Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant: an East Bay treasure

 

When I moved to the East Bay, in 1987, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant was the first wine shop I wanted to check out.

Kermit—the man—had started the shop back in 1972. My trip there brought me driving down crowded, trafficky San Pablo Avenue, to an industrial part of Berkeley filled with auto body shops and Chinese restaurants. There, tucked along the side of a parking lot, with the Acme Bread Company kitty-corner next door, was a non-descript storefront leading to a not very sizable shop, where stacks of the most interesting wines I’d ever seen were piled up everywhere. And the floor staff did not make me feel like I didn’t belong, despite my jeans and T-shirt, the way they did at Draper & Esquin, the notoriously snooty wine store in San Francisco’s Financial District.

I shopped a lot at KLWM in the late 1980s and 1990s, buying the wines Kermit imported from Europe, especially those from France: Minervois, Fitou, Alsace, Chablis, Bandol, Chateauneauf and the occasional inexpensive red Burgundy. I went, also, to Kermit’s annual Beaujolais Nouveau party, which took place in the parking lot (rain or shine), with tons of aromatic purple wine, grilled sausages and delicious bread from Acme. And, of course, I eagerly read Kermit’s monthly newsletter, among the liveliest in California. But by the mid-1990s my career as a wine writer with a specialty in California took off, with the predictable result that I lost touch with the wines from anywhere except the Golden State. (When you’re reviewing 5,000 wines a year, it’s hard to drink much else!) It was a sad tradeoff. So I found myself shopping at Kermit Lynch less and less. I’d tell myself every month, “I really must go back to Kermit,” because their mixed-case sampler deals were so great. But it just never seemed to happen.

Then, a few weeks ago, I got an evite from Kermit Lynch’s marketing director, Clark Terry, inviting me to a Champagne tasting. It was at Jardiniere, the great restaurant over in Hayes Valley, in the shadow of City Hall. I asked Maxine to accompany me, and we went last Monday. What a treat. Not too crowded (as many of these walkaround tastings tend to be), with the wines properly organized, and piles of charcuterie and paté—the perfect pairings for bubbly.

I didn’t take official notes, but I will say that, in every flight, it turned out that my favorite wine was always the most expensive! That’s always been my problem: Champagne taste, Prosecco budget. For example, in the J. Lassalle Champagnes, the 2006 Blanc de Blancs blew me away. It was picking up bottle bouquet, toasty and clean; at $656 the case wholesale, a single bottle at retail, by my calculations, would run you a cool $110—not bad, actually, for what you get.

They had some still wines too, and in the white Burgundies, as I made my way from Kermit’s entry-level Dom. Costal Chablis ($240) through the seven wines, the final one—Bruno Colin 2015 Chassagne-Montrachet “Les Vergers”—was thrilling beyond my words to describe it, so rich and massive it awed me, although it needed some time. But once again, it was a very pricy wine: $1,008 the case wholesale. And exactly the same thing happened with the red Burgundies: they were all fine, from a rather ascetic Marsannay to a plumper Aloxe-Corton, but the star was a 2014 Nuits-Saint-Georges “Les Cailles,” from Robert Chevillon, that was so wonderful, I brought Maxine a glass, and we sipped together over fatty little chunks of paté with pistachios.

I was grateful to Clark for the invitation, all the more so because he’s well aware that I’m retired and really have no platform to write about those wines, except for this blog. The tasting brought back many happy memories of more youthful days, when I was a budding wine writer and getting a dozen or more tasting invitations a week. The new German Rieslings at Fort Mason – old Bordeaux at the London Wine Bar – Napa Cabernets at some now defunct downtown restaurant – Peter Granoff’s historic tastings at Square One – the Union des Grands Crus at the Palace Hotel – the fabulous tastings of Les Amis du Vin — or just the tasting bar at the old Liquor Barn, down on Bayshore, where I befriended the bar manager, who would open bottles at my request: Yquem, Lafite, Petrus. (I don’t think that would happen these days!) But somehow, at the back of my mind, always lurked Kermit Lynch. Just knowing it was there made me happy.

So, armed with these memories, I make a vow: One of these days, soon, I’ll make my way back to Kermit Lynch, to resume a practice I loved, but abandoned, twenty-five years ago: buying well-priced, carefully-curated French wine.

What makes a successful tasting event?

 

My event yesterday in Monterey was even better than I’d dared to hope. You never know, when you put together a complex tasting like this, for a high-level audience of wine professionals, how it’s going to go. In this case, we decided to have a “Sur and Steve Road Show,” Sur being Sur Lucero, one of Jackson Family Wines’ Master Sommeliers, and Steve being me, the former critic who works with the 100-point scale. The idea was for the audience to get inside our heads and see how differently we think: Sur the analyst, looking for typicity, zeroing in on variety, region and even vintage based on his long experience at double-blind tasting; and me, not really having the same skill set, but being able to determine the quality of the wine, based on the 100-point system.

It was something of a gamble: this could have been a disaster. But somehow, it worked. I think it helped that Sur and I have great respect and affection for each other. As he goes through his Master Sommelier grid, explaining how through the process of deduction he works from the general to the specific, I am in awe of the experience required to taste a wine, double-blind, and determine that it must be a Riesling from California! Wow, how good is that. And yet, Sur is the first to admit he’s not really looking for a qualitative analysis, especially one based on a numerical scoring system. He could be entirely dismissive of the 100-pont scale—lots of somms are—but he isn’t. It’s wonderful and rewarding for me to have someone of Sur’s talents tell me how much he wants to learn how my mind works when I analyze the wine—not in an M.S. way, but in my own, developed over decades—and then decide what the score ought to be. And, judging from the reaction of our guests, they were fascinated by these twin tours through the brains of two pros.

The risk for the sponsoring winery, in this case Jackson Family Wines, is that I, as the critic, am going to declare an absolute quality to each wine. And that may not be equivalent to a high score. Sur isn’t going to do that: if you’re in the audience, you have to read inbetween Sur’s lines, decipher his comments, to decide if he likes the wine. With me, you don’t have to guess: I’m telling you upfront, with the score. I’m not always in love with every one of JFW’s wines, and I’ll tell you so. But that’s part of keeping it real.

I’ve been in plenty of pubic events that were duds. I don’t think that any of the events I was responsible for and led was a dud, because on those occasions when it’s entirely up to me, I usually come up with something offbeat enough to be of interest. However, I’ve been invited to be a part of events that fizzled instead of sizzled, and my after-analysis of them is that they were too mundane and predictable. There’s a certain template to having a nice, safe event, where nobody feels like they wasted their time, but they also don’t go home excited, or having learned anything. I don’t want to be part of such blah events.

Yesterday’s event, as I said, was exciting, because it was different. I’ve never even heard of anything like it. I specifically did not want it billed as the Sur Versus Steve Ultimate Blind Tasting Smackdown. Instead, I wanted it to be exactly what it was: Two professionals, both with long experience, both nice, sane, communicative guys who like each other, both explaining just how their gray matter works. The fact that things turned out so well is proof of the fact that, sometimes, when you take risks, they pan out. And I’ll tell you how I knew this was risky: it’s because I was nervous beforehand. No risk, no reward. I’d hate to have a road show that was so well-rehearsed, so perfected in all its parts, so been-there-done-that, that it no longer possessed any frisson of danger.