Written by Janet Fletcher
Many years ago, Kermit Lynch descended into a musty wine cellar in Burgundy and emerged with a mission – to share obscure French wines with the world.
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Like a pet lover who embraces the creatures that no one else will adopt, Kermit Lynch runs a haven for strays. They rarely have pedigrees, but they have virtues that others ignore. He showers them with affection, sings their praises and quickly finds them good homes because his belief in them is so infectious.
Lynch is a wine importer and retailer with a predilection for obscure French wines and a talent for persuading customers that Corsican wine is what their life is missing. The quirky mailers he writes for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, his Berkeley store, have a near-cult following. And his unconventional preferences and prejudices, shaped over 30 years in business, have left their marks on the American market.
In 1970, the sedate world of imported wine was run by gentlemen with aristocratic bloodlines, English accents or Old World connections. Lynch had none of those. He was an unsuccessful Berkeley rock-and-roller with a small business making purses out of Oriental rug scraps. When he -couldn’t bear the smell of glue any longer, he sold the enterprise, went to Europe with the proceeds and returned home with a hobbyist interest in wine.
No local wine shop would hire him, so Lynch borrowed $5,000 from a girlfriend and opened his own, a tiny storefront on San Pablo Avenue in Albany.
Initially, Lynch’s shop was little different from many others. He sold imported and California wines, choosing from the samples that salespeople brought him. But industry practices quickly went against his grain. He resented having to buy 100 cases of some winery’s mediocre Chenin Blanc to get 10 cases of its Chardonnay.
“I -couldn’t stand that,” says Lynch, a slight 60-year-old with an impish appearance. “I wanted to taste and select what I sold.” Not long after he opened the shop, an importer took him to France on a buying trip. He descended into Burgundy’s dark, moldy cellars; tasted with winemakers and dined at their tables; and learned that many were willing to sell him only the wines he wanted. Before long, Lynch had banished the California wines from his shop and replaced them with inexpensive French wines that others had bypassed. “He was the first, at least on the West Coast, to really beat the bushes and find the little people nobody had ever heard of,” says Steve Gilbertson of North Berkeley Wine Company, a competitor.
Lynch sought out vineyard owners in Burgundy who had been selling their wine to negociants – middlemen who would blend the wine with many others – and persuaded the growers to bottle their own wine and give him an exclusive. He left the beaten path of Burgundy and Bordeaux to explore the wine routes of the Loire Valley, Provence, the Languedoc and Cotes du Rhone. He also met Richard Olney, the expatriate American artist and food writer in Provence, who profoundly shaped Lynch’s taste.
“Richard was supposed to be my translator,” Lynch recalls. “I had no idea who he really was. It turned out he knew all the winemakers and all the great restaurants.”
Olney awakened Lynch to the idea that good wines have unique personalities, singular voices that express their place. “Before, I’d say I had a Parker palate: the bigger the better,” says Lynch, referring to influential wine critic Robert Parker, whose taste for high- alcohol wines is renowned. “If it wasn’t big, it wasn’t good. But it really struck me when Richard said, ‘Let’s see what the wine has to say.’ ”
Lynch filled his shop with Chinon, Bourgeuil and Saumur from the Loire Valley, Corbieres, Cahors and Coteaux du Languedoc, strange bottlings he would have to explain to Americans. He found affordable Champagnes from then- unfamiliar producers like Billecart-Salmon. And he began what is certainly one of the most important relationships of his business life, with Domaine Tempier of Bandol in Provence. The reds and roses of Domaine Tempier became virtually the house wines at Chez Panisse, and descriptions of languid meals at winery proprietor Lulu Peyraud’s table began to figure in Lynch’s mailer.
Narsai David, the Bay Area radio personality, said he visited Bandol a few years ago and -couldn’t help noticing the Californian’s impact.
“The people were all singing Kermit’s praises,” David recalls, “and they were all driving brand-new Mercedes. I think he single-handedly created a market for those wines.”
Lynch’s genius lay in sensing that his little-known bottlings needed context. Customers would buy them if they could imagine themselves at Lulu’s table outdoors, eating aioli and pouring themselves another cool glass of rose.
The store’s mailer abounds with you-are-there copy – there with Lynch eating fish in Toulon and craving a bottle of his white Cassis; there in Italy at a mountain winery (he imports a few Italian wines) having biscotti and moscato at 10 a.m.
Lynch rarely resorts to the predictable language that afflicts most wine publications. He likes to humanize wines, to give them personalities and human traits, instead of talking about oak and acidity. He recently described an inexpensive Bordeaux as “satisfyingly nonconfrontational.” In a rant about massive, high-alcohol cult wines, he said they reminded him of Pamela Anderson.
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“Kermit is the master of saying the most in the least space,” says Gilbertson. “He really makes you thirsty.”
Over time, Lynch realized that the wines he liked best – the ones with the most alluring voices – were almost always made by traditional methods, passed from father to son. When French young people began to study enology, the wines lost their soul, he says.
