Kermit Lynch may not be a household name — nor the most well-known Kermit to most Americans, for that matter — but to many wine drinkers, he's a legend. Online reviews for his wine shop in Berkeley, CA are almost uniformly raves, and his U.S. distribution of French and Italian wines leads smart drinkers to Old World varietals with character. (You can tell which ones they are when you see his name right on the label.)
I considered myself lucky to score a meeting with the man during his recent swing through New York to promote the 25th anniversary edition of his book, Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer's Tour Of France, just reissued last week from Farar, Straus & Giroux, mainly because I've been buying wines with his name on the bottle for years. But also because I'd been thinking about him since reading a recent Times magazine profile of him — "Kermit Lynch Knows The Terroir" — that basically elevates him to guru status. Lynch's steadfast devotion to well-produced, unfussy Old World wines and the way so many young wine drinkers have come around to his way of thinking reminds me of Neil Young's resurgence in the early 1990s, when bands like Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. and even Sonic Youth expressed their reverence for him, and a new audience embraced him.
To my surprise, Lynch doesn't bristle when I make the comparison (though I should point out that he's a musician and a music lover as well). Seated at Soho House in New York earlier this week, he and I talked about generational shifts in wine making and wine drinking, as well about his panel discussion later that night with his old pal Alice Waters, and how the food in one of the two places he makes his home, Berkeley, has surpassed that of the other, in the French region of Provence. (This interview is condensed and edited.)
There’s a lot of talk about a generational change in wine — winemakers and wine companies trying to reach a young audience with supposedly changing tastes. Can wine be generational or is this a marketing fad?
Both (laughs). I’ve encountered that since the beginning of my career, which is 40 years now in wine, and most of the domains that I discovered early on have been through that generational change. Back when I began is when they began launching schools of oenology. Schools of oenology don’t teach you how to make good wine, they teach you how to make a stable wine. It’s all science courses, technology.
Now the pendulum is swinging away from two things: Overly technological wines, and the big oaky monsters, as I call them, that dominated the market for so long.
So old school wine making was going out of fashion when you started?
I’m talking about domain wines, small estate wines. It was always father to son. The son or daughter learned from their parent and all of a sudden off they went to oenology school. At the beginning, there were only two [schools]: one was in Bordeaux and one was in Burgundy. So a kid from Chateauneuf du Pape would go to Bordeaux or Burgundy to learn how to make wine. What happened was they came back knowing how to make Bordeaux and Burgundy.
The elder winemakers accepted this?
The fathers for the most part were in awe of their sons because their sons could speak a technological language that they never knew. The fathers were like, I’m just a dumb old guy; he knows how to measure the sulfur he’s adding, he knows what pH is. I lived through that change, for better or worse. My battle has been against the oenologist.
There is a big movement in the Old World toward natural wine making now, though, being led by another new generation, right?
Now there is. That’s a change that happened during these 40 years I’ve been in it. The first [change] was wines that were over-sulfured, over-filtered — these oenological tricks. Now the pendulum is swinging away from two things: Overly technological wines, and the big oaky monsters, as I call them, that dominated the market for so long. We saw that first generation when I started, then their sons replaced them, and now their sons are interested in natural wines.
I was reading about you and how you’ve stuck to your taste. It reminds me of the way Neil Young just kept doing what he was doing and then became this elder statesman. Like, now there’s an audience that understands. Is that accurate?
Absolutely. In fact, I’ve been amazed, because it’s almost like when the spark took, it’s changing so quickly. It started in the last five to 10 years. I’d say the wine lists in New York would be unrecognizable today to someone who was used to the wine lists of the ’80s in New York. They’re completely different! They’re so adventurous now. The sommeliers buying wine don’t care about whether the appellation is well known, whether the grape variety is well known. The market seems wide open to me to the truth of wine, which is the diversity that exists.
Because a wine has terroir doesn’t mean it’s good. There’s bad terroirs, there’s lousy terroirs, and I’ve run into some of them.
People are open to trying wines from different terroirs?
This takes me back to what we were talking about with the generational change. I’m going to have to take what I know — French and Italian wines — and one of the problems with the generational change and the way we’re headed, French wines, all wines to me, we talk about terroir. Because a wine has terroir doesn’t mean it’s good. There’s bad terroirs, there’s lousy terroirs, and I’ve run into some of them.
Even in France?
Absolutely. A lot of people don’t get that. They think, Oh he’s into vin de terroir. Every wine’s a vin de terroir. But there’s good or bad terroir. Somebody gave me an old book about the Loire Valley that was really well done, where the author talked about the great terroirs in each appellation, like where in Sancerre are the best terroirs, where in the Pouilly-Fumé, etc. Then at the end of the chapter [the author] identified the growers who’d had vines there. This is where it gets interesting, because since then, everybody talks about how the wine is made.
As opposed to terroir.
