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james laube's wine flights

Let the Consumers Decide if Natural Wines Are Popular

An interview with Kermit Lynch asserts that ripe wines are off the menu, but sales don't bear that out
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Oct 30, 2013 11:10am ET

Last week, while in New York for the Wine Spectator Wine Experience, many people brought up Kermit Lynch's interview in the New York Times, in which he discusses high-alcohol wines, the 100-point rating system, terroir and natural wines, among other hot-button wine topics. I have a few thoughts of my own to offer …

Lynch isn't much a fan of California wine, yet it appears that he disqualifies himself from passing judgment on the mere basis that he hasn't and doesn't follow California's wines as closely as many. His import business is based in Berkeley, Calif., and Napa vintner Bruce Neyers serves as national sales director; I suspect Lynch pays far greater attention to California wine than he allows. He is, after all, a businessman who competes against California.

The fact that he doesn't like what he calls "pop" wines (styled to win ratings) is hardly a surprise. He's always been an iconoclast in his tastes and frame of mind.

He's not a fan of oaky, alcoholic wines, which is fine, too. Though those who state their opposition to that style tend to ignore how popular they are. Whether they will always be popular is hard to say. Wine styles can be like fashions, in one year, out the next.

Fans of California wine seem obligated to defend their state, as if it needs a defense. The market determines what is popular, and Lynch is spot on when it comes to his assessment of what constitutes the difference between a great $100 wine and a great $1,000 wine (it's a matter of demand, not quality), as is his comment that quality is more important than terroir; the latter matters not if the wine is bad.

As a businessman, Lynch has been notably successful and influential, especially pursuing niche producers and markets. But his wines aren't for everyone. I used to visit his store in Berkeley for years to taste and buy wines. I stopped being a customer when many of his selections were too dirty for my tastes, while others refermented in the bottle, precisely the kinds of "natural, terroir-driven" wines that don't suit my tastes.

Lynch's firm keeps a file on its flawed wines, of which there have been many, and pays for lab tests to ensure they're "clean." That he drinks mostly European wines shouldn't come as a surprise, either. Most importers drink from their own portfolios.

Blaming or crediting critics with starting or endorsing trends is limiting as well. Critics can identify, direct or recommend wines, but buyers and their money determine which wines become popular. Hundreds of Europeans, including many children of prominent French producers, have lived and studied in California for obvious reasons. There's a lot going on there, and much to learn.

In a way, Lynch is no different from the critics who champion the ripe, fruit-forward wines that they like: Lynch loves natural wines, and he's worked hard to introduce people to these esoteric bottlings from off-the-beaten-path locales. If the Times article is to be believed, those natural wines are now in vogue. But it's really up to the consumer to decide if those wines will ever become "popular."

Ted Henry
Napa, CA —  October 30, 2013 2:13pm ET
I had the exact same experience at his Berkeley store. I loved the variety and interesting new producers from little French villages but the wines were too often poured down the drain (too "dirty" as you said). As a California winemaker I appreciate other styles of wine but as a winemaker in general I am sensitive to flawed wines no matter where they are made.
David Barksdale
Lubbock, Texas —  October 30, 2013 3:20pm ET
James,
Have agreed with you on most everything save the Cinq Cepages thing. Cedrtainly agree with you on allowing the Consumers decide what constitutes a good bottle of juice. Like Brian Loring says, "there's a style out there for everyone."


DHB
David Crowther
Tuscaloosa, AL USA —  October 30, 2013 3:33pm ET
I agree James.
Not for me.
Larry Schaffer
Santa Ynez Valley, CA —  October 30, 2013 9:48pm ET
Couldn't agree more. Different strokes for different folks - and no different than any 'critic' who loves one style over others.

'Objective wine review' continues to be my favorite oxymoron - and this is not to slam any one individual reviewer (or consumer for that matter).

The 'challenge' is that reviews and scores get folks to try wines in the first place oftentimes - it works as a 'gatekeeper' to 'open doors' for wines that might not be opened otherwise. It's kind of like the old adage about purchasing a house or opening a retail store - location, location, location . . . but in this case, 'location' equals 'exposure' and that's more than 1/2 the battle in the wine biz.

Cheers!
Jeffrey Wolfe
Coral Gables, FL —  November 3, 2013 3:55pm ET
Naturally made, less manipulated wines have existed for thousands of years, and they were called wine, not natural wine. Popular? Is wine popular? The style of wine you champion is the new kid on the block, whereas the wines KL champions have been made the same way for centuries.

"it's really up to the consumer to decide if those wines will ever become "popular."

If it wasn't for those darned "natural" wines... Would we have wine at all?

Ryan Schmied

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