The Secrets of a Great Importer

By Lettie Teague June 22, 2012
MORE THAN 20 YEARS AGO, Kermit Lynch wrote what may be the best book on the wine business. Equal parts professional insight and Henry James-inspired travelogue, "Adventures on the Wine Route" was not only much praised but has never been out of print.

Mr. Lynch's take on all this? "I made a huge mistake commercially; I wrote a book explaining what I do," he said over a late-morning glass of Muscadet at Balthazar restaurant in New York. It was a classic Kermit Lynch remark: a bit wry, a bit curmudgeonly and a bit true as well.

Mr. Lynch has been a Berkeley, Calif.-based wine retailer and wine importer for 40 years. (In California, unlike most other states, it's possible to be both.) And while Mr. Lynch has a lot more competition than he did when he started out (including a few importers who have written books as well), a bottle of wine bearing the Kermit Lynch name is practically a quality guarantee.

Although he once imported wines from all over the world, Mr. Lynch now focuses entirely on small, family-owned estates in Italy and France. "You can't really dig too deeply if you try to cover the world," said Mr. Lynch, who estimates that he imports the wines of around 150 producers, and is always looking for more. For every 100 producers he visits, Mr. Lynch might add a single one to his portfolio. His most recent addition was the Sicilian winery Riofavara.

He first tasted a Riofavara wine over a lunch in Sicily with chef Alice Waters and Aubert de Villaine, the proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. (Mr. Lynch discovered one of his most important producers, Domaine Tempier, in the company of Ms. Waters many years ago at her restaurant Chez Panisse.) The Riofavara wines have been an immediate success, Mr. Lynch said. A little-known Sicilian wine would never have taken off so quickly years ago, he added, but today "people are willing to taste and judge."

The wineries currently represented by Mr. Lynch include some of the most esteemed names in the world-Domaine Tempier, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, Coche-Dury and Domaine Raveneau-although they haven't always been famous. In fact, some of these wineries were once so obscure that Mr. Lynch took to writing long, discursive newsletters to convince would-be buyers of their worth. These narratives were so vivid, so charming it was sometimes hard to remember that they were actually sales tools.

The Kermit Lynch newsletters inspired legions of imitators as well as a second book, "Inspiring Thirst," a "best of" collection of the newsletters (not nearly as good as "Adventures on the Wine Route"). Mr. Lynch doesn't write much newsletter copy today, though he said he contributes "a few words now and then."

Kermit Lynch wrote what may be the best book on the wine business.

But he's far from disengaged. In fact, when the subject turned to natural wines-those made with minimal technological or viticultural intervention-Mr. Lynch grew quite animated. Natural wine is a topic much debated these days and Mr. Lynch was particularly troubled by the narrow-minded nature of its fiercest proponents. "Wine isn't something you can be dogmatic about," said Mr. Lynch, adding that he had tasted many "beautiful" wines that had been spoiled by certain "natural" winemaking techniques.

Paradoxically, Mr. Lynch was one of the first to champion some of techniques now embraced by natural winemaking advocates, such as wines made without filtration or fining. "I saw what filtration can do to a wine," said Mr. Lynch.

Many of the producers that Mr. Lynch imports actually produce a nonfiltered wine for Mr. Lynch and a filtered wine for their other clients, said Mr. Lynch, who wouldn't name names but was quite emphatic that his interest in filtration and fining had only to do with taste of the wines-and nothing to do with any philosophy.

And that may be what is most notable about Kermit Lynch wines: They really taste good. Some, in fact, brush up against greatness. Their flavors are vivid and various-fruit and minerals and spice and earth, depending on the varietal.

The wines' flavor profiles have changed over the years, of course, though some wines more than others. Take, for example, the wines of Bordeaux. Today's Bordeaux producers are essentially making "California Cabernet," according to Mr. Lynch, who has always been much better known for Burgundy than Bordeaux. He's also well known for his acumen in the Loire and the Rhône, though the former region hasn't earned much attention over the years, despite the exceedingly high quality of its wines. "The Loire seems to have been forgotten," said Mr. Lynch, "You can get some great bargains in the Loire."

Mr. Lynch was one of the first to champion some of techniques now embraced by natural winemaking advocates, such as wines made without filtration or fining.

"Like Muscadet," I offered with a nod to the wine in his hand (at 10:30 in the morning, I was sticking to a café au lait.) No one had ever really cared about Muscadet, and yet there was some great Muscadet around. Was the Muscadet that Mr. Lynch was drinking one of his own? He examined the wine list. It was not, although he did find some of his other producers, including several from Burgundy and the Rhône.

There were also a few producers that were no longer his. "I'm seeing a lot of names I used to import," said Mr. Lynch with a rueful laugh. That is the nature of the business-wineries move from one importer to another. "It's usually about winemaking or price increases," said Mr. Lynch. Still, many of his wineries, like Domaine Tempier and Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, go almost all the way back to the beginning of his business.

In fact, Mr. Lynch makes a wine with the Brunier family of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe at an estate, Domaine les Pallières, in France's Gigondas region. He was on his way there after our meeting, and following a week in Rome. Mr. Lynch traditionally spends part of the year in Berkeley and part of the year in France-though he recently added Nashville, Tenn., to the itinerary since he began writing and recording country and blues songs. "For now, I enjoy making music more than writing," said Mr. Lynch, who has two children he hopes might one day take over the business. (His daughter works at Diner restaurant in New York and his son just graduated from Cornell.)

And if they took over scouting for wineries, where would he tell them to go? "Look where no one else is looking," replied Mr. Lynch. He didn't say more, but I couldn't blame him-he'd given his secrets away once before.