Why this book from the '80s is still the best thing written about wine

Why this book from the ’80s is still the best thing written about wine

Sometimes, I’m asked what books I’d recommend to someone wanting to know more about wine. The answer is – there are so many. Today is probably the best time in history to be a reader interested in learning more about wine and the culture around it.

Global collaboration and funded research has produced encyclopaedic reference books on the history and science of wine, there are reissues and first time translations of classic texts, and new perspectives on very new, or even very old and nearly forgotten, corners of the wine world. Many of these books are themselves beautiful design objects to hold.

However, for me Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyers Tour of France is always at the top of the list. Because it’s a great read, yes. But, as I’ve come to realize over the years, it also encapsulates the things that make wine not just another commodity.

It’s a book that shows us the value of wine will always be greater than can be measured by its price on a market, or the opinion of a critic, or the analysis of a technician. The joyful stuff that made me fall for wine to start with, which no reference book, however comprehensive, seems to capture.

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Lynch is an importer of French and Italian wine in America. His influence on what switched-on wine drinkers around the world drink extends far beyond his base in Berkeley, California. Once you’re aware of his range – much of which is from producers he’s been working with for several decades, or whom he started buying from before anyone, even their own compatriots, had heard of them – you see it repeated in the catalogs of wine merchants the world over, including a couple here in New Zealand. You can even walk into great wine shops and bars in Paris and see Lynch’s influence.

Lynch has great taste. What guides him? Not a palate for blockbuster wines, or an ability to give a sterile and detached overview of how a wine ranks in an anonymous metric or algorithm. He’s passionately opposed to blind tasting and points scores. Instead, Lynch’s selections are driven by an instinct for adventure, for great characters and for authenticity.

It’s these same instincts that make his Adventures on the Wine Route such a rolling read. The book is full of personality: his own, those of the winemakers he falls for, and those of the places he discovers.

First published in 1988, it takes in Lynch’s first years visiting the French wine regions. Many of the producers and regions that pop up are globally famous today, but in the 70s when Lynch makes his first encounters, they were undiscovered. Several were even considered to be antiquities, from a time Lynch feared would be forgotten and replaced by more efficient and profitable alternatives.

There’s a real sense of risk taking in the wines and people he invested his passions and livelihood in – he describes himself as fearful he’s running a cultural preservation society rather than a business. There are tales of an inebriated trader serving insipid wine and forcing Lynch to accompany him to dinner at gun point.

Jonathan Brookes suggests five stellar wines to accompany you through the chapters...

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Jonathan Brookes suggests five stellar wines to accompany you through the chapters…

His enduring love of the wines of Domaine Tempier in Bandol, Provence, is expressed through stories of big family dinners, matriarch Lulu Peyroux taking him on a tour of Marseille’s top seaside spots for mafia connections and adulterous rendezvous, and the appropriate quantities of garlic (lots) in proper aioli.

There’s a “tasting” in an Alsatian cellar that leads to an eight bottle dinner, where the host fails to serve any food, leading to a belly full of the finest vintages of Alsace and a long stumble home. There are the wins, like finally being able to buy the outstanding wines of Chablis producer Francois Raveneau, who refused to accept his wines could travel well, after years of trying and the help of several noteworthy friends.

And the lows of crappy hotel rooms, food poisoning from bad andouillette (tripe sausage), deathly cold cellars, having a piece of his rear end bitten off by the pet of a winemaker whose wines also turned out to be a pack of dogs, and the loss of authentic wines and winemakers to new generations seduced by technology, efficiency and ego.

You could treat Adventures as a shopping list of producers and wines to try, and you’d drink bloody well (although prices aren’t nearly as friendly as they were in 1988). You’d do even better to check out his website, look at who he is importing now, and wait to see those wines pop up in the New Zealand market, which they surely will, Lynch is still an influence on smart wine merchants everywhere. And rightfully. Nearly 50 years since his first forays into France, Lynch’s selections remain true to their ethos of authentic people, places, and living wine. I was lucky to find myself in the company of some of Lynch’s employees on the ground in France, and they shared that same sense of fun and zest for life, the best parts of wine.

But a shopping list of names, however great they are now recognized to be, is really not what Adventures is about. It’s part adventure, part travel story, definitely a love story, and a manifesto for living well that sorts the good (authentic people and wine) from the evil (filtration and Robert Parker). It’s occasionally tragic, but mostly those tragedies turn out pretty funny.

Adventures captures the character and characters of great wine, and it reminds me why I keep falling in love with wine. And always gets me thinking about what I’m drinking next and who with. It reminds me to drink better wine, something I never get from any reference book or encyclopaedia.

WHAT TO TRY

Here is a selection of some of Kermit Lynch’s classic finds available in Aotearoa, why not drink as you read! Most of these sell pretty quickly, so get in touch with their local importers if you’re keen to try them, they will be able to let you know when new stock is arriving, or even direct you to retailers or restaurants who may have some bottles in stock. They’re all wines worth hunting out.

Domaine de Montille, Burgundy Pinot Noir 2019

Hubert de Montille’s wines are where it all started for Lynch. Honest, delicious wines from a grower, in a region then awash with comically shifty negociants, ‘worried the 73s won’t sell on the American market? We can label them as 72s or 74s, which would you prefer?’ Lynch’s French wasn’t up to scratch, and de Montille’s English almost nonexistent, they drove to the tourist information center where they found someone to translate as they brokered their first deal.

Tempier, Bandol Classic, 2019

If de Montille is where it started, Tempier and its owners, the Peyraud family, are the stars of Adventures From Bandol in Provence, these wines are deep and soulful, full of life and energy, exactly as Lynch describes the people who make them.

Lynch’s chapter on the Beaujolais region features a touching story of his discovery of the wines of Jules Chauvet, the now nearly mythical producer of wines Lynch loves for their delicate beauty.

At the time of first discovering the wines Chauvet was an elderly bachelor, and most of the chapter is written with great sadness for the fear that with the passing of Chauvet, so too would the great wines of Beaujolais finally disappear to be replaced by overly alcoholic and chemically soaked wines that were then dominant in the region.

In a remarkable turn around, the epilogue to a more recent edition, tells Lynch’s story of meeting Marcel Lapierre, along with his three friends, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thevenet, and Guy Breton.

The group Lynch would later dub the “Gang of Four” had become acolytes of Chauvet and his obscure methods (the origins of natural wine), were critical to the revival of their region. Three of the four’s wines are available in New Zealand, and although alcohol levels are creeping up, they remain wines of perfumed elegance and great drinkability like Lynch discovered in the 1980s.

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