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."