What’s in a name? Or, rather, how does a name bounce around in your mind until it’s finally time to bear down and make sense of it? For example: Kermit Lynch, the well-known wine importer based in Berkeley, California. While growing up in Berkeley I passed his store regularly—big letters read “Kermit Lynch, Wine Merchant.” I was struck mostly by what would naturally strike a kid: “What kind of name is Kermit? Isn’t that a character on Sesame Street?” Then there was the fact that the place hardly looked like a store—just an elegant wooden box of a building, on a lousy street.
Only in the last few years have I begun to see Lynch’s name in its appropriate context: as an important figure on the American wine scene. And even here, I came across Lynch tangentially: mentioned again and again in the Chez Panisse cookbooks, always in reference to the Bandol wines from Domaine Tempier. Having grown up near Chez Panisse, I consider its impact on California food to have personal significance: This is the restaurant, and the restaurateur, responsible for inventing, defining, and refining what effectively became the regional cuisine of my own home region. The will to self-knowledge, therefore, must include a will to understand that culinary movement. And thus the discovery that, when the late, great Richard Olney first settled near Bandol, he was taken in as a friend by Tempier’s Lulu and Lucien Peyraud, and he eventually became one of their greatest champions, introducing their wines to, first, Alice Waters—who raised Tempier to a near holy status in the Berkeley-as-Provence food cult (which I love, don’t get me wrong), and, later, to Lynch himself. Lynch then became Tempier’s biggest client outside of France. But as my own preoccupations moved beyond food and toward food-plus-wine, Lynch finally surfaced as a name to reckon with in his own right: most notably when I saw that Alder, the blogger behind Vinography, had Lynch’s memoir on his must-read list for wine-lovers.
And so: Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France, by Kermit Lynch. I read it in an unlikely setting—a sea-kayaking trip to look at humpback whales and icebergs near Petersburg, in southeast Alaska (I was on assignment). But I often do this on physical adventures: I read something so utterly civilized and calming that it transports me to a world outside the rugged one I’m enduring. I will have much more to say about this book in subsequent posts, but first a few things a potential reader ought to know:
1. There are no adventures in this book.
2. It does not describe a tour.
3. There is no wine route.
4. None of the above matters much—it’s just a title, after all, and one tweaked to fit travel-writing conventions.
5. This is really a more eccentric book than it appears, a blend of recollections and digressions more than anything else, and one best approached with some supplemental book about French wine-growing geography. Lynch assumes you already know your French wine backward and forward.
6. Kermit Lynch is a surprisingly good writer, even more so for a man who hasn’t made a living with his prose. He can write clean, strong, true sentences—no mean feat—and his descriptions of place and character sometimes hit remarkable highs.
7. Lynch is a man with fierce opinions about what’s right and wrong in the world of wine, and one can’t help but come away from his book filled to the eyeballs with his view that the American preference for big fruit-bomb wines is ridiculous, that judging wine by its “size” or body is also ridiculous, and that winemaking technology, more often than not, robs wine of its soul (not to mention its quality).
So powerful is this argument, in fact, that upon my return from Alaska—having not sipped a single wine or other alcoholic beverage in five days, and thus feeling more crisp and energetic than I had in years—I stopped into Lynch’s shop, found a salesman, and told him my situation. It’s a lovely room, shady and cool and quiet, with dreamy wines everywhere, and I told the fellow that I’d read old Kermit’s book, that I’d found a crotchety piece of writing but also a persuasive one, and that I wanted to buy three bottles representing the boss’s view of the way wine should be made. I walked out with four, and although my report will come in the next post, here’s the list (all reds; links where available or check out Kermit Lynch):