Like Californians, most winemakers don’t believe in terroir. Everything happens in the cellar. It’s all vinification and raising the wine. What I started noticing is [that] the generations are changing, but those great terroirs stay in the same family. You might have a great winemaker in the Sancerre appellation who inherited some of the worst soil for making sancerre, and the guy who has great terroir, the son may have removed everything the family had and replaced it. That can play a role, a generational change in the way you wouldn’t expect.
I was looking into these great terroirs of Vouvray back in the ‘70s, and finding very different wines from what we get from the same terroir today. There’s been sort of a loss of personality, a loss of individuality. Kind of a generic taste where we should be getting something definitive of that piece of earth.
On the flip side, are there places in France that are better now than you’d expect? I’ve been enjoying wines from Chinon—
Oh yeah, unbelievable.
What’s behind that change?
Well look, they’ve got cabernet franc, and certain terroirs make great cabernet franc. When I first started going — and Bordeaux was the same way — those wines are 11 and a half or 12 [percent] alcohol — in a good year. And nowadays with global warming, those wines are 13 and a half, 14, 14 and a half [percent] alcohol. Now the strange thing is, that’s made them much more palatable to the mass market. Where before it was a real connoisseur’s wine. And I’m talking about the Bordeaux too.
Wines that you’d have to age more?
Those were never wines to be tasted the month of March and judged so many months after the harvest. The father would buy the case and put it away for his son, and he was drinking the Chateau Latour that his father bought and put in the family cellar. Those wines were not really fun to drink when they were new. The same thing in the Loire reds, they had a tannin to them, and that tannin was full of promise. That wine, when the wine was 15-20 years old, that tannin, just like in the old Bordeaux, would give marvelously complex wines that we are not going to see anymore if things continue. But now they’re really palatable when they come out. It’s lucky for a lot of people because they have apartments and can’t age the wine. But you see the difference in attitude toward winemaking there. Attention came to the Loire as the grapes were harvested at higher levels of sugar, higher levels of alcohol, of ripeness.
Berkeley, San Francisco, New York — they’re full of great restaurants. There are so many great places that I feel like I’m missing so much during a visit. In France, it’s the opposite. Where I live in Provence, my wife and I do not have a restaurant to go to.
You have a talk with Alice Waters at the New York Public Library scheduled, but you’ve been outspoken about not wanting to talk about food and wine pairings in the past. How will you approach the discussion with your old friend Alice?
It’s going to be interesting. It’s true, Alice and I are friends, but we don’t talk about food and wine that much. The interviewer called us and he said he wanted us to ask each other questions and I said that’ll be totally false, we don’t talk to each other that way. I would never ask Alice, well, what do you like to drink with such and such. It’s just not that kind of friendship.
It’s interesting that you’re friends, because the generational changes are going on in food too.
Especially in places like Berkeley. I’d like to see it more with food in France—
I would too. When I first started going to France, there was no good place to eat. Alice had just opened [Chez Panisse]; we didn’t know each other. And every place in France and Italy was good. You didn’t need a guide: You could just stick your nose in the door and sniff. Things have completely changed. Berkeley, San Francisco, New York — they’re full of great restaurants. There are so many great places that I feel like I’m missing so much during a visit. In France, it’s the opposite. Where I live in Provence, my wife and I do not have a restaurant to go to.
So you have to cook instead?
Yeah, we cook. The bread is terrible. I have Poilâne mailed to me. All the bakeries, the same truck passes and leaves the dough and everything and then they bake them. And then they call themselves an artisanal bakery and it’s permitted in France. There’s an article I just read in a French magazine that said 80 percent of restaurants in France no longer cook. Imagine! It’s all canned, frozen, delivered. It’s unbelievable. And they wonder why tourism is going down in France.
What about wine in other countries besides France and Italy? Anything you’ve come across that interests you?
I decided to specialize long ago. And I notice that some people in the wine world, their knowledge is so vast, they know everything about Californian wines, Chilean wines. Unfortunately, I’m not that kind of person. I don’t know what’s happening in California wines these days.
You said in that Times article you were going to let your son look into California wines with potential—
Yes, it’s a generational change, maybe!
Has that happened?
Just a little bit. We’re not ready to do that yet. He’s convincing me that things have changed, because California was the hotspot. Like you make a wine for [legendary critic Robert] Parker and get 100 points and you were rich, you had it made. A lot of people followed that trail and I didn’t. I wasn’t interested.
I often buy wines because I see your name on the label. Do you ever lose any sleep over whether you’ve made the right choices to distribute a wine?
No. It’s funny, since the beginning, I’ve had a lot of confidence in my palate because I was really buying for myself. I wasn’t thinking, How is this going to please the public? I was thinking, How is this going to attract the public so that they’ll try it? It’s true; I’ve made mistakes. I’ve bought wines — if I continue to like it I’ll stick with it, I’ll just cut down the amount I’ll buy. But if I decide, well, that was a mistake, then I just drop out of it, which is always kind of hard to do. You form a relationship with these people, but that’s the way it has to be sometimes.