Wine Importer Kermit Lynch Sometimes Tastes a Bottle, Sometimes Drains It

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Wine importer Kermit Lynch at City Winery. Photo: Melissa Hom

Venerable wine importer Kermit Lynch is a legend in his trade for championing French producers who express terroir — wines that embody where they come from. But before he opened his first wine shop in California in 1972, Lynch had a band. “Those were drug days and it was hard to keep a band together and keep everybody conscious,” he says. Better for the future of European wine in America than the music, Lynch’s shop took off during a recession, when he scored devalued wines like Echézeaux Grand Cru Burgundy, previously retailing for $60 a bottle, and sold it for $60 a case. His sleeper singer-songwriter career didn’t fully resurface until last month, when he released the album Man’s Temptation. He describes his blend of blues, country, and rock as “rootsy American.” In town to promote his dual loves — and visit with his daughter at NYU — Lynch slips in other oenophilic descriptors in this wine-lover's edition of New York Diet. Keep an eye out for “juicy risotto.”

Saturday, October 24
My wife and I got in from San Francisco at 6 p.m. on Saturday. I have a wine domain in France, Domaine Les Pallières, in partnership with the Bruniers family, and just by coincidence, my partner Daniel Brunier was in town, so we went with him to Aquagrill. I kind of relied on my staff here to help with where to eat. I told them I was interested in people who had some sympathy for the kind of wines I import. But also, I didn’t want that to be the only reason. I wanted some great food! So the first night they sent me to Aquagrill.

We started with a big variety of oysters that were well shelled and well chilled. It’s amazing how often you find oysters that are neither. We had a Muscadet with the oysters. Just about all I want to drink with oysters: Muscadet and Chablis. And then we went to a Domaine Tempier, a Bandol Rosé. And then we finished with our wine — ‘cause it was on the list — an '06 Pallières Gigondas. For dinner, I had the sea bass, which was perfectly fresh, perfectly cooked. And then we just went directly to a little chocolate dessert. I really like young, red Rhône wines with chocolate. I think they’re a great combo. I liked the crowd there. It was a great place to people-watch. People were lively but not obnoxious, you know. That can really bother me. A big table of, let’s see, what’s that kind of laughter that’s so … ? With men, it’s “yucking it up,” I think you say. Loudly yucking it up. Well there was none of that. I don’t know why people in restaurants don’t think of their neighbors. Anyway, it was fun to just look around the room at the different outfits people were wearing. And they were all ages. So yeah, I had fun.

Sunday, October 25
I never eat breakfast. I’m never hungry for it. And my son isn’t either. It’s strange, it’s like it’s in the DNA or something. He’s at Cornell. I think he was in Washington, D.C., on some field trip, so he couldn’t see us.

My daughter Gail’s a senior at NYU and she lives in Williamsburg. So she took us to Marlow & Sons for lunch. There we had the charcuterie, which was excellent. I’m a big fan and I rarely find great charcuterie anymore in France or the United States. I get my sausages and things like that from Marcel Lapierre, the winemaker in the Beaujolais who kills his own pigs and makes his own sausages. But the commercial stuff, ugh, my God, it even tastes dangerous to me. I can’t imagine what they put in it to preserve it. They’re probably preserving our insides at the same time we digest. Anyway, the charcuterie was great and I had a chowder with mussels, bacon, potatoes, and cream that was just fabulous. And of course, I always have wine with meals. And by the way, we know that Thomas Jefferson had wine with breakfast, too. Three meals a day with wine! If I ate breakfast, I’d probably have a glass of wine.

Yeah, they had a few on my wines. Right now they’re kind of specializing in Loire reds and I sort of started that way, back in the late seventies when I started importing Charles Joguet, and slowly the market has blossomed. But that’s not what I ordered. This is gonna get to be a broken record during our talk, but I have a new white-Burgundy producer I’m importing who I put right up with a handful of the very best white-Burgundy producers. Domaine de Cherisey. And they had one. In fact, the thing that was neat was that they had the first vintage that I imported in 2004. We’re just starting to sell the 2007s now, so it was so cool to find. I love older white Burgundies, so I just snapped it up and it was really well priced. I think it was like $80 a bottle in the restaurant, which for a Puligny-Montrachet premier cru, that’s really reasonable. It’s not far from the retail price, in fact. It’s flawless. Everything’s in perfect balance. It’s not too oak-y. There’s a good liveliness to it and the flavors are delicious.

No dessert, but we did have a red wine from Italy. I can’t have a white without a red to follow. Just like I can’t drink a red unless I’ve already had some white! So, maybe that was why I ordered it. It was called Montevertin, imported, I think, by Neil Rosenthal. Vintage 2008. I think it’s Montevertini’s least expensive wine. It was just young, fresh Tuscan red. Quite pleasant.

