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THURSDAY THORNS
10/24/2013
Thursday Thorns
Kermit Lynch: Prophet or Prophet of Doom? Ask The New York Times

By Stephen Eliot

I read last Sunday’s New York Times interview with importer Kermit Lynch1 with great interest and rather suspected that bits and pieces of what he had to say would be fuel for the fires of contentiousness that lately seem to define most every discussion of wine. It seems I was right.

It is damn difficult to talk about wine without wandering into the curious political tangle that informs most commentary these days, and it has become as numbingly monotonous as the adolescent congressional bickering of Capitol Hill. I would like to ignore it, but wine is what I do, and digital soapboxes abound to the point that ignoring it is getting to be nothing short of impossible. There are chest-thumbing manifestos of what wine should and should not be and no dearth of dismissive condescension for those who might disagree. There are right and wrong ways to make wine we are told, and there are right and wrong ways to appreciate it.

Now, Mr. Lynch certainly does not need my defense, but I do think it unfortunate that some have co-opted his words in support of some larger agenda and presumed to tell us what his words really meant. It has been many years since we talked, but I have known Kermit since the late 1970s and have never known him to claim that there was a one true path to vinous enlightenment. Quite the contrary, he still seems to revel in discovery, in finding something new and exciting. He will, when asked, speak of his own preferences and why, but, and this is important, I cannot recall him willfully damning a wine or a wine-making region as a way of praising another. He may not be fond of California ripeness and richness, but I have never felt like he believed me a fool for doing so. I do think he has missed out on an amazing array of great local wines over the years, and, in fact, he admits in the article that that might just be the case. That is his problem, not mine.

He unfortunately wandered, or was more correctly led by his interviewer, into a discussion about the difference in the Robert Parker way of thinking about wines and the Kermit Lynch way. After a few kind words about Mr. Parker’s enthusiasm and the strength of his writing, he found himself on the slippery slope of suggesting that Parker has created a culture of “pop wines” made with the sole intent of garnering critical “points” and the big bucks that such wines command.

I would not argue that there is not a kernel of truth in the notion. I could point a finger at more than a few wineries who have done just that, but there are plenty of broad-brush-wielding partisans in the debate about what wine should really be who will take such musings as wholly justifiable castigation of all new world wines, especially those of California.

I would like to think that is not what Kermit meant. I think he was led into a bit of trap, but I admit to shaking my head upon reading the words and wondered if he really believed that all of the wines that Parker has liked over the years are inherently cynical, formulaic and utterly misguided.

Sadly, it may be what people will say about what Kermit said rather than his actual words that will be remembered most. Already there are those who praise his thoughts as proof that money and big scores (read high ripeness and lavish oak) have brought the culture of fine wine to the brink, and that anyone who is “educated and sophisticated” and has “so much as half a palate” will see that is true. I, however, cannot see that anyone who has so much as half a brain can joyfully hop on that bandwagon.

Kermit’s final comment was simply that everyone should drink what they like, and he did not append it as being conditional on education, sophistication or revelation. I have a hunch, however, that it will be ignored.

Sorry, Kermit, but being an icon can be a bit of a bitch; just ask Mr. Parker.

1 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/20/magazine/kermit-lynch-terroirist.html

Editorial Addition by Charles Olken

There is much in the NYT article to fuel both sides of the fire that the article has ignited. (See the blog, Fermentation [http://fermentationwineblog.com/2013/10/dispensing-unjustified-criticism-big-california-wines/], for a loud and contentious debate about Mr. Lynch’s remarks). We all accept Kermit, for we all know him and have since we and he started our wine businesses here in northern California now almost four decades ago, and we appreciate that he has been a person of integrity, class, taste. He has been good for the wine business.

But, he is person with preferences and prejudices. And he readily admits that he stopped drinking California wine altogether even though he lives right here in the very geographic heart of California wine country. And, while his latest comments do, in fact, express regret that he has missed out on good wine over the years, nevertheless, he has been part of the chorus that pegged everything about California wine as wrong. That he was not the vocal leader of the chorus does not change that fact.

And when he makes such ill-advised comments that wines of a certain style are nothing more than “point chasers” and “pop wines”, a particularly pejorative term that casts aspersions of artificiality, cynicism and lack of sophistication at every wine of a certain style, then he wanders too far from open-mindedness for me. It may be that the NYT reviewer somehow lured him into that dark corner of belief, but, folks, it does not matter how you get there, it matters what you say, and what Mr. Lynch has said is that he still harbors unbelievable bias about large parts of the California wine industry. I am saddened by that.


 

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Comments

Kermit and CA
by Gary Lipp
Posted on:10/25/2013 9:44:30 AM

It's hard to take Kermit's broad-brush pronouncements about California wines seriously if he doesn't taste or drink them.

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