Kermit Lynch

From his twin bases in Berkeley and Provence American Kermit Lynch has been educating fellow Americans on the subtleties and pleasures of French wines for over 35 years.


From his twin bases in Berkeley and Provence American Kermit Lynch has been educating fellow Americans on the subtleties and pleasures of French wines for over 35 years.


It wasn’t a conspiracy, but he arrived on the scene at the same time that Alice Waters was revolutionizing the way Americans ate at her Provençal-inspired Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse. Her emphasis on locally-produced seasonal menus dovetailed with Lynch’s philosophy of disregarding ratings and drinking wines that were appropriate to what you were eating-a Domaine Tempier Rouge from Provence with an herbed gigot d’agneau rather than a big, expensive Bordeaux.

His introduction of Domaine Tempier’s Rosé and its status as the house wine at Chez Panisse taught a generation that the only similarity between French Rosé and that Portugese swill (Mateus) we drank in college was the spelling.

A self-described hermit who shuns the spotlight he only agreed to meet me as a courtesy to Ten Speed Press, the publisher of his new book, Inspiring Thirst a collection of the beautifully written newsletters that have driven his business for over thirty years. His first book, Adventures on the Wine Route, published 22 years ago continues to be a source of inspiration to wine lovers in both America and France and in both languages.

TG: Do you remember your first glass of wine?
KL: Not far from it-I remember where it was. I was 17 and it was my next-door neighbor’s house in San Luis Obispo (California) and by coincidence they were two Cal (Berkeley) graduates who had brought a certain culture back to San Luis. One of them was drinking wine. They also introduced me to classical music for which I am equally thankful. They had quite an influence on me. In fact I moved to Berkeley when I was eighteen to go to college. I lived in Berkeley and went to San Francisco State because my grades weren’t good enough for Cal.

TG: Was wine a part of your family culture?
KL: Not at all. My father and an uncle worked for Roma Winery in Delano and Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley and yet I never saw wine at home.

TG: Were they teetotalers?
KL: Three of six brothers were fundamentalist preachers and for communion served Welch’s grape juice. It’s been a long road for me.

TG: Do you remember the first time you drank a glass of wine and realized that it contained magical properties?
KL: From the time I met those people and started drink wine with dinner I took it upon myself to learn. When I came to Berkeley I’d buy jug wine from CK Mondavi and then started buying better wines for dinner and pretty soon I was in a tasting group.

TG: How did you segue out of your day job into being a wine merchant?
KL: I had a crafts business making lady’s handbags out of Oriental rug scraps-but it didn’t appeal to me at all and then someone came along and offered me money for this little business. It was enough money for me to take off to Europe for four months. I came back with no job. I intended to continue my non-career as a singer in a rock n’ roll band and get a part-time job. Wine had become a hobby so I tried to get a job in the wine business but the industry was in the midst of a recession and no one was hiring so I borrowed $5,000 from my girlfriend and opened my won shop-I never could have done it without her. She fed me for the first few years because I saw no profits. As I explained in the introduction to the book, Inspiring Thirst, that recession allowed me to launch my business because there was so much wine that everyone was dumping and stores were overstocked and couldn’t buy and I was free to buy these incredibly cheap wines and that attracted a clientele. I was selling wine for $4.95 that other stores were selling for $25.

And I had promised my customers, sort of a declaration of philosophy of the company, that I would only offer wines that I had tasted. The negociant Frank Schoonmaker wrote a wine column for the New Yorker in the late 40s, 50s, sixties and his company sent out a telephone book-sized listing all of the French, Spanish, Italian, and German wines that they were dumping. But it was all in Europe. There was no way to taste it here, so I started going to Europe to taste Schoonmaker selections.

TG: In a sense your being naive was an advantage. You didn’t follow an established protocol?
KL: And the lack of money also worked in my interest because retailers today and retailers then think that they have to have everything. I couldn’t afford to carry everything so right from the start that was not my aim. I’ve never felt the need to have everything-Australian wine we must have Australian wine. I didn’t pay any attention. I only sold what I tasted and what I liked.

