian. But chatting about it and not becoming involved will never grow this fabulous segment of the wine market. Remember sommeliers you are not an order taker, but you are suppose to be the person that turns people on to great new wines.


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