Kermit Lynch on Terroir and Why Wine Should Be Described in Human Terms
"People think that I only work with French and Italian wine because I think they’re better. That really wasn’t it at all—though I can see why they feel that way."
Kermit Lynch’s wine shop in downtown Berkeley, CA, is one of the Bay Area’s most beloved purveyors of French and Italian wines. The son of a fundamentalist preacher from Oklahoma, Lynch grew up in San Luis Obispo and made his way to Berkeley right in time to catch the heyday of the Beats and join in on the Summer of Love. By the end of the '60s, Lynch was a struggling rock musician; in 1972, he decided to start a wine-importing business. Only a year after the opening of his friend Alice Waters’s revolutionary restaurant Chez Panisse (a few blocks away), Lynch had become key in the establishment of the Bay Area’s slow food focus, particularly through his emphasis on terroir. I had the pleasure of meeting him one April evening last year, when his shop had just celebrated its 45th anniversary. (We drank tea).
SS-Q: You are also a musician. Do you still work on music at the moment?
Kermit Lynch: At the moment, no. I tried to make a living at it back in the late 60s, but back then, didn’t succeed at making a living at anything. I hated to work (I worked since I was really young) and never liked it until I opened a wine shop. Then I didn’t have to make myself work, because I loved every minute of it! I was very lucky that I tried the wine business because I’d even been turned down by the post office for a job—thank God!
SS-Q: Is there any crossover in the skills that you applied to music and those that you bring to working with wine?
KL: Absolutely! Wine—I judge it aesthetically: I’m looking for beauty. And it’s the same with music. I feel that I have a certain aesthetic for the way I feel about music and the way I feel about wine. There is probably a relation.
SS-Q: What made you move from being a rock musician to wine?
KL: I was from a poor family and I had developed certain interests outside my family’s interests. Aesthetics didn’t really play a role in their lives. When I got into college I was awakened in that respect: by books, by music, and that’s one of the reasons I came to the Bay Area. I grew up in the Central Valley until I was about nine and then my mother separated from my dad and we moved to San Luis Obispo. Then two of my best friends in high school came to UC Berkeley. I didn’t have the grades to get in too, so I went to Fresno State, but I immediately started visiting them. And those were—well you know, what it was like back then, around ‘62, ‘63, there was still “the Beatnik”. In fact we would dress up like beatniks when we were seventeen years old and then go out and pretend to be beatniks (laughs): the coffee shops, and jazz, and poetry readings. All that kind of thing. And that quickly changed—the Beatles, hippiedom—all that attracted me. And I enjoyed drinking wine with meals. When I was in high school, a newly-married couple moved in next door to my parents’ home. I got friendly with them, and they’d have me over for dinner, and they were the ones who turned me on to classical music, and they were the ones who turned me on to wine. I must have been 14 or 15—it was a real change in my life.
SS-Q: So wine wasn’t a big part of your family life, then?
KL: No, no, not at all. Most of my dad’s side of the family were teetotalers. They were preachers. Fundamentalists. Even communion—a shot of grape juice. No wine. That’s probably why I’m not religious.
SS-Q: Well I was going to say—you’ve made a 45-year career in selling people the ritual of coming together and sharing wine. What is that like and how does it feel?
KL: Well, my favorite event at my store is when I throw a party for the customers. I was doing four a year for a time, where I’d close the parking lot and bring in a good cook, put up some tents in case it got too wet or too windy, have a little music. People eat and drink and I love that atmosphere. I take such great pleasure in it. I don’t let the musicians play loud, if you want to hear them you have to get close, because I love listening to people having fun at table. It bugs me in restaurants when they play music loudly. I don’t get it. Dining is a beautiful sound: clinking the glasses and the forks, people laughing. As the event goes on, the chatter becomes louder and happier, and that’s a happy moment for me—to realize that I created it.
SS-Q: By importing previously little-known wines, you’ve managed to bring wealth to previously quite poor regions in France or Italy (you cite Loire reds for instance). In a roundabout way there’s an element of social justice to this, and I think in previous interviews you’ve said they’re getting their 'just desserts.' Was that motivation when you started out?
KL: No, not at all. I was after good wines to drink. I didn’t think of it much in terms of a business. I am also not talented at all in reading accountants’ reports, financial reports. You know, I look at the bottom line and see “OK, good. I can keep going another year” (laughs). That’s really how it went. It was sort of, if the business went well, I could keep doing these wonderful things I was doing, like turning people here onto new discoveries and continuing my trips to wine country, my trips down to the cellars with wine makers. Those were the days! It’s changed a lot, you know, with technology and everything. But in those days, it was funky—spit on the floor, everybody smoked. Socially it was great, because the wine loosens you up—we just had so much fun. Laughing and joking all the time. Now you see French winemakers, Italian wine makers, saying that this wine smells like a cherry or a berry or something—no, no, back then the wines were human beings.
