Inside Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, which specializes in wines from France and Italy. Photo: Clark Z. Terry

Following in the footsteps of long-time culinary anchor institutions in Berkeley such as Chez Panisse and the Cheeseboard, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant celebrates its 40th year in business on Saturday Oct. 27 — with the parking lot of its store at 1605 San Pablo Avenue turned into a party venue featuring, of course, fine food and wine.

Kermit Lynch, a wine retailer and importer, is widely regarded for writing one of the best books on the wine business — Adventures on the Wine Route — and is also known for selecting and selling quality pours from small, family-owned estates in France and Italy.

Lynch imports wines from around 140 producers and he’s garnered an international reputation for singing the praises of wines without well-known pedigrees, particularly from France, where he’s traveled the back-roads in search of hidden gems of great value by looking, as he likes to say, where no one else was looking.

He is a champion of the French term terroir — wines that embody the climate and soil they come from — and favors wines made and grown the old-fashioned way by hand, without mechanical harvesters and chemical pesticides. At one time, he carried California wines, but, as the industry developed, he liked what he tasted less and less, and so he simply — and notoriously — stopped stocking local bottles on his shelves. These days, the most popular wines in his store include Kermit Lynch Côtes du Rhône, Tempier Rosé, and Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The rocker-turned-wine-importer. Photo: Judy Dater

Named after his father, also a Kermit, this wine maverick hails from a family unfamiliar with a good pour, even though he was raised in the wine region of San Luis Obispo.

A self-taught oenophile, he has made a lasting impression on the American wine importing market and his newsletter musings describing his inventory –along with the people, places, and pleasures behind a bottle — has developed quite the cult following.

This is no small feat for a one-time struggling rock-and-roller who eked out a living making purses out of rug scraps for a company he called The Berkeley Bag.

When he couldn’t stand the smell of glue any longer, he sold the company, took off for Europe, learned a thing or two about wine, returned home, and, on the strength of a $5,000 loan, opened a store on San Pablo Avenue — first in Albany, and then relocated to its current Berkeley brick building location in the early 1980s. The rest, as they say, is history.

The two-time James Beard award winner has a rap for being a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to, say, filtered wine. He’s also known for railing against new barrel oaky California wines and rallying for wine labels touting the joys of drinking (along with surgeon general health warnings).

This wine lover also has a wry sense of humor: “If I ate breakfast, I’d probably have a glass of wine,” he once wrote.

Lynch, 70, spends four to six months each year in Provence, where he co-owns a vineyard, which produces “big, chunky reds scented with black olives and herbs,” according to the New York Times. He also spends two weeks a year in Nashville recording “rootsy American” music, and the rest of the time he resides in North Berkeley with his photographer wife Gail Skoff.

He lives within walking distance of many of his favorite local haunts, including Chez Panisse, the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, and Acme Bread Company, which is next to his store.

Lynch responded to questions from Berkeleyside via email about the business he began back in 1972.

An exterior shot from the early days of Kermit Lynch’s retail store: Not a lot has changed in 40 years. Photo: Courtesy KLWM
An exterior shot from the early days of Kermit Lynch’s retail store: Not a lot has changed in 40 years. Photo: Courtesy KLWM

Did you ever imagine you’d run a wine store for 40 years?

I was looking for a part-time job in the wine business so I could put food on the table while I made music. No one would hire me, so I opened a hole-in-the-wall retail shop in Albany on San Pablo Avenue. It took off and took me with it.

How would you characterize your palate when it comes to wine?

I like deliciousness, balance, finesse, and swallowability.

Are there any wine trends you’ve encountered over the years that you could do without?

I have witnessed the growth of the power of the media in determining wine styles. The media created what I call pop wines — wine made to garner high scores and the subsequent high prices. The French refer to them as putains, whores — glitzy, overdone, flagrant, out to make a buck. I’m not anti-whore or anti-pop wine — it’s just not my thing. I like pop music, for example.

Kermit Lynch frequently holds parties in the parking lot of this distinctive brick and timber building. Photo: Clark Z. Terry

How would you characterize your Berkeley customers?

I’m sure I couldn’t have succeeded doing what I set out to do in almost any other city. The Berkeley clientèle in the 70s — open-minded, adventurous, educated, and well traveled — kept me in business.

Is there anything in particular you appreciate or dislike when you return to Berkeley?

Bay Area traffic makes me crazy. I hate spending so much time looking at some car’s rear end. But I love the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. It’s better than what I find in Provence these days.

What are your proudest of in your store?

My staff, my selections, and my prices. I bring in a lot of bargains, but no one knows until they enter my shop. I’m also proud to have not one but two parking lots. I’m not patient having to drive around looking for a parking space.

As a co-owner of a vineyard, what part of the wine-making process do you most enjoy?

I own 50% of Domaine Les Pallières in Gigondas, near Châteauneuf-du-Pape. My partner makes the wine. I’ve never been interested in farming grapes or the hands-on making of wine. However, I’ve learned some things traveling to different regions and wineries. So I throw in my two cents’ worth on raising the wine from its birth to the bottle.

How important is it to you to keep the business in the family?

Of course I’d be pleased if either, or both, of my kids took over someday. It’s a job full of pleasure. I’d be pleased more for them than for myself, because they’d see a lot, meet a lot of fascinating personalities, eat well, and oh yes, drink well. But I haven’t raised them to take over. I’d hope they find some kind of work that they are passionate about, like I did. Then it’s not work.

What’s the perfect pairing for your 40th anniversary event?

My parking lot events are a blast: my favorite days of the year. Music, wine, good food, good vibes, lots of people living it up.

Chris Lee is cooking for our 40th anniversary event. The wines are chosen to accompany what he cooks, and to relate somewhat to our history. There will be Domaine Tempier, some Pallières, a bargain or two… like that.

Details: Saturday, October 27, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, 1605 San Pablo Avenue. Hosted by Kermit Lynch, Christopher Lee (ex-Eccolo, Chez Panisse), and Suzanne Drexhage of Bartavelle Coffee & Wine Bar. Open to the public: Wines $5-$10 a glass, food prices TBD. On the menu: Fennel Sausage on Acme Deli Roll with Roasted Pepper, Capers, and Basil; Potato Salad with Cornichons, Celery, Chives, Aïoli; Marinated Sardine Toast; and Brandade Toast.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Bartavelle owner: What’s cooking for ex-Café Fanny space [05.25.12]
Chez Panisse’s birthday kicks off with party to remember [08.27.11]
Cheese Board Collective: 40 years in the Gourmet Ghetto [07.08.11]
Provence in Berkeley [09.16.10]
Berkeley wine maverick: Kermit Lynch [04.08.10]

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