Berkeley wine maverick: Kermit Lynch

Kermit Lynch

Berkeley is a city of wine independents.

Sure, the place is known for its dedication to free speech, the right of the City Council to pass resolutions concerning U.S. foreign policy, and its devotion to all foods local and organic.

But the city also treads its own way on wine, which was made abundantly clear in a San Francisco Chronicle interview with wine master, Kermit Lynch.

Lynch, whose 22-year old book, Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyers Tour of France, is still selling briskly, practically created the “curated” wine store with selections from small French and Italian producers. By bringing attention to these wines – in his now famous brick walled store on San Pablo Avenue and with his monthly wine letters – Lynch helped create a new generation of wine lovers. When he started travelling to Europe in the early 1970s and tasting wine, most Americans drank beer.

Since then, the California wine industry has ascended, and its varietals are now some of the most respected in the world. But not to Lynch. He doesn’t carry any California wines.

As he tells the Chronicle, he lost interest in California wines in the late 1970s, when winemakers started to increase their wine’s alcohol level and saturate it with a heavy oak taste.

Q: There aren’t any California wines you love?

A: The ’70s was really the period when California wine started to change. When I got into wine, I had the good fortune that I could taste old wines easily. I got to taste California wines from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. They were jewels. I loved them. But in the ’70s they started going more and more toward these bigger alcohols and tons of new oak, where previously they didn’t use new oak in California. It’s a taste I can’t stand. So they changed and left me out of it.

Certainly, Lynch’s stance is not the norm, but he is not alone. Alice Feiring, a noted wine writer, hates, absolutely hates, California wine. She blames the increased alcohol and added oak to winemakers’ pandering to the critic Robert Parker. (The man who created the 100 point scale for wines.) In fact, Feiring hates California wine so much that her forthcoming book is titled Naked Wine. It will chronicle Feiring’s attempt “to prove that great wine can be made in California, if only wine makers would stop using so many additives and adjuncts in the process,” according to a blurb on a publishing website.

While Safeway is stocked up on California Chardonnays, Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, Merlots, and Sauvignon Blancs,  a surprising number of Berkeley wine stores seem to eschew our state’s offerings. Unlike Lynch, they don’t refuse to carry California wines; they just seem to have more wines from other parts of the globe.

Vintage Berkeley, with outlets on Vine Street, College Avenue, and on Solano, (the store there is called Solano Cellars) focuses mostly on European wines that cost under $25 a bottle.

North Berkeley Imports on Martin Luther King specializes in wine from France, Italy, and Chile.

The Spanish Table on San Pablo near Hearst specializes in Spanish wine.

I wonder if the Claremont Hotel figured out how much the East Bay seems to love wines from around the globe. In its Berkeley Wine Festival, which has a series of dinners paired with wine from a particular winery, the Claremont is only featuring California wine makers. On April 14,  patrons will be able to drink wine from Duckhorn Cellars while eating food from the new Meritage restaurant.

In this town, that might be the new, independent path.

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  • Charles

    Adventures on the Wine Route was published in 1988, not ten years ago as you write.

  • http://www.tktaylor.com Tracey Taylor

    Charles: Thanks for the eagle eye. Correction has been made.