Ain’t easy being Kermit Lynch…

December 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

From my Portland Press Herald wine column, pale enthusiasm for current-vintage Kermit Lynch…

Kermit Lynch is a lot of the reason American wine culture has evolved to its current level of sophistication. In the early 1970s, Lynch and a very few others (Bobby Kacher and Neal Rosenthal among them) visited the great wine-making countries of Western Europe and fell in love with the land, the wines and the people who made them.

By the seat of their pants, they forged an importation model that produced what we gratefully enjoy today: access to small, exciting wineries from regions both well-known (Rhône) and obscure (Valle D’Aosta); awareness of terroir-based wines made naturally, by hand, without filtration or excessive sulfites; the sharp increase in quality from regions such as Provençe, Languedoc, Alto Adige, Corsica and countless others that previously had been overshadowed by the Big Names (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Rioja, etc.).

“Kermit had no idea how the wine market worked,” Lynch’s national sales manager (and himself a spectacular Napa winemaker) Bruce Neyers said. “He had no restraints. He did it his way. … He was one of the first to say, ‘I tasted these two wines side by side — one without filtration, one with — and I want that one.’ ”

It’s a tribute to Lynch’s persistence that he got so many of us to share that discernment and preference.

(Best line from my interview with Neyers: “The (downward) reversal of fortune with the Australian wine business is one of the most remarkably accurate corrections in my lifetime.”) For years, seeing Lynch’s name on the back of a wine bottle was my primary indicator of quality: I knew the wine would be interesting, made by a real person and transported to the wine shop with care.

Just as independent musicians developed alternatives to the creativity-stifling effects of major-label distribution, the wine renegades of the 1970s and 80s opened worlds to thousands of people. That there still exists, concurrently, a corporation-based, factory model for delivering mass-produced wines of no personality doesn’t detract at all from the achievements of Lynch and crew. Localism is surging in food and wine, but so are big boxes and fast food. We can choose. Thanks, Kermit.

In a recent pass through several Lynch-imported wines, however, some pals and I were disappointed. The wines weren’t bad; a couple were terrific. Most, however, just lacked personality and sense of place. Our impromptu panel asked, wine after wine, “Where’s the distinctiveness? The binding worldview?” The fact that the prices were higher than so many other available wines that show more character made it worse.

The confusing thing is, you can’t just say, “Kermit Lynch used to be the gold standard, now he’s a has-been.” It’s just that I don’t fully trust him anymore, don’t feel he’s a can’t-fail guide to my own vicarious “adventures on the wine route” (to quote the title of his still-terrific 1988 book).

Maybe it’s as simple as this: Once the new-wave renegade, Lynch has become a certain sort of establishment. Neyers told me Lynch still gets exuberant over new properties he finds, especially in out-of-the-way places, and I don’t doubt it. Having engineered the revolution, though, he no longer has to fight so hard. If Lynch is still happy, ethical and curious, he wins, but I’m going to be more wary in the future.

Still, here are three Lynch-imported wines that are truly terrific, and worth the price. (Add to this list two stunning Beaujolais I’ve detailed previously: Diochon Moulin-á-Vent 2006 and Lapierre Morgon 2009).

Champalou Vouvray “Fondraux” 2008, Loire, France, $20 (Nappi): Voluptuous wine laced with scintillating acidity and an extensive, undulating finish. Honey, applesauce and shiitakes, then the earthy turns bright with candied lemon peel. Such a food wine, especially for root vegetables, semi-firm cheeses, chicken livers and caramelized onions.

Lynch/Leydier VdP du Vaucluse 2007, Vaucluse, France, $14 (Nappi): The kind of cigar-y, wet-leaves, dusty-textured winter red we’re all looking for this time of year. A gregarious personality, equal parts raw nature and finesse.

Graville-Lacoste Graves 2009, Bordeaux, France $21 (National): The first touch is surprisingly floral with touches of wild honey, pineapple and brown sugar, then it shifts ever so gracefully into Meyer lemons and the mineral realm, ending almost steely. Sauvignon blanc the way it should be, clean enough to transmit the uniqueness of its terroir with no funny stuff, but never veering into astringency or grass. A long, graceful wine that truly tells a story.

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