Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wine Biz Interview #15 Iconic Importer, Rock Star, Thirst Inspiring Writer, Kermit Lynch

Well seeing as one of my questions was going to be along the lines of, “How do you define or classify your occupation?” I figured we might as well start there right? So Mr. Fancy, in the long line of things you do; write, wine merchant, importer, music man…how would you explain how you make a living to a novice? In what order and have you, at any point, wished you could shuffle the deck and put one of the others at the top of the list?

During my twenties I was writing, singing, and drinking wine, and still am, but my wine business pays the bills.  The books and CDs, well, if I lived off them, I'd have to change my lifestyle.  However, I don't regret it for a minute.  Writing is a very solitary job.  Doing it full time doesn't sound like my cup of tea.  I had a taste of the musician's life on the road and didn't much like it either.  Turns out I like the aroma of Raveneau's cellar more than a backstage dressing room.  I do love making CDs, so that's what I do.  Thank goodness I don't have to live on a tour bus to support my love of music making.

What was your first foray in the wine business?

I tried to get a job in the local wine shops back in 1972.  No one would hire me.  Neither would the post office, thank goodness.  I borrowed $5000 from my girlfriend and opened a little hole-in-the-wall retail shop.  Thank you Joan Connolly!

What was it that lit the fire under you? Was it timing, a certain wine?

In 1974 I went on importer Dick Buck's buying trip with him.  My next trip was with California winemaker Joe Swan.  After those two trips, I was hooked.  I was tasting in  Germany, France, Italy and Spain.  I was also buying a lot of California wines direct from the wineries.  What I ended up doing in France and Italy, I had begun doing in California with wineries like Swan's, Ridge, Chalone, and so on.  What lit the fire was the thrill of discovering great wines, and that's still the case.

When I Google the name Kermit you are number 4, cool to know or a pisser that you aren’t higher on the list?

I thought everyone knew, I am Kermit the Frog.  That's why I feel right at home in France.

There seem to be a lot of musicians in the wine business, my boss Randy Kemner included, any idea what might be the common thread

Hmmm, yeah, what could it be? I've noticed that, too.   It must be that we all appreciate harmony.

 When making purchases how much of what you decide to import is based on what you think will sell and what you want to drink?

It always starts with what I want to drink, then I have to decide how much to order, which of course means considering how much I think I can sell.  

What would you say was the hardest or most unforeseen obstacle with importing French wines to the US in the beginning? How, or has that changed at all?

Wines are shipped in metal containers.  It took about 600 cases to fill a 20-footer, and financially, that was impossible for me then.  I piggy-backed in another importer's containers.  That would be Karl Petrowsky who worked for Frank Schoonmaker imports.  He was a great help to me.  The German winemakers loved Karl.  I accompanied him several times on his buying trips, and had the chance to taste incredible Germans wines going back to the early twentieth century. 

So you have access to some of the greatest French wines in the world, are you reaching for Raveneau and Coche Dury every night? (Warning, admitting this is true will make us give you the scrunchy, “Really dude?!” face. Just so you know.)

 I went over my to my pal Alain Pascal's house two nights ago for dinner.  He's the vigneron at Domaine du Gros Nore, a hunter, and it's the season.  I took a Raveneau 2000 Montee de Tonnerre and a 1999 Corton Charlemagne from Coche-Dury.  That's a neat progression.  The Chablis was austere, the CC opulent.  Alain roasted a marcassin on the spit in his fireplace and brought out his 1999 Bandol rouge for it.  Then Alain pulled out a Sauternes from his friend at Domaine d'Alliance.  If you haven't tasted their wine Sauternes, you should.  They only have two hectares (five acres), and theirs is about as close to an Yquem as you can get.  I know, because then Alain uncorked a 1996 Yquem that a customer had kindly given to him.  Sorry, that doesn't really answer your question.  Anyway, yes, I often reach for a Raveneau, Coche, Ente, de Cherisey or some such white Burgundy, because I like them so much.

When you started KLWM was there an existing store or did you start from the ground up?

