Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wine Biz Interview #15 Iconic Importer, Rock Star, Thirst Inspiring Writer, Kermit Lynch

Well seeing as one of my questions was going to be along the lines of, “How do you define or classify your occupation?” I figured we might as well start there right? So Mr. Fancy, in the long line of things you do; write, wine merchant, importer, music man…how would you explain how you make a living to a novice? In what order and have you, at any point, wished you could shuffle the deck and put one of the others at the top of the list?

During my twenties I was writing, singing, and drinking wine, and still am, but my wine business pays the bills.  The books and CDs, well, if I lived off them, I'd have to change my lifestyle.  However, I don't regret it for a minute.  Writing is a very solitary job.  Doing it full time doesn't sound like my cup of tea.  I had a taste of the musician's life on the road and didn't much like it either.  Turns out I like the aroma of Raveneau's cellar more than a backstage dressing room.  I do love making CDs, so that's what I do.  Thank goodness I don't have to live on a tour bus to support my love of music making.

What was your first foray in the wine business?

I tried to get a job in the local wine shops back in 1972.  No one would hire me.  Neither would the post office, thank goodness.  I borrowed $5000 from my girlfriend and opened a little hole-in-the-wall retail shop.  Thank you Joan Connolly!

What was it that lit the fire under you? Was it timing, a certain wine?

In 1974 I went on importer Dick Buck's buying trip with him.  My next trip was with California winemaker Joe Swan.  After those two trips, I was hooked.  I was tasting in  Germany, France, Italy and Spain.  I was also buying a lot of California wines direct from the wineries.  What I ended up doing in France and Italy, I had begun doing in California with wineries like Swan's, Ridge, Chalone, and so on.  What lit the fire was the thrill of discovering great wines, and that's still the case.

When I Google the name Kermit you are number 4, cool to know or a pisser that you aren’t higher on the list?

I thought everyone knew, I am Kermit the Frog.  That's why I feel right at home in France.

There seem to be a lot of musicians in the wine business, my boss Randy Kemner included, any idea what might be the common thread

Hmmm, yeah, what could it be? I've noticed that, too.   It must be that we all appreciate harmony.

 When making purchases how much of what you decide to import is based on what you think will sell and what you want to drink?

It always starts with what I want to drink, then I have to decide how much to order, which of course means considering how much I think I can sell.  

What would you say was the hardest or most unforeseen obstacle with importing French wines to the US in the beginning? How, or has that changed at all?

Wines are shipped in metal containers.  It took about 600 cases to fill a 20-footer, and financially, that was impossible for me then.  I piggy-backed in another importer's containers.  That would be Karl Petrowsky who worked for Frank Schoonmaker imports.  He was a great help to me.  The German winemakers loved Karl.  I accompanied him several times on his buying trips, and had the chance to taste incredible Germans wines going back to the early twentieth century. 

So you have access to some of the greatest French wines in the world, are you reaching for Raveneau and Coche Dury every night? (Warning, admitting this is true will make us give you the scrunchy, “Really dude?!” face. Just so you know.)

 I went over my to my pal Alain Pascal's house two nights ago for dinner.  He's the vigneron at Domaine du Gros Nore, a hunter, and it's the season.  I took a Raveneau 2000 Montee de Tonnerre and a 1999 Corton Charlemagne from Coche-Dury.  That's a neat progression.  The Chablis was austere, the CC opulent.  Alain roasted a marcassin on the spit in his fireplace and brought out his 1999 Bandol rouge for it.  Then Alain pulled out a Sauternes from his friend at Domaine d'Alliance.  If you haven't tasted their wine Sauternes, you should.  They only have two hectares (five acres), and theirs is about as close to an Yquem as you can get.  I know, because then Alain uncorked a 1996 Yquem that a customer had kindly given to him.  Sorry, that doesn't really answer your question.  Anyway, yes, I often reach for a Raveneau, Coche, Ente, de Cherisey or some such white Burgundy, because I like them so much.