TG: Talk about the influence of France on your life and work?
KL: Of the four countries that I was visiting in those days France had a little more pull. I was also attracted to German wines but the pull to France became stronger. In France you had this regional character and the combination of food and wine regionally was very attractive to me. In France you can become microscopic in tasting wines. You start with French wines and move to Rhone wines, then Chateauneuf-du-Pape, then the stony parcels of Chateauneuf du-Pape, the chalky parcels of Chateauneuf du Pape. Then in Burgundy a quarter acre of vines sells for $200 a bottle and right next to it is another vineyard that sells for $5 a bottle. That really appealed to me.

TG: By this time you were fluent in French?
KL: No. It was very difficult for me so the first time I bought wine for the shop we had to go into the tourist office in Beaune to have the transaction translated.

TG: As I look over your career it would seem that you’ve made some wonderful friendships that have had an enormous impact on your life. Richard Olney and Lucien and Lulu Peyraud (Domaine Tempier) spring to mind. Would you talk about them and what you learned from them?
 Richard of course was another American. He moved to France in 1951 when he was about 20 to paint but got into the restaurant world through a relationship with one of the top chefs in Paris. He never worked in a restaurant but he was well known in the 3 star restaurants and the great chateaux like D’Yquem and Lafitte. He bought a ruin in Provence, restored it and started writing for a French wine and food magazine: La Cuisine et Vins de France.

I didn’t know who he was. I was just looking for an interpreter to travel with me and he turned out to be that interpreter.

TG: How did you make that connection?
KL: Lydie Marshall. I had gotten to know them in New York. Her husband was crazy about wine and spoke French fluently. He wanted to go with me to get down into the cellars but at the last minute he called and said he couldn’t go but that they knew this American in Provence who needed money. So Richard agreed. I didn’t know who Richard was and I mentioned it to Alice (Waters) who said:’ Pack your bags and get on that plane!’. It strikes me as so unlikely because the image I had of myself was very timid: I didn’t speak much French, I knew nothing about cuisine and all of sudden there I am traveling with Richard which meant that we’d go to Chez Piques in Valence and they would pay the bill because he was Richard Olney. And there I am tagging along being able to experience all that. It turned into a great friendship that lasted until he died.

So what did I learn? His attitude. I certainly picked up on his attitude towards wine that was that you accept it just like the air you breathe-why make a big deal out of it. But just taking it for granted liberated me. Also Richard had a way of tasting-there was absolutely no pomposity at all. None of this rating wines. I can hear him saying in my mind: ‘What does this wine have to say to us?’ No matter what it was. A little country wine that he called “mouth rinse” or a fifty-year old Yquem. Not imposing anything on the wine just seeing what it had to give. So I was lucky not to fall into what has become the American way of looking at wine.

TG: When you sit down to write your newsletter are you in the mind and palate of your reader/customer? Are you asking yourself if he is going to understand what you’re saying-almost taste the wine from your description?
KL: Absolutely. Finding clarity. That’s what I look for when I write. I want to attract the reader. I don’t want to bore the reader. I enjoy finding the clearest way to say something.

TG: What were the origins of the newsletter and Adventures on the Wine Route?
KL: I was importing so many wines that no one had ever heard of and I was sending out a price list every three or four months. It would say Cahors –Domaine de something, Chinon-Domaine de something and I noticed that no one was coming in. I had a container coming in with a lot of other wines that Americans weren’t familiar with-they knew Bordeaux and some Burgundy. So I dashed off a few lines about 14 or 15 of those wines and lo and behold the store wasn’t packed but people were coming in. Something about the description had made them more curious. But it was dramatic enough that I knew I had to do it and it became monthly. And I’ve been doing it for over thirty years.

Then Ten Speed Press came along and suggested doing an anthology. My wife and I had done some work for them on the reprint of Richard Olney’s book about Lulu Peyraud (Lulu’s Provençal Kitchen.)

TG: Coming back to Lulu. Can you talk about the influence she and Lucien had on you?
KL: Being a friend of Richard’s automatically made you a friend of Lulu’s. The first time I went to visit Domaine Tempier I was alone after a trip to Burgundy. I had reservations at a hotel near the domaine. I walked in and asked for my room and they said, no, there’s no reservation. And he said: ‘Aren’t you friends with Madame Peyraud? She called and canceled your reservation. You’re staying at the domaine.’ I’d never even met her. So that’s Lulu-the door is always open. That was the great thing at Tempier in those days. The door to the dining room and the cellar were open-to anybody. You could drop in while they were eating and they’d put a plate on the table and pull out a chair for you. It’s just the way they were. We became fast friends.