You know, all that berry and cherry stuff, it’s not even a practical way to talk about wine, because even if you tasted a lot of wine, if you go in and taste the new vintage when it’s three months old, it might smell like cherry. You go back a month later and it might smell like boysenberry. You go back later and think “My God! Where did that coffee aroma come from?” So by the time your review gets in the magazine, the wine no longer smells like what it did when you smelled it. That’s always bugged me, the new way of writing about wine as if it were fruit juice. When wine was described in human terms, as a man or woman for starters, then you really got down into some interesting conversations.
S-SQ: You’ve helped to bring wine back down to earth, so to speak, with an emphasis on terroir—why did you feel that was something that needed to be done?
KL: Well, in California, you know, the wines are labeled for the most part according to their grape variety. It’s funny how that began, because it wasn’t always like that. Before, they would sell a dry white and label it Chablis. They had Sauternes, Rhine Wine, Burgundy. Pink Chablis was a big seller. It was actually a wine importer, Frank Schoonmaker, he was from the East Coast, he imported European wines—excellent importer. He had a great, great list, and he came to California and he talked to them—you know, wine makers wanted to know about how to market their wines.
“You can’t continue this work, labeling your wines like European wines," he said. "They will be taken as copies if you keep doing that. You should take a different approach and bottle by the grape varietal, and differentiate yourself.”
They took that advice and it’s taken over the world, unfortunately. Because no matter where you’re tasting, the wine is influenced by the soil it grows in. It’s so easy to say that, but a lot of Californians won’t admit it. I’ve had a lot of well-known—one really well-known—California wine maker tell me that terroir is simply propaganda, that it’s just a marketing device from the French. But when you really get into wine, you find that no, if you plant a vine at Romanée-Conti, a pinot noir vine, and you take exactly the same pinot noir vine clone, and plant it in a salt marsh, you’re going to have two different wines. That proves, as exaggerated as that is, that terroir matters. You can go into Romanée-Conti and taste pinot noirs from several vineyards, and people who know their wines well can go in, taste a 10-year-old wine and say “that’s La Tache”. It’s just next door to Romanée-Conti. Not Romanée-Conti, but some can identify it because it possesses qualities that can be identified by tasting.
You add so much interest to wine when you’re talking about terroir instead of a varietal flavor. To me, that whole culture in Italy and France—you get it in Germany too, and Spain—it just added so much interest for me, about wine. And that’s why I talked about it so much, because it seemed true to me. Wendell Berry once came through Berkeley several years ago, and he shocked me, because he told me that my book Adventures on the Wine Route was one of the best books he’d ever read on agriculture. I was like “Really? What?”. And he said “No, you talk about the source of and the quality that you find in the wine, and it comes from a specific place and a specific person, and the result is influenced by all these factors.” I’d never thought of my book in quite that way.
SS-Q: Well I think it’s true that both you and Alice Waters and many of the other people who work with food in the Bay Area, is that you have this real emphasis on provenance. This really ennobling emphasis on where food comes from. We forget how radical an idea that was—and is.
KL: People think that I only work with French and Italian wine because I think they’re better. That really wasn’t it at all—though I can see why they feel that way. Here I am an hour and a half from the vineyards and I don’t sell them. In the beginning, I sold California wines. I loved them. But I was driving all over, flying to Germany, France, etc., and it began to feel superficial. I was racing around, but not getting deeply into it like I felt the urge to do. I began to eliminate regions and concentrate on France and Italy.
S-SQ: Between Northern California, or California as a whole, and the Mediterranean, there seems to be a real dialogue of values. Why do think that is?
KL: I’ve wondered about that myself because at the end of my first trip to Provence, I had tears in my eyes to be leaving. Obviously I hadn’t had time to really get to know it all, but I had some real emotional involvement with it right from the start. And I wondered: OK, San Luis Obispo, the beach, the Pacific Ocean right there, was that it? The weather? It was similar to San Luis Obispo’s weather. And yeah, what is it? Well, it’s an outdoor life. The climate is so good, which appeals to me a lot. Eating out here, eating out on my terrace in Provence. Getting a big bundle of vine cuttings and throwing them on the ground and lighting them on fire to get the coals to cook a local fish or something like that—that whole life really really touched me. It had nothing to do with the life I had at home.
SS-Q: Was that because there was less emphasis on sort of the ephemeral pleasures of life?
KL: Well, for my mother one of the biggest progresses made was frozen food—for her it was: you just heat it up, you set it down, they eat it, you throw the plates in the garbage. I can’t remember anything that she would actually cook except toasted white bread, with frozen peas, a can of tuna, and cream, and pour it over the toast. That is the only thing I can remember her cooking. Everything else was frozen. So maybe I was reacting to that.
SS-Q: Oh I’m sure you were!
KL: And all the preachers who wouldn’t drink! I was just a rebel with a cause and an empty glass.