Kermit Lynch: ‘I abandoned my heart to Europe decades ago’

Councilwoman Linda Maio reads an official City of Berkeley proclamation honoring Kermit Lynch (r) on the 40th anniversary of the opening of his wine shop. Mayor Tom Bates is left. Photo: Tracey Taylor

It was the 40th anniversary of the founding of his famous wine store, the sun was shining, the band was playing, the wine was flowing and Kermit Lynch was all smiles.

“Long live wine!” Lynch shouted into a microphone to the hundreds of people who had gathered in the parking lot of his store at San Pablo and Cedar to celebrate the anniversary. “Let’s get on with this great party! Let’s have some fun!”

The crowd didn’t need much encouragement. With sausages and frittata prepared by chef Christopher Lee, ice cream by Ici, and a parade of dishes by the newly opened Bartavelle café (occupying spot where the revered Café Fanny once stood) there was plenty to sample.

But, as in all things in Lynch’s life, the centerpiece of the day was wine. Known for elevating the status of wine made from small French and Italian wineries (sourced from his many trips hitting the back roads to find unheralded producers) Lynch chose seven wines for the day’s celebrations that both reflected his store’s past and its future.

Hundreds of people came to Kermit Lynch’s 40th anniversary party. Photo: Tracey Taylor

There was the Domaine Tempier Bandol 2011 – the same rosé that Lynch convinced Alice Waters to put on her menu at Chez Panisse in the 1970s. (“Alice and I trained America on this rosé,” he said). There were two vintages from the winery Lynch purchased in 1998: a 1999 and 2004 Domaine Les Pallieres. (“The purchase of a winery was important to me so I pulled out two old vintages. I am selling them almost for free so people can see what happens when it ages.”) There was a Corsican white Domain Maestracci 2011 “E Prove” (“I have been discovering incredible whites in Corsica; nobody knows much about them.”), an Italian red, Corte Gardoni 2010 Corvinna ‘Becco Rosso’ (“A cheap one so people can see that I also think bargain when I shop.”) As well as – what else – champagne, a J. Lassalle Brut premier cru, among others.

According to Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant General Manager Graeme Blackmore, 350 bottles of wine were poured on the day.

The limelight was on Lynch Saturday, and the legions of fans and loyal customers he has cultivated over the years treated him like a celebrity. Throughout the day — right after City Councilwoman Linda Maio, supported by Mayor Tom Bates and City Councilman Darryl Moore, read a City of Berkeley proclamation honoring Lynch and his store — people kept coming up to ask for his autograph. They would thrust a copy of one of his books or newsletters into his hand and ask for his signature.

Chibby Alloway had driven from Orinda to the party. He said he never misses one of Lynch’s festivals because he is so appreciative of what the wine merchant has done. Alloway consumed undistinguished wine until he wandered into the store 20 years ago and was turned on to the beauty of French and Italian varietals.

“It’s earthbreaking,” said Alloway. “Kermit was the first one to turn me on to French wine. It’s always very affordable, less than $35 for two bottles.”

The day’s food offerings. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Stealing a moment away from the crowd, Lynch, 70 headed with Berkeleyside into an office lined with empty bottles, old menus from Chez Panisse and a poster heralding the work of his wife, the photographer Gail Skoff. He said when he opened his wine store in 1972, in a small space on San Pablo Avenue in Albany, he never could have imagined he would play such a large role in the wine world. He considered himself a musician who couldn’t make a living, and opened the store only when he couldn’t get a part-time job. For the first five years he sold wine from all over, including California, Spain, France, Italy and Germany, but soon found he much preferred French and Italian wine. As soon as he could afford to hire a clerk, he set out to discover more about those wines.

“I fell in love with the wine culture of France and Italy which had such a long tradition that appealed to me,” said Lynch, who looked more European than casual-Berkeleyan with his black espadrilles, black linen shirt, gray pants and stylish glasses. “I felt betrayed, too, by the direction that California wineries took. They changed direction dramatically when Robert Parker appeared on the scene and high points started meaning big bucks.”

Chef Christopher Lee oversaw the food for the party, including pork and fennel sausages and frittata. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Before wineries began crafting big, fruity high-alcohol wines to cater to Parker’s palate, California wines were restrained, said Lynch. He pulled an empty bottle of Ridge Cabernet from 1977 and pointed to its alcohol level – 11.7% – to make his point.

The Parker phenomenon even swept France, much to Lynch’s chagrin.

“How could you resist if you played the Parker game and you got a big score and you drove a Mercedes and your neighbor saw you?” said Lynch. “You were getting rich and your neighbor was still on the tractor. It was an easy decision to make, to think ‘I can do that.’”

Lynch is pleased that many winemakers are now pulling back from the Parker style and are making more restrained wines. He admitted, though, that he doesn’t pay close attention to what is happening with wine in California, as he abandoned his heart to Europe decades ago.

Kermit Lynch offered numerous wines for the occasion, including a 1999 and 2004 from his own French vineyard, and the Bandol rosé he and Alice Waters made popular. Photo: Tracey Taylor

For instance, he was not familiar with two of Berkeley’s urban wineries, Donkey & Goat and Broc Cellars, both of which have been praised for their restrained and natural style, much like the European wines Lynch heralds. Lynch said he was friendly with Steve Edmonds of Edmonds St. John, but that was the extent of his familiarity with local winemakers.

But the day was for celebrating, and Lynch was clearly happy with the revelry outside.  “I love that buzz,” he said of the noise of the crowd. “We started at 11. I listen as the day goes on. The laughter, the gaiety.” He makes an upward swirling motion with his hand to indicate a crescendo. “I love that.”

Kermit Lynch raised the knowledge level and popularity of French and Italian wines. The store was busy on Saturday. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Music at the party was provided by Andrew Carriere and his Zydeco and Cajun Allstars. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Acne Bread, which is housed in the same complex at Kermit Lynch’s wine shop, was bustling Saturday. Photo: Tracey Taylor

In a room in the back of his store, Lynch keeps a collection of bottles from vintages he and his staff have tasted. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Related:
Wine merchant Kermit Lynch celebrates 40th anniversary [10.19.12]
Bartavelle owner: What’s cooking for ex-Café Fanny space [05.25.12]
Provence in Berkeley [09.16.10]
Berkeley wine maverick: Kermit Lynch [04.08.10]

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