November 20, 2013

On Wine: Many of old adventurer’s imports stray from hippie roots

As an importer, Kermit Lynch seems to resist the changes in wine economics.

By Joe Appel

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.”

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