TG: What did you learn from Lucien about wine? And from Lulu about food?
KL: Lucien was a purist about wine with a real prejudice against the northern wines especially Burgundy because they were chapitalized. Down in sunny Provence it wasn’t necessary. Drinking wine with Lucien he could be very hard on the wine so you had to be careful what you uncorked fro him. But in those days France was very different-he didn’t know much about northern wines. I remember a dinner my wife and I did for the Peyrauds and Richard because I collected a bunch of wines from the Northern Rhone: Cote Rotie, Hermtage, Cornas. They didn’t know those wines and I opened their eyes to those treasures. It was so different then. To show how much things have changed in France and the wine industry I remember that about 1982 I was tasting Chaves in Hermitage which is about 45 minutes form Lyon. So I’m tasting with him and I mention that I’m going to Burgundy the next day. Why don’t you come along. And he said: ‘Alright, I’ve never been there.’ It’s two hours by car and he’d never been there! Today he’s been to Japan, Australia and the United States. In those days they had just learned that the Syrah in Hermitage although spelled differently was the same grape they had in Cote Rotie. It was so provincial.

TG: And Lulu?
KL: She must be 85 and she still drives to Bandol to swim in the ocean every morning. Around 8 o’clock in the morning before anyone else is around. She gets out of the water, dries herself off and goes to the market. She’s a force of nature. Dining with Lulu-she loved to cook over coals. She has a fireplace in her kitchen and one outside the back door. She would do Bouillabaisse over a fire outside. That’s one thing I picked up from her; that smoky flavor that helps anything you cook.

TG: Can you talk about Alice Waters (Chez Panisse) Steve Sullivan (Acme Breads) and your contribution to the culinary revolution in America that started here in Berkeley?
Alice opened Chez Panisse in either late 1971 or early 1972 and I opened my store in Albany in ’72 but we didn’t know each other. Of course when you’re in the wine business you’re always looking for places to eat. Next door to my store was a hole-in-the-wall Mexican/Indian restaurant. The chef was from India and his wife was from Mexico so they served both cuisines. Anyway, Alice loved that guy’s cooking and she would often come for lunch and stick her head in my door and I’d go over have something to eat with her. And from that we became good friends. She’s my daughter’s godmother and I’m her daughter’s godfather. It’s really a wonderful friendship, and I can’t tell you in how many important ways she’s influenced not just my career but my life. I wouldn’t have met Richard if she hadn’t forced me to pack my bags. The house I live in is thanks to Alice. It came up for sale and I bought it without seeing it because Alice insisted. I needed a house because we had a daughter and her room was the closet and Gail (my wife) got pregnant again and there we were-where are we going to put the baby-there wasn’t enough room in the closet. We’d been looking for a house for years and we were in France for our (annual) six months and we got a call from a real estate agent who said: ‘I found it.This is the one’! And I said: ‘You’re crazy. I’m not going to get on a plane and look at another house and say no. She asked if I had a friend who could look at it and I said Alice, I trust her taste. And she said: ’Kermit you gotta buy it. This is the one.’ So I did without ever coming home.

TG: Did you present Gail to Alice for approval before getting married?
I didn’t but Alice got me out of a relationship before that that wasn’t right. She was living in this magnificent Victorian here in Berkeley- the most beautiful apartment with three fireplaces. I was half-heartedly looking for a place to get out of this relationship and Alice and I went to look at a place that was underground, wet, humid, cold-horrible. And I told her that if I moved In I’d go crazy and she said: OK. You take my apartment and I’ll move in here. Just to get me out of that relationship.