When you started KLWM was there an existing store or did you start from the ground up?

It was an empty storefront on San Pablo Ave near Solano.  Eight hundred square feet.  By the time I painted it, put in phones and all those little basics, I had enough l money left to open the doors with a 33 case inventory.  I was open four days a week, five hours a day, because I still thought of myself as a musician with a wine hobby.

You have an amazing ability to describe a moment, rich in vinegary greens, a female winemaker in a fine woolen suit, the soothing first splash of Beaujolais used to wash down a creamy, meaty piece of pork rillettes…a way of sharing the moment as you saw and felt it. How did you know Kermit? That there would people out here that would respond to that kind of beauty in wine and the story rather than the coco, beet root and dried tuna, kind of wine description?

Wine critics' tasting notes have become laughable.  So many aromas of things that no one I know has ever smelled in their entire lifetime. Just painfully ludicrous.  Do they think the more numerous and more esoteric their descriptions, the more we'll believe in them.  On the contrary. Eric Azimov has a great chapter on all that bullshit in his recent book.  And those tasting notes are off-putting to our customers.  They read about a wine with a dozen different perfumes and they think, Jesus, I don't smell all that, I must have a lousy palate and might as well go back to buying rot-gut.  And here's another thing:  you taste a wine one week and find raspberry in the aroma, and you taste it a week later and it might smell like cherry or strawberry.  Living wines change whether they are in a barrel or a bottle.  Every winemaker knows that.  So even if a critic were right about what a wine smells like the day he writes the tasting notes, it won't be true by the time you buy a bottle and take it home.

Three way fork in the road. To the left you have Salma Hayek, to the right, a jam session with Charlie Parker and Lady Gaga and straight ahead, a magnum of Lapierre Morgon, what ever do you do?

Take the magnum to Salma's.

What would you say have been the most significant changes, good or bad, in French wines in the past 15 years?

There has been an immense change.  For year's it seemed that the enologists were going to sterilize all French wines.  Make sure they were stable no matter what they tasted like.  Now the pendulum is swinging more to so-called "natural" wines which have been minimally treated filtered medicated and all that sort of stuff.  Hurrah for it.

Hangover cure of choice?

I drink wine with meals.  And I don't hit the harder stuff.  I haven't had a hangover in years.  In the new edition of Adventures I tell of the time a hangover nearly killed me after a long night at Domaine Tempier and then Richard Olney's house.

Can you give me three wines that would help us understand your passion?


I don't think I can.  Sorry.  My mind goes haywire just thinking about it, for some reason.

Have you ever sneezed while peeing?

(Dead air)

Dammit, he snuck off before I could squeeze out that last one! Knew I should have started with that. Dag-gum-it. 

I would like to thank famed importer, musician and impassioned wine writer Kermit Lynch for taking the time out of his busy schedule in France to let me play reporter with him...made me feel all fancy and junk. 

Kermit Lynch, his wines and his extremely devour-worthy book Adventures on the Wine Route have been instrumental in informing, beguiling and inspiring many of us to dive head first into the deep end of wine.....appreciation sounds too perfunctory, feeding our appetite for wine, the people that make them and the meals they are gulped along with. His voice is anything but dogmatic, it's more of a romantic summoning and I for one am all in. 

So do you have any questions you’d like to ask Kermit? Turns out he will be at The Wine Country December 7th! This year marks the 25th anniversary of Kermit’s Adventures on the Wine Route so he is traveling around signing copies of the 25th Anniversary Edition with its updated epilogue and list of 25 most memorable wines. We will be conducting a special tasting of Kermit Lynch imported wines in honor of having the man, the myth, the legend in our shop signing books. 4:30-6:30 PM, $25.00 for the tasting and we will also be selling books so you can get your very own copy signed and trust me, it is a book that will leave you wanting to taste, smell and see all that he did….I know I still do.