Terry Theise is a leading U.S. importer of German and Austrian wines, and a James Beard Award winner. In his new book, Reading Between the Wines, he delves into his passion for wine and the aspects of winegrowing he considers most important. In the first part of my interview with him, we discuss his thoughts on organic and biodynamic practices.
The practices you admire in your book are also at the root or organic and biodynamic winegrowing. Do those labels turn off you off?
No. It’s only when they are wielded as doctrine that I get a little skeptical. To my way of thinking, doctrine is always dangerous and the only defensible and sustainable doctrine is to eschew doctrine altogether. You see a lot of hate being made right now by people who are waging sort of an organic jihad against wines that they deem to be impure and unnatural. To me the question is far more interesting, intricate and complex to be reduced to those kind of bullet points.
I’m in enormous sympathy with people who employ organics and especially biodynamics. I’m agnostic about the practices themselves, but i have an enormous degree of admiration for the people who do it. I like what it is they feel they are getting at.
Do you think certification is important?
Organic is a brand, and its a very attractive brand to people who wish to consume in a certain way and who wish to make political and ethical decisions as consumers. I see growers who don’t like being pinned down, because they realize how complicated viticulture is. And as soon as it’s reduced to a purity test it raises their hackles.
Then there are the type that do work organically and don’t say anything about it. In some cases they are just really modest, the virtue is its own reward. In other cases they are temperamental lone-wolves, not interested in joining associations. Then there are others who just hate doing paperwork and don’t want to fill in the forms. I finally arrived at the decision – if they’re not willing to certify then they are not entitled to the brand. If they like to wrap themselves in the feel-good aspect of organics then fill out the fucking forms, man.
What do you see in the future for organic and biodynamic wines?
I think there’s going to be more and more of it. Particularly in the places where I work, as there is a generational transfer going on right now and young vintners are very much pushing in green directions. All of which i encourage and applaud. I feel that as a long time partner and friend and fellow wine lover that I want to provide all kinds of loving support for every move they make in an organic direction. But I don’t want to shame them for the moves they don’t feel they can make.
It would be arrogant of me to dictate to a Mosel producer “why aren’t you organic?” when their production costs are already eleven times higher than someone working in flat vineyards in the Pfalz, and they have locally humid microclimates that make it nearly impossible to get a commercial crop without using fungicides sometime during the season. They just can’t go out there every four days and spray with copper unless the consumer is willing to endure a price increase for the wine.
I have a couple of producers in my portfolio who in the past several years have completed the transition to organic and biodynamic, and whose prices have risen accordingly and understandably. Their sales, however, have not. At least not among my customers. So unless these wines are bad, which I don’t think they are, I’m looking at a phenomenon where a lot of people are strutting their green credentials, and telling everyone who asks how much they want organic wines, but I also have evidence they’re not willing to pay the upcharge.
I’m a little less confident about biodynamics, because I think at some point – and this is just me holding a wet finger to the wind, no scientific basis – there is going to a Steiner backlash. I’m not talking about the scientific community or internet boards. I think even among the practitioners of biodynamics there’s going to be a generalized backlash against some of the mysticism of the whole thing. But to me that is immaterial. I don’t think it’s going to make the earth any less healthy or the wines worse. It’s going to be part of a very sensible debate about some extremely provocative and unprovable ideas.