It was an empty storefront on San Pablo Ave near Solano.  Eight hundred square feet.  By the time I painted it, put in phones and all those little basics, I had enough l money left to open the doors with a 33 case inventory.  I was open four days a week, five hours a day, because I still thought of myself as a musician with a wine hobby.

You have an amazing ability to describe a moment, rich in vinegary greens, a female winemaker in a fine woolen suit, the soothing first splash of Beaujolais used to wash down a creamy, meaty piece of pork rillettes…a way of sharing the moment as you saw and felt it. How did you know Kermit? That there would people out here that would respond to that kind of beauty in wine and the story rather than the coco, beet root and dried tuna, kind of wine description?

Wine critics' tasting notes have become laughable.  So many aromas of things that no one I know has ever smelled in their entire lifetime. Just painfully ludicrous.  Do they think the more numerous and more esoteric their descriptions, the more we'll believe in them.  On the contrary. Eric Azimov has a great chapter on all that bullshit in his recent book.  And those tasting notes are off-putting to our customers.  They read about a wine with a dozen different perfumes and they think, Jesus, I don't smell all that, I must have a lousy palate and might as well go back to buying rot-gut.  And here's another thing:  you taste a wine one week and find raspberry in the aroma, and you taste it a week later and it might smell like cherry or strawberry.  Living wines change whether they are in a barrel or a bottle.  Every winemaker knows that.  So even if a critic were right about what a wine smells like the day he writes the tasting notes, it won't be true by the time you buy a bottle and take it home.

Three way fork in the road. To the left you have Salma Hayek, to the right, a jam session with Charlie Parker and Lady Gaga and straight ahead, a magnum of Lapierre Morgon, what ever do you do?

Take the magnum to Salma's.

What would you say have been the most significant changes, good or bad, in French wines in the past 15 years?

There has been an immense change.  For year's it seemed that the enologists were going to sterilize all French wines.  Make sure they were stable no matter what they tasted like.  Now the pendulum is swinging more to so-called "natural" wines which have been minimally treated filtered medicated and all that sort of stuff.  Hurrah for it.

Hangover cure of choice?

I drink wine with meals.  And I don't hit the harder stuff.  I haven't had a hangover in years.  In the new edition of Adventures I tell of the time a hangover nearly killed me after a long night at Domaine Tempier and then Richard Olney's house.

Can you give me three wines that would help us understand your passion?


I don't think I can.  Sorry.  My mind goes haywire just thinking about it, for some reason.

Have you ever sneezed while peeing?

(Dead air)

Dammit, he snuck off before I could squeeze out that last one! Knew I should have started with that. Dag-gum-it. 

I would like to thank famed importer, musician and impassioned wine writer Kermit Lynch for taking the time out of his busy schedule in France to let me play reporter with him...made me feel all fancy and junk. 

Kermit Lynch, his wines and his extremely devour-worthy book Adventures on the Wine Route have been instrumental in informing, beguiling and inspiring many of us to dive head first into the deep end of wine.....appreciation sounds too perfunctory, feeding our appetite for wine, the people that make them and the meals they are gulped along with. His voice is anything but dogmatic, it's more of a romantic summoning and I for one am all in. 

So do you have any questions you’d like to ask Kermit? Turns out he will be at The Wine Country December 7th! This year marks the 25th anniversary of Kermit’s Adventures on the Wine Route so he is traveling around signing copies of the 25th Anniversary Edition with its updated epilogue and list of 25 most memorable wines. We will be conducting a special tasting of Kermit Lynch imported wines in honor of having the man, the myth, the legend in our shop signing books. 4:30-6:30 PM, $25.00 for the tasting and we will also be selling books so you can get your very own copy signed and trust me, it is a book that will leave you wanting to taste, smell and see all that he did….I know I still do. 






gabriel jagle said...

excellent interview with a great man. Well done Samantha!

Samantha Dugan said...

You are too sweet. Half the interview was lost to internet nightmares and, for lack of a better word, shyness, but it was an easy and light conversation with an icon that has been somewhat beat up in the stoopid blog world lately. So lame to me to get your undies twisted about what a very famous, FRENCH wine importer says about wines he admittedly doesn't drink. Just thought I would show my support for one of that cats responsible for keeping me in love with wine. If it weren't for the Kermits, Michael Sullivans, Neil Rosenthals and Terry Theises of the world, there would be no love of wine for me, therefore, no this me. I am grateful to him and think we all have the right to say and feel about wine the way we do, and that includes the ones that were all pouty about his comments in The Times.

