Monday, October 10, 2011

One cagey romantic

Kermit Lynch is at once incurably romantic and relentlessly, brilliantly commercial, a combination that's made him one of the country's most successful wine importers. Lynch opened his store in Berkeley, California in 1972, and he was soon heading off to France on long buying trips where he scoured the country for distinctive, highly personal wines to sell to his clients.

Lynch describes his journeys in Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer's Tour of France, which was published in 1988. He loves the personalities of the French wine world, from the the alcoholic Burgundy wine merchant whose "car smelled like horse shit, anise, and after-shave," to a 90-year-old Vouvray merchant who survived mustard gas as a soldier in World War I and the German destruction of Tours in 1940 and has an encyclopedic knowledge of Loire wine to the elusive Francois Raveneau, one of the great producers of Chablis, a small Burgundy town famous for its Chardonnay. Lynch plays every card he can to import Raveneau's wines, and the crusty Frenchman finally consents. Lynch still imports Raveneau Chablis in what must be a very lucrative trade for both of them - the wines often cost more at retail in the U.S. than the older bottles do on French restaurant lists.

Like a great investment banker, Lynch never forgets whom he's talking to of what his goal is. He realizes he must measure his words carefully when talking to the sly Burgundians. He negotiates special deals with producers to get wines made exactly the way he wants, and he cuts producers loose if they get lazy.

Lynch was an early advocate for natural wines, those made without added sugar or sulfur, preferably by small producers. The term suggests a drink that's been made simply by a producer who's a mere handmaiden to nature. But Lynch effortlessly describes the myriad decisions that must be made in the process: where to grow, what to grow, how to handle the vines, when to pick, how to ferment, and so on, all of which are affected by ecological, social and commercial factors. When Lynch looks at a vineyard or tours a cellar, he sees and tastes those decisions and translates them into dollars.

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