Anyway, we went to Peter Luger for dinner. The wine list for white wines was so pathetic that we ordered martinis, which, by the way, I could not drink. My delicate palate couldn’t stand a martini. But my daughter and wife liked theirs. You know the wine list at Peter Luger reminded me of my Chez Panisse story. Back in the late seventies, early eighties I was trying sell what were then esoteric wines like Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage, and things that nobody over here had ever heard of in those days until Alice Waters — she helped me a lot. Especially with the Domaine Tempier, she helped me launch it. She told me one day, “You know, if I just had Mondavi Cabernet and Mondavi Fumé Blanc on my list, 90 percent of my clients would be perfectly content.” And I thought of that when I saw the Peter Luger list. So unimaginative and so clunky, but I did find a Ridge Zinfandel on there, and with a good steak that was perfect. And thank God it was there, because I couldn’t find another wine on there that I wanted to drink.

Oh yeah, I do bring my wine a lot. But Peter Luger wouldn’t let me. They’re kind of that way, you know? They have to “let you do things” there. Like, we wanted to change our reservation from 7:45 to 9 p.m. because we were worried we weren’t hungry enough at 7:45 p.m. And they said, “No it’s too busy. We can’t do it. If you wanna come and wait at 9, maybe, but we can’t tell you what kind of wait we’re going to have.” Well, 9 p.m. rolled around and we were in the middle of our steak and there were tables all over the place empty. They just lied to us on the phone. And then they won’t take credit cards. Well you don’t learn that until you go in, and if you order a good bottle of wine and steaks you know it’s gonna add up to a lot of cash. So I sort of don’t get it, but we had a great waiter. He was friendly as can be. Anyway, it was an experience. I always love to go to restaurants where there’s a good story, even if they turn out to be lousy. Peter Luger didn’t. We had a raw sliced tomato and sweet-onion salad. The steaks were really great. Perfectly cooked. No spinach because I love spinach, but I can’t stand it with cream in it. I took the German potatoes and onion rings.

I’d go back in a minute if they’d let me bring my own wine. I’m into wine about as deeply as anybody can get. And to have to drink something that is, you know, is the blahs, it kind of wrecks the dinner. I don’t check wine lists before I go, though. That requires getting on a computer, and I do that as little as possible. I’m an old dog. Can’t learn those new tricks.

Monday, October 26
I went to Blue Ribbon Bakery with one of my two distributors in New York. IPO is the name of their company. I went with them after a tasting of … they import my Italian selection. So we kind of ordered different things and passed them all around. Anyway, the pork rillettes were really good. The foie gras was good. And they have a lot of good wines, a great selection. But I was sort of the Puligny trip from the De Cherisey that I mentioned earlier, and they had an ’06. So I ordered that just to show off the De Cherisey. I wrote a little description of the wine, that the ’06 is the “sweetie pie” of the wine, like I would say “Oh, she’s such a sweetie pie” about some woman. But it was just perfect with the foie gras, the rillettes, the charcuterie. I think then we just had cheeses ’cause we didn’t want to have a big lunch. They have great cheeses from Vermont that I’d never had before and they were really special. That’s a place I’d go back to, by the way, for the charcuterie and the cheeses. We were in a family dining room downstairs across from the old stone wood oven.

I did a wine dinner downstairs at Bouley. They served a porcini flan and my wine producer Francois Jobard in Meursault, sent over three magnums of ’89 Meursault Genevrières, one of the great white burgundy vineyards. And that combination of the porcini mushroom with the old Meursault was magical. I’d never had a Colorado rack of lamb. It was spectacular. The way they’d arranged it, each course had a couple of wines and with that rack of lamb, we had the 2006 Thierry Allemand Cornas. That’s a syrah from the Rhône. It’s quite a rare wine. That’s a really small domaine. We only get about 125 cases for the whole country, so most of it comes to Berkeley and New York City. And then we had great cheeses again, I’m telling you much better than I’m getting in California or in France. I don’t know enough about cheese to say why. I’ve kind of given up on it in France. It’s just all useless. It has no more flavor of the type of cheese. I guess it’s so overpasteurized and homogenized. And paralyzed! Who knows what all they do to it. But French cheeses, I don’t think that, for the most part, they’re worth buying anymore.

With the cheeses, I had provided magnums of 1981 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine Vieux Télégraphe. The ’81 was spectacular. Just think, almost 30 years old. And not a gray hair on it. Just as vigorous as can be, and it’s probably gonna be good for another 30 or 40 years. It was quite an event, drinking that. And the crowd was great. Everybody was having a blast. That came out of the cellars of the domaine for me, for that dinner. A special gift.

