Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Recommended Reading: Adventures on the Wine Route

Kermit Lynch is a legend. Deservedly so.

Based out of his wine shop in Berkeley, Lynch sells wine that he imports from France and Italy (only!) and that he now distributes throughout the US. He also has branched out into winemaking, as a part owner of Domaine Les Pallières in Gigondas (Southern Rhone).

Part of Kermit’s status comes from a book that he wrote back in the mid-1980s: Adventures on the Wine Route…A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France. It’s been on my reading list for a long time but I never got around to reading it until now. I guess as the years went by, I thought the book would become less and less relevant. I was wrong.

Taking us through the major wine regions of France – Alsace is inexplicably missing and the Languedoc section is badly outdated – Lynch introduces us to vignerons, characters all, and he highlights places to go and things to see. (His description of driving in Marseille is still bang on.) It’s all set in the French wine regions in the mid-1980s, which for me resonates strongly: it’s when I first started visiting those same wine regions. Undoubtedly, some of these wine producers have passed from the scene, but that doesn’t make the stories any less interesting.

Throughout the book, Lynch shares his own philosophy of winemaking and wine drinking; he’s enthusiastic about what he likes and despairs when he finds things he doesn’t like.

In this book (remember, written in the 1980s) Kermit Lynch sounds the warning about many of the trends in winemaking with which we’ve become all too familiar today. High-alcohol, oaky, fruit bombs? Kermit rails against them. Wines that all taste the same? Long before Mondovino, Kermit was there. Sulphur-dioxide-sterilized and filtered wines that lose all typicity of their terroir? Long before Alice Feiring, Kermit was there. Machine harvesting and portable bottling plants that ruin a wine? Kermit warns about that.

Government regulation and bureaucracy, the idiocy of excise taxes on a product (wine) with proven health benefits, he goes after those too.

Lynch doesn't spare consumers either. Buying your wine based on some critic’s numerical score? Shame on you. Taste for yourself and develop your own palate, your own preferences. Drink what you enjoy, with food, not what someone tells you that you should enjoy. 

For Lynch, "great wine is about nuance, surprise, subtlety, expression, qualities that keep you coming back for yet another taste.  Rejecting a wine because it is not big enough [in fruit and alcohol] is like rejecting a book because it is not long enough, or a piece of music because it is not loud enough…But, after all, the consumer has to decide:  does wine smell good and taste good, or does it simply pack a wallop?  When the public taste changes away from size to aroma and flavour as the most important criteria, we will all be drinking finer wine.

But Kermit Lynch is by no means all-condemning. When he finds a winemaker that nurtures wine in its terroir, making a wine that is classically typical of the region, he’s unsparing in his enthusiasm.
He celebrates good wines from anywhere in France, promoting the “rare gems” from southern Burgundy (Mâconnais-Chalonnais) and from the outlying areas of the Cote D’Or, like Savigny-Les Beaune. Lynch compares the different Burgundian wines to music. Is a grand cru better than a wine without cru status? “Is a Wagner opera better than a Mozart divertimento? Better for what?” What’s the occasion, he asks, what food will you serve? Every good wine has a role to play.

Unfortunately, Kermit Lynch has never followed up with a sequel, although he published selections from his monthly brochure, Inspiring Thirst, in 2004.  If you want to see the man himself, Gary Vaynerchuk (HELLO EVERYBODY!) did a three-part interview with Kermit Lynch earlier this year (although you have to put up with GV's constant interruptions).

I loved this book. (Ever come across a book at just the right time? Reading it 5 years ago would have been too early? 5 years from now might be too late? For me, this is a book like that. It’s reinforced my own opinions about good wine, many of which have changed significantly in the past few years.)

If you want to meet interesting characters, learn more about what it takes to make (or ruin) good wine, and go beyond the tasting blurbs to the pleasure of wine, it’s a must read. Just don’t wait 22 more years.

(Available at the Ottawa Public Library.)

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1 comment:

  1. Also loved this book. Well written and quite funny in places, and shows Lynch as a real wine enthusiast. His take on over-processed wine is dead-on, but having spoken to winery owners who use bottling trucks, I don't agree with a blanket condemnation of them. In Bordeaux, where many chateaux make only 2 wines, and do only 2 bottling runs in a year, a brand new truck run by people who know what they are doing is often preferable to bottling by people who can't really remember from one year to the next exactly how the old line works...