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Terry Theise

by Cynthia Sin-Yi Cheng
October 1, 2005

Wine Importer-Distributor
Terry Theise Estate Selections
(A division of Michael Skurnik Wines)
Silver Springs, Maryland, USA

Legendary wine figure, recently named “Best Importer-Distributor of 2005” by Food & Wine magazine (October 2005), Terry Theise is highly recognized for introducing a premium portfolio of small estate-based champagne houses to the US market: Pierre Gimonnet, Varnier-Fannière, Marc Hébrart, Henri Billiot, and Vilmart & Cie. When I asked him about his background, our-always-personable Terry playfully blurted out, "the most adorable artisan-importer to have been born in August 1953!”

I am dying to know how you ended up importing all these fabulous grower-producer champagnes into the US.

It’s really a pretty dull story; I just love the stuff. I met my wife Odessa Piper in ’93, when she was the soon-to-be James Beard award-winning chef of L’Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin. We married in ’96 and ours was a romance of comings and goings, both of which we observed with champagne — what else? And being the artisan types we both are, we looked for grower wines. Shortly thereafter we visited Champagne and bought a bunch of farmer fizz for our cellar, and then Odessa successfully wheedled me into doing a portfolio of growers’ wines. I had been tempted but too cautious until then.

What trends are you seeing since you started introducing grower champagnes to this country eight years ago?

A few small trends are emerging, among them: 1. More growers producing and bottling their own wines, encouraged by the success of those who preceded them. 2. More attention being paid to such growers by both importers and the market in general. 3. More attention being paid to micro-terroir within Champagne. 4. A general tendency for champagnes at the good-grower level to be drier than they were recently. 5. A willingness to consider the virtues of organic viticulture. Champagne was late to the party on this issue.

Immersed in champagne, as you happily are, do you have any particular cravings?

I don’t have cravings for individual wines, but rather for types of champagne. If I go without whichever type of champagne for, say, a week or longer, I really start yearning for it.

I see your point. When I have a craving for champagne I will also often crave a specific style of champagne, say a 100% chardonnay blanc de blancs. In which case, I will likely have several of my favorite choices within the blanc de blancs style of champagne in mind.

I don’t experience equivalent cravings, really; I select the specific champagne appropriate to the food, or the weather, or whatever happens to be already chilled, or the one my wife wants to drink. As long as the wine is clear in flavor, distinctive in character and harmonious in structure, my tastes are ecumenical. I like the minerality of blanc de blancs and the sumptuousness of red-grape cuvées. I adore mature champagnes, especially mature blanc de blancs.

When you say mature, are you referring to vintage champagnes or any blanc de blancs that has ageability?

Inasmuch as producers usually use their better fruit for vintage wines, these are naturally capable of greater aging. But even the better NV (non-vintage) wines can age very well in good conditions — Gaston Chiquet opened an over-40-year-old bottle of his basic NV (45% Pinot Meunier, which usually doesn’t age very well), which was in superb shape — and if there’s one nearly universal truth about champagne, it’s that 4 to 6 years on the cork does all of them good!

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