Tuesday, October 27
My other distributor in New York is Winebow and its director or president is Leonardo Locasio and he took me to Marea. Leonardo is from Sicily, so we had a Sicilian white, Nozza D’oro, 2007. Anyway, I loved that restaurant, I’m going to lunch there Thursday with Ruth Reichl. I had an octopus appetizer and I told the chef afterwards I thought he should serve big bowls of it, because I could have eaten it all day long. I’m just not enough of a cook to tell you how he did it. It was just perfectly tender, and flavored out of this world. I’m gonna order it again when I go back, but I might order two or three plates of it this time. It was on a bed of tender rice, almost like a juicy risotto. I had a pasta with a pork-sausage ragù. I had a glass of red wine, but I didn’t write down what it was. Sorry. But the white Sicilian wine, I’m gonna have the same thing. I was very impressed. I mean, Sicily is quite far south and yet that Nozza D’oro had none of the drawbacks you can find in southern wines. It was just fresh, lively, and elegant as can be. Drawbacks might be low acid, heaviness, alcoholic. I may be the only person in the wine business who thinks there can be too much sun.

For dinner we went to Momofuku Ssäm Bar. I’ve been there many times. My wife and I really like it, so we go back. It was just the two of us, my daughter, and two of her schoolmates. I had some octopus. I love it. Whenever I see it, I order it. Anyway, quite good. But I really love what they call the spare-rib sandwich. And of all things, they have that De Cherisey, but 2005, so I got that. Three vintages of De Cherisey this week! Unbelievable. I didn’t know they were on the wine list; when I saw them, I ordered them. And after that we had a Gamay from the Val d'Aosta. That’s a place that’s always intrigued me. They make very lovely mountain wines, you know, kind of tender and light in color and very fragrant. And it was delicious. I don’t know who imported it. And then of course the pork buns are really good there. We had a lot of different dishes. We passed them around. That was the end of it. Your restaurant scene is fabulous and so are the wine lists. I don’t think anywhere in the world has such diversity. I think there’s a lot of resemblance to the California scene. There’s so much similarity, a lot of talent in the kitchens and the wine cellars, but New York is a grander scale. I don’t agree with figs on a plate. I know what he’s talking about, but you know, if you don’t order dessert at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters will put little black figs from California in front of you. I don’t know why anyone wouldn't be happy; they’re delicious.

Wednesday, October 28
I had Wednesday lunch free, so my wife and I went to this place we really like called Tía Pol. We always get the crispy fried seafood and some of that jamón Serrano, and we had a nice soup of chorizo and garbanzo beans, and a neat sandwich they called the Po’Boy but with crispy fried squid and some sort of aïoli type sauce on it. I followed the guy’s direction and took a Basque white, which I didn’t write down the name of. It was so long, the name. Those Basque names are really something. But I took the advice of the guy behind the bar, I don’t know his name but he’s there and acts as if he’s managing it. And then a young woman came out and introduced herself as the wine buyer. And she was really nice and I just kind of trust them and I let them know a little bit of what I like. I don’t like wines too heavy. If you’re curious, I think this is something I try to impress people with because they don’t get it. I like full-bodied wines, like my Gigondas is a full-bodied wine, but it has to have elegance at the same time. Some people, when you say “elegant,” think you mean light, but not at all. Light or full-bodied, I have to have a wine that has some finesse to it. Finesse and elegance are, to me, sort of the same thing. So I tell them that. I tell them I don’t want a wine with a lot of new oak flavor to it. That’s not my thrill. And I like a lively wine, you know? Either decent acidity or a little sparkle, a little pettiance can sometimes serve the same function as acidity.

I started with a glass of Manzanilla from a winery that I’d never had before called Cigarran or something like that. You know Manzania is a sort of dry, salty sherry served cold. A really good aperitif. And then we had the Basque white. When I say “we had” it doesn’t mean we finished the bottle. I’m in the wine business. I sometimes order a wine and only have one glass, just to see what’s inside and then leave the rest of it. And sometimes, we drain the bottle! And then I had a Grenache from Spain; I didn’t write down the name.

That night was a fabulous event at the atrium of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. It was beautiful. They had 250 people in there and about eight or ten tables with people serving five to six wines of mine at each table. So the people could sort of just drift from table to table. I import over 100 small, family, artisanal wines, so there was a huge selection out for people to try. And on the sound system they were playing my CD, which just came out, and that always pleases me! I thought that was sweet of them … to play my music to my wines ... It’s been years since I’ve traveled to promote my wines. I travel so much that when I come to the United States I like to stay home in Berkeley, but with a daughter at NYU and son in Ithaca, we come a lot and we love it.