Probably the most important book on wine for anyone alive today, Kermit Lynch’s “Adventures on the Wine Route,” was released in a 25th-anniversary edition this month. It’s not comprehensive, not the best written, not the most informative, but for its combination of on-the-ground personal reportage and in-the-heart personal passion, the book has influenced more than one generation of wine lover, professional and amateur, so greatly that its significance is hard to overstate.
As a self-described “recently defected hippie” visiting France in the 1970s, Lynch fell under the wing of the sorts of people you want to fall under the wing of: geniuses and madmen, rugged and poetic, strong-willed souls wrestling art out of grapes, and their early champions who became ambassadors for an entire way of being, like Richard Olney, Lulu Peyraud and Alice Waters.
Lynch became a pioneer wine explorer in France in the ’70s, bringing his hippie ethos to the vineyards and vignerons he sought out. From his legendary shop in Berkeley, he imported, proselytized about and sold the sorts of small-scale, naturally and traditionally made wines of France (and later, Italy) that were almost unheard of in this country at the time, but which today are the lingua franca of wine appreciators.
With profiles of wine growers, cellars and regions, interspersed with denunciations of the fake and the commercial, Lynch’s enthralling, unromanticized but inspiring book is the ur-text of the search for authenticity and purity via wine.
But the wines Lynch continues to import, many of them now prestigious, tell a more complicated story. I was fortunate enough to reacquaint myself with the story at a recent trade tasting of Lynch’s portfolio.
First of all, we are talking about mostly gorgeous wines. You and I might not agree on details, but I can’t imagine anyone tasting wines such as Charles Joguet Chinon “Les Petites Roches” 2009 ($29, National), Champalou Vouvray “Fondraux” 2011 ($26, Nappi), Domaine Costal Chablis “Les Truffieres” 2011 ($33, Nappi), Costal Auxey-Duresses 1er Cru “Les Bretterins” 2010 ($50, Nappi), Vacqueyras 2009 from Domaine Le Sang des Cailloux 2009 ($38, National), or the great Bandol reds from Domaine Tempier and thinking them short, mistaken, lazy, simple or superficial.
They are great, and even the burlier wines from Lynch’s beloved southern Rhone speak quietly, or at least in a subdued, humble, unobvious way. Elegance, balance and composure reign.
The problem lies, as I have written previously and keep hoping not to reconfirm, in the information contained within parentheses above: They are too expensive. I have nothing against expensive wines categorically, but many Lynch wines just cost a few bucks more than they should. This is especially irksome given the political-philosophical thrust of Lynch’s oeuvre: real people making real wine in a basic, true manner out of sight of the industrial baddies.
I don’t want corners cut. Great wine takes time and expertise. But I wonder whether a certain standard was set years ago and arrangements that Lynch made with his producers in 1981 persist, despite a dramatically changed landscape in wine economics as well as the culture of wine drinking.
Lynch (and a small handful of his contemporaries) no longer have a lock on artisanal wines – not in the nooks and crannies of France, and certainly not in the nooks and crannies of a vastly expanded geographical spectrum of exporting wine regions. I can buy truly great wine from Austria, Argentina, Portugal, Greece, Slovenia, Germany and Hungary for $25 or (much) less. I will continue to drink very good wine from France and Italy, but I’m not as much a captive of the old model.
Someone intimate with Lynch’s wines told me, “They’re really restaurant wines. For a lot of people who see Graville-Lacoste or Domaine Tempier or Vieux Telegraphe on a wine list, it doesn’t matter whether the wine is $40 or $60.”
But that doesn’t work for the dining that most of us do most of the time. Ingredient-based home cooking, so exalted in Lynch’s book and the Church of Alice Waters that is its cousin, is in large part an expression of traditional family penny-pinching, not to mention the hippie culture that borrowed some of its tenets and informed Lynch’s early adventures. Wines that arise from this tradition but price themselves out of its context run the risk of promoting “peasant” and “rustic” qualities as marketed feel-good fetishes for the wealthy, rather than as the invitations to humility and empathy they ought to be.
The good news is that at the trade tasting, I did find several moderately priced home cooking-based wines to fall in love with. A standout is the Domaine de la Chanteleuserie Bourgeuil Vielle Vignes 2008 ($17, Nappi), a stanky muscleman that effects in one sip a dramatic arc from full-ripe purple and red fruit and flowers to dried farmland, straw and incense.
Domaine Dupeuble Beaujolais 2012 ($17, National) is the best vintage I’ve ever drunk of this benchmark Gamay – and I’ve drunk a lot, and not always adoringly. It’s simply joyous right now, looser than usual with ravishing raspberry fruit.
Cantine Elvio Tintero Rosso ($10, Nappi) is, despite its nonvintage status, the best blend of the classic Piemonte grapes (Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto) for under $15 that I know of. It’s lovely, lovely, lovely: medium body and 12.5 percent alcohol buoying peppery, sage and rosemary notes.
For heartier wines, Lynch’s proprietary-label Vaucluse Rouge 2010 ($12, Nappi) is mushroomy and soil-rich, suffused in the true spirit of Lynch’s book. Vignobles Brunier “Le Pigoulet” 2011 ($20, National) is as well, though more after the heavens than the dirt: a beautifully pure, nimble expression of Grenache (though there’s also 10 percent each Cinsault and Syrah) for the people.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog is soulofwine.com, and he can be reached at [email protected] Not all the wines mentioned in this column are necessarily sold at Rosemont, but distributor information listed in parentheses permits special orders through any Maine retailer.