It seems ironic and highly unlikely that the man considered by many to be today's finest importer of French wines works out of Berkeley, Calif., in the shadow of the booming wine industry 30 miles to the north in Napa and Sonoma counties.
His name is Kermit Lynch and in the competitive imported-wine business no one has a better reputation for uncompromising quality and impeccable tasting standards. It all started in 1971 when Lynch sold his handicraft business and took off for Europe.
There, he developed an interest in European wines, though his first wine shop, which he opened the next year in Albany, Calif., specialized in hard-to-get California wines such as Joseph Swan and Chalone. He maintained an inventory in those days of only 30 cases and by his own admission struggled for two years to keep afloat in what he has described as "a closet wine shop."
By 1974, his first big opportunity, as well as gamble, occurred. At the time, this country was awash in an ocean of imported wine that was being dumped on the market because speculative deals involving French wines had gone sour.
The great wine crash of '74 occurred largely because large beer and whiskey corporations had misjudged how much consumers would spend for a bottle of bordeaux or burgundy. They had invested heavily in a series of poor vintages, 1972, 1973 and 1974, and when the international oil crises hit they panicked and sold off their huge stocks to a wine-consuming public that was unwilling and financially unable to accept such poor wines.
One of America's premier importers of fine burgundies, the Chateau and Estates Co., in 1974 also decided to dump, at distress sale prices, its line of burgundies selected by the late, great American wine specialist Frank Schoonmaker. Lynch saw the extensive offering of burgundy wines from Chateau and Estates and noticed that it included not only mediocre vintages like '73 and '74, but great burgundy vintages such as 1972, 1971 and 1969.
Rather than buy them blindly, Lynch and close friend Joe Swan flew to Burgundy and arranged to taste these selections across the board. The outcome was that Lynch invested everything he had in the best of these wines, and it was these selections that permitted him to build a strong following in California for his expertise in burgundy.
The 1974 trip was followed by yearly trips to France to visit winemakers, taste wines and develop contacts in the vineyards. Lynch gives a great deal of credit to famous author and Provence native Richard Olney, whom he first met in 1976. He claims that Olney helped develop his interest in the better wines of the underregarded Rho ne Valley and Provence, two areas that Lynch has exploited extensively. Almost alone, he has been responsible for introducing many Americans to their gems.
Lynch also credits Olney with introducing him to the wines of such legendary Rho ne and Provence producers as Chave in Hermitage, Clape in Cornas, Multier in Condrieu and the Peyraud family in Bandol. In the early days of Lynch's career, Olney acted not only as a wine advisor, but also as a translator as Lynch spoke no French, a deficiency he quickly corrected.
By 1978, Lynch had developed a word-of-mouth reputation (he never did and still does not advertise) in the San Francisco Bay area as a top specialist in the Rho ne, Provence and Burgundy regions. It was also at this time that Lynch began doing things that other merchants and importers deemed too costly and unorthodox.
Distressed at the changed condition in San Francisco of some of the wines he had selected in France, he became convinced that the exposure of wine to both heat and cold during the 7 to 10 days of a traumatic ocean voyage was robbing his wines of the character they possessed. In 1978, he commenced shipping all of his wines (whether $5 ma con-villages wines or rare $60 burgundies) in temperature-controlled containers known in the trade as "reefers."
Though it is more expensive, Lynch has maintained that it is the only way to guarantee that "the quality in the barrel ends up as the same quality in the bottled wine." He remains one of a handful of importers who go to this care and expense for their wines.
Another Lynch campaign has been a 10-year battle with producers not to filter or pasteurize their wines. Lynch, a fervent believer in (and even crusader for) natural, unmanipulated wines, has refused to deal with growers who stripped and eviscerated their wines of character and personality by extensive filtration. Just this year, after pre-selling $15,000 in futures of a red burgundy from a famous grower in Gevrey-Chambertin to his clients, he refused to accept the wine after learning that the grower "filtered the hell" out of it. Lynch returned the $15,000 to his buyers, saying he would not sell them a mediocre wine. He also stopped buying the wine from this particular grower. In today's world of commercial realities, such actions are unheard of.
The year 1978 was also a watershed for Lynch because he stopped selling California wines in his store. He was criticized by California wineries for not being willing to represent their wines, but he claims the decision was necessary because (1) he did not have room in his small shop, (2) he wanted to select only the best bottlings from each winery and they insisted he purchase the entire line, and (3) he felt that the great majority of California wines had no character, personality or finesse.
Lynch claims that his fanatical dedication to wine quality was also an outgrowth of his respect and admiration for restaurateur Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, who now is a regular buyer of Lynch's burgundy, rho ne and provence wines for her famous restaurant in Berkeley.
Lynch remembers visiting Waters one day and seeing her throw 100 heads of lettuce into the garbage because they were "not quite fresh enough." Lynch is known to pay an extra premium for special lots of wine from growers in France to get only the wine made from old vines or from special hillside vineyards. Like Waters, he spares no expense in trying to deliver a product in its most dramatic and natural form.
Lynch's fame and expertise has spread throughout America. His top wines, ones he used to have to beg clients to try, are now on strict allocation.
Six months ago he went national and his wines are now represented throughout the country by Chalone Imports, a national importer based in San Francisco.
Even if you can not get a bottle of Lynch's most exquisite rho ne or burgundy wine, you can get on his mailing list to receive his free, well-written, often-poetic wine newsletter (write to Kermit Lynch, Wine Merchant, 1605 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, Calif. 94702).