cw: contains discussion of casual sexism
Is there one “wine route”? Possibly, in France, there is: a massive circle that starts (or ends, or features) Champagne in the north, down to Chablis and through Bourgogne (Burgundy to plebs like you and I), continuing down to Beaujolais, the Northern Rhône, the Southern Rhône, through Provence and along the Riviera (a few miles in, of course – the hotels and the beaches are in the spots where vines may once have grown), before moving back inland thru the foothills of the Pyrenees, then up through the South East and into Bordeaux, before bouncing from left bank and its Cabernets to the right bank and its Merlots, then sliding northwards up to where the Loire meets the sea, following along this river into the centre of the country then, from those last premium vineyards located just slightly off the geographical heart of France (not counting Corsica or any of its – surprisingly numerous – overseas territories (all of which seem considerably less subtly owned than all of the extant British and American colonies (tho perhaps that might be the gentle colonial shame – or performance of gentle colonial shame – that keeps 21st century French colonialism more of a talking point here than our own?))), then a quick whizz around the Francilienne and an hour or so on the autoroute puts you back where you began.
I don’t know why I described that route in the total opposite direction to the one Kermit Lynch (yes, his name really is Kermit!) describes in this book, but the book isn’t a narrative of a single journey, or a single trip, or even of a single time. This isn’t an On the road type text that describes one crazy trip wine-buying in France, it is instead a collage-like, place (tho sometimes grape?) linked memoir of Lynch’s (at time of writing) 20 years or so working as a major importer of wine to the United States.
In the interregnum between the initial publication of this book in the late ’80s and the quarter century follow up afterword included in this edition from about a decade ago, Lynch had become renowned and famous in wine circles (apparently) as his opinions and attitudes towards wine were borne out not only by the premium parts of that industry in the time that followed, but have – over the past few years in particular – filtered down (that’s a little gag because he is against filtering wine) to the general wine-buying populace.
Kermit Lynch has probably had more influence on the wine we millenial hipsters (with our lack of assets or hope or youth) quaff down at the artisanal ramen bar in a converted warehouse (which is probably owned by a hedge fund or something) round the corner, than have had many other people with more famous wine names.
It is thanks to Lynch (not solely, of course, but he made these types of wine popular in California, from where – with both Hollywood and Silicon Valley – the rest of world gets its cultural and ideological cues) that we have all been exposed to the following things:
Natural wine, organic wine, biodynamic wine, wine made using traditional, artisanal methods rather than wine made following scientific and chemical recipes, wine that is suited to and wedded to the place in which it is produced, wine that is transported internationally using refrigerated transport, wine that is, in essence, still alive in the bottle when it reaches the consumer’s hand.
These are all things that ol’ Kermit helped to bring to prominence. Especially according to Kermit Lynch.
Lynch, as an importer and a wine merchant, has been (had been? I’ve got no idea if he’s still going) travelling all over France (and, one presumes, elsewhere, tho nowhere else is really mentioned, not even as an aside) and meeting producers and negociants (people who buy grapes and/or wine from other people and blend it into their own final product) and finding the best places, the best people and the best wines.
His definition of “best” was definitely out of step in the 1980s, when wine “scoring” first became a big deal, when essentially the same kind of wine was always considered the best kind of wine: massive, heady, thick, boozy reds, like they make in Lynch’s own California.
He is, however, far more interested in the context of wine: is it right for when it is being served? Does it suit the food, the mood, the ambience, the crowd? He is more interested in comparative tastings between two vintages from the same plot, or two wines from near identical bunches of grapes with the only difference being fermentation vessel or the temperature they have been stored at: Lynch – and the winemakers he chooses to work with in the long term – are more interested in finding wines that are the perfect expression of themselves, than they are in finding wines that tick a lot of boxes in a blind tasting setting.
For anyone interested in wine, there’s a lot to enjoy here, but if you don’t already know your claret from your Beaujolais, this might not perhaps be the best place to start: Lynch presumes both a base level of knowledge of wine, and also presumes a shared ideology – that you, as a consumer and a person, care more about the content of your glass than you care about the name that’s on the label.
It’s also a book from forty years ago about a consumer product, so tho some of the “innovations” Lynch rails against have indeed been moved away from in certain quarters of wine production, things like prices, politics and infrastructures have significantly changed since the time of composition. Basically, most things Kermit Lynch said were a bargain in the eighties ain’t a bargain now, although – because wine does have its niches – there are a handful of “hidden gems” he recommends that very much are still friendly to the pocket to seek out and try today.
Which is nice.
Ultimately, tho, the thing that dates this text more than pricing and import/export legalities is Lynch’s casual – and exaggerated for comic effect – sexism, i.e. a “you can tell what kinda wine a man makes by the kinda woman he marries”, “Drinking a fine wine is a lot like making love to a beautiful woman”, kinda thing… Those aren’t direct quotes, but that’s the tone. It’s pitched as banter, rather than hate speech, but it’s quite consistently there…
if you’re into fine wines you’ve probably already met your fair share of blokey bores, so may want to avoid meeting another… Not that Lynch is inherently a bore, but his blokiness is definitely a tired and unconsidered behaviour, the like of which he would not stand for in the production of a wine…
Wine has traditionally been a “boys club”… and it remains one in this otherwise explorative and sustainability-focused book about wine.
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