“I saw it happen. The kids would come home from school and say, ‘Dad, what are you doing? You’re going to ruin the wine.’ And the kid would use some chemical and the dad would think, ‘Well, he knows a lot more about it than I do.’ They got ashamed of the artisanal way of making wine.”
For at least the past two decades, Lynch – the son of a fundamentalist preacher – has campaigned vigorously against the modern techniques and attitudes that he believes are destroying the character of French wines. He harangues winemakers who filter their wines, a technique that minimizes sediment but that can also remove flavor if not done lightly. He chastises them about manipulating their wines to achieve a Parker-pleasing style, and he drops them if they -won’t change their methods.
“Kermit has always been a purist about leaving the wines as they are and cherishing their eccentricities,” says Gilbertson.
His anti-filtering crusade “-wasn’t very fashionable when he started to do it,” says Harvey Steiman, an editor at the influential Wine Spectator magazine.
“It was considered odd and he encountered a lot of resistance, but now everybody knows that’s what you need to do.”
However, many acclaimed winemakers believe that light filtering improves their wines and that Lynch’s hands-off approach to winemaking can invite problems. Even Steiman admits he -doesn’t always like the importer’s selections. “He tends to be more tolerant of funky flavors than I am,” Steiman says.
Perhaps Lynch’s most prominent customer and booster is Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters, who shares his passion for Provence and his friendship with the Peyrauds, and who was also mentored by the now-deceased Olney.
“We’re both connected in the south of France at the hip,” says Waters, who sensed a kindred spirit when she met Lynch shortly after his shop opened.
“We were thinking about things in the same way,” Waters says. “He liked the little producers, and his business came from relationships. I -don’t think he could promote a bottle of wine that -wasn’t produced by somebody he rather liked. But when he likes something, he’s so convinced of it that he convinces everybody around him.”
Ironically, Domaine Tempier’s bottlings are now too expensive to pour as house wines at the Chez Panisse Cafe.
Several years ago, Lynch moved his store a few blocks down San Pablo Avenue into Berkeley. His neighbors now are Waters’ Cafe Fanny and Steve Sullivan’s Acme Bakery, a triumvirate of merchants guided by a shared aesthetic with roots in France. On the exterior of his building and on every bottle of his wine, Lynch displays a quote from another Francophile, Thomas Jefferson: “Good wine is a necessity of life for me.”
Lynch first fastened on the quote as a response to the government health warning required on wines, but it took him years to get his label past the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the federal regulating agency. With the doggedness he uses to hound winemakers, Lynch pounded the BATF, demanding in letter after letter to know how they could censor an American president. When Bill Clinton was elected to office, he tried again, reminding them that the new president’s middle name was Jefferson. The bureau still refused.
“They said ‘necessity of life’ is a health claim, and ‘good wine’ implies that Jefferson endorses this particular wine,” Lynch recalls. “So I wrote back and said that ‘necessity of life’ has nothing to do with health, that Jefferson could have meant it was necessary for pleasure. And I said that most label readers will understand that since the wine was made in 1995, Jefferson -couldn’t have tasted it. And damned if they -didn’t approve it.
“I think the Willliam Jefferson Clinton is what got to them, but it never bothered them that they were censoring Thomas Jefferson. That never struck them as odd.”
In 1988, Lynch wrote a well-received book, “Adventures on the Wine Route,” that recounted his comings and goings in France and laid out his principles and prejudices. Ruth Reichl, Gourmet magazine editor and a longtime friend, lauds Lynch’s writing, which reveals the humor and occasional curmudgeonliness of its author.
“I think he should pay more attention to what a great writer he is,” Reichl says.
But Lynch says he has no more books in him. He continues to write the monthly mailer from his home near Chez Panisse, where he eats at least three times a week when he’s in town. From May to November, Lynch and his wife, photographer Gail Skoff, and their two young children live in Provence, not far from Domaine Tempier, in a country home with chickens and fruit trees.
A few years ago, Lynch met Boz Scaggs at a dinner at Chez Panisse. The two became friendly and Lynch revealed that he had written quite a few songs in his rock-and-roll days. Scaggs volunteered that he had a recording studio and knew a few good musicians. Earlier this year, they finished a taping, with the renowned rhythm guitarist himself playing on some of the tracks.
“I used to sing, but I -don’t sing on the CD,” Lynch says. “Well, I sing in a couple, but I’m not telling anybody.”
The musicians have told Lynch that they might be able to find a distributor, a prospect that fills him with unspeakable delight.
“I’m going to let the musicians guide me,” says the resurrected rock-and-roller. “But if it happens, what a thrill.”
In the meantime, he’ll get his thrills from a bottle of Lirac or Quincy or his latest enthusiasm from Corsica.
At chez Lynch, the lamb is on the grill, the rose is chilled, and life may not get any better than that.