I think he is a brilliant wine writer. In fact one of the very few that can pull me in like a bent finger beneath my chin. I love his wines, well most of them and I know that were it not for Kermit we, as in me and the ones with palates like mine, we wouldn't be drinking as richly as we are today.

Thomas said...


Fine interview. I loved it.

Two things in it touched me:

Kermit is correct about the solitary writer's life, and about the revenue it does not provide!

I never gave it much thought, but as a teenage singer in a doo wop group, and a fellow who studied and still plays the piano, I am a musician too--and have been in the wine business for 30 years.

On the musician score, one of my favorite wine people was Leigh Knowles. He worked in Sales at Gallo, at Coca Cola's Taylor California Cellars, and then became President at Beaulieu. He was a jazz trumpeter before that.

gabriel jagle said...

I'm sorry to hear that a chunk of this interview was lost, I could have read this interview forever. It was a very different side of Kermit Lynch than the one I am used to seeing.

I agree with all of your comments about his wonderful writing and wonderful palate, and would like to add that he also brings in a lot of wine at very reasonable prices. Thanks again for writing this

Samantha Dugan said...

Thanks kid. Like I said above, there was a lot more but I wanted to get my nod to Kermit up I was starving for content! Kinda crazy the music crossover, happens a lot in kitchens too. Think he was right, must have something to do with harmony.

Yeah some of the other stuff would have been fun but this was playful enough for me. Kermit really is a very smart and talented man and his voice, as in writing voice, is truly unique. Some day I hope to be able to touch people in much the same way...

Dale Dimas said...

Must have something to do with the harmony


Take the magnum to Salma's

Wonderful interview and based on your question about describing the experience when the wine was tasted as opposed to the alleged nuance of nose and palate, his influence on your is very evident.

Nice job!

gabriel jagle said...

speaking of which, we talked about putting together a 6-pack of wine once I had some harvest money to waste on wine. Well harvest is officially over, and I've got a hankering for some white Burgundy. How do I order wines from you?

Samantha Dugan said...

Why thanks darlin'!

Well kid there are several ways. One is you could go to the website and just order. This works well and comes with it no demands or commitment on my part. Two is you could call me and let me know what you want. This is a little more personal and we can put voices with the names...sort of weird but fun sensation. Or three, you can give me a price range/total, an idea of what you are looking for in terms of red/white.Burg.Loire, and then me do what it is I do. I think I have an idea about your palate, (in fact I think you and I might have similar ones) and I'm guessing I could put something fun together for you. Or we can do a mix of a couple of the above. Either way I will be thrilled to get a 6 pack in the mail to you!

gabriel jagle said...

I'll check out the website, and give a call to the shop.

John M. Kelly said...

It's not too much to say that I would not be a winemaker today if I had not been introduced to KLWM when I was a grad student in biochemistry at UC Davis. My first wine from his shop was a Maume Mazis Chambertin, the second a Vieux Telegraphe and the third a Tempier Bandol.

Aside from your blog, Sam, the only wine-related writing I look forward to is the KLWM newsletter.

If anyone is interested, Kermit will be a guest on Michael Krasny's Forum on KQED tomorrow. You can probably access a podcast.

Samantha Dugan said...

John Love,
Wow, what an introduction. Damn. Don't think I could pick more "Kermit" wines if I had to, well aside from Lapierre Morgon. I was very sad when I heard that Maume sold this year. One of the sexiest wines, year in and year out, that I know. Good news is they were sold to a company that put Pascal Marchand in charge, so there will likely be very little by way of transitional bumps. Talk about another kickass winemaker.Maybe I will ask Pascal myself...seeing as that importer has expressed an interest in taking me on her trip next April! Dude...

I remember way back, must have been five years ago, you told m that same thing about my posts and Kermit, still makes my heart leap into my chest sweetheart. You make me very proud. Hugs to you!

I would love to chat with you and put something together. So much fun that...