TG: You have been responsible for a number of what I’d call rulebreakers. You were one of the first Americans to say that it was okay to drink red wine frais (cool) and that white wines didn’t have to be iced. You started importing wines in refrigerated containers. Did you learn those things from the winemakers or was it a case of following your instincts?
KL: In France most of the cellars are underground. For example at Domaine Tempier, where they make a full-bodied red if you drank it at room temperature you wouldn’t enjoy it-the alcohol would jump out at you. So they go down to the cellar and pull out a pitcher of the new wine from the vat and serve it real cool, cellar temperature, they don’t put it n the refrigerator. In burgundy I noticed the same thing. They bring their wines right out of the cellar-both reds and whites served at the same temperature. So it was observing that and seeing what it does to the aroma of the wine. The refrigerated container was because of a shipment of burgundy that arrived and I thought the guy had substituted a different wine-I thought he had cheated me. He said it might have been in the shipping. To get to California the wine goes through the Carribbean, the Panama Canal, up the Mexican coast in a metal container and he was right so I tried a refrigerated container (1,100 cases)to see if it made a difference-and the wine tasted exactly like it had tasted in France.

TG: Early on in your business you write about encouraging small winemakers to bottle for you personally.
 This began because I insisted that they bottle unfiltered. Once that decision was made it changed things because they didn’t want to sell unfiltered wines.

TG: What’s the difference between the taste of a filtered and an unfiltered wine?
It’s not just the taste-it’s everything. It takes something away in every sense. It takes the robe away. An unfiltered wine has more depth. It’s a little lighter at the edges and goes down to a darker color, so you have this whole color range to appreciate whereas once it’s filtered it’s limpid-the same color at the edges and the center. It takes away from the aroma, the body, the fleshiness, you’re left with a rough-edged tannin and you lose length. People argue about whether I’m right or not. There’s a very important book in the wine world that devotes several pages to my theory and calls me a dreamer. But no one can talk about it until they’ve tasted the exact same wine, filtered and unfiltered, side-by-side and then tasted that same wine five years later and ten years later. An unfiltered wine can live twice as long as the filtered version.

So imagine. I’m going in to Moulin a Vent in Beaujolais and the winemaker’s got his casks and he wants to know how many I want unfiltered because he’s going to bottle it for me. I say I’ll need 800 cases and he’ll calculate that as 3 casks out of his ten. So I’ll taste each cask and make a decision and that was how I got into choosing my cuvées because even if you have ten stainless steel tanks, exactly the same size, same producer and you put the same wine in each one, a couple of days later each one will taste different, so you can imagine when you’re dealing with wood there are big differences.

TG: Talk about the influence of Thomas Jefferson and the label episode with US government (BATF.)
 They came out with the health warning on labels that: “wine may be dangerous to your health.”

TG: It doesn’t stop pregnant women from drinking wine in France.
 Not at all. In fact my wife’s doctor recommended that she drink a glass of wine after lunch and after dinner when she was pregnant.

TG: back to Jefferson. You were a Jeffersonian scholar?
 Not really. Of all those founding fathers he seemed the most interesting to me. I could not stand to put that health warning on my bottles-what an ugly thing to say. And what a statement to have legislated-MAY be dangerous to your health. Water may be dangerous; you might drown! I was looking for a way to soften that message on my wine bottle. Whenever I buy a wine I have to get the label approved by BATF, not the wine inside just the label. I sent my labels in: WINE IMPORTED BY KERMIT LYNCH, WINE MAY BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH and on one I put Louis Pasteur: “Wine is the most hygienic beverage known to man,” On a second: from the Bible: “Take a little wine for thy stomachs every day.” And the other was from Thomas Jefferson: “A good wine is a necessity of life.” They wouldn’t let me use any of them and I said ‘my God.’ I’d grown so sick of Americans saying we’ve got our problems but we’re still the best country in the world-at least we’ve got our freedom. And then I looked at the label and realized when you put Jefferson beside the health warning it made it look ridiculous. My first submission was accepted and I printed 50,000 import labels and the second time I was rejected and I was stuck with those labels. But I persisted over 5 years and it finally changed with Clinton. I finally got them to send me a letter to explain the rejection and they said that “necessity of life” was a health claim and the other thing was “good wine.” People will think that Thomas Jefferson was recommending that particular bottle. I wrote back and suggested that most people would know that a brand new vintage had not been tasted by someone who’d been dead for 170 years. And I went on to say that our new president was William Jefferson Clinton and for a government bureaucracy to censor the third president of the United States who shares a name with our current president is going too far. They approved it.

And it pleased me so much because it just gave me the shivers that people were taking that warning seriously. The British medical journal Lancet has a study that pregnant women are having up to five glasses a day with no problems.



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