Kermit Lynch: California's Most Legendary Wine Importer

Talks About Wine and His Love For All Things Hawaii

Kermit Lynch: California's Most Legendary Wine Importer

Kermit Lynch was at a neighbor's house in San Luis Obispo, California, when he had his first sip of wine. They were an artsy bohemian couple whose lifestyle Lynch admired – even though he was only 17 years old. What wasn't there to love" They were in touch with their spirituality and they drank wine at every meal.

Less than 10 years later, Lynch had moved to hippie ground zero – Berkeley – and opened a wine shop on San Pablo Avenue that continues to gain notoriety. Kermit Lynch is one of the most significant importers of wine – mainly from France – that Northern California has ever seen. His grassroots, tell-it-like-it-is perspective on artisanal winemaking offers those not looking for "big" in every sip a little bit of grounded perspective in an industry that has a history of flying off it's haunches.

Lynch came to Hawaii to sell wines in the early 80s, and was immediately impressed with a few of the oenophiles he came in to contact with. Twenty-five years later (this spring) he bought a little shack on the beach in Waimanalo because he "just liked the feel up there. It felt like real Hawaii," said Lynch in an exclusive interview for B on Hawaii. If that doesn't tell you about the man behind the legend, I'm not sure what will.

B: Tell us, who has the power over what wine we drink today?

Kermit Lynch: There's a lot of answers to that question. But let's start with the most obvious. I think there are some sommeliers and restaurateurs out there today that are really doing a great job of turning people on to some great wines. And by great I don't mean expensive.

B: Any of those people here in Hawaii?

KL: Definitely. When I first came around here a few years back [he chuckles] a man named Randy Caperosa was putting together a wine program for Roy's. He was buying wines from me that no one in Berkeley – or anywhere in California – were buying back then. There was a good bit of pretension in the wine business in California back then, and I was trying to bring in all these unique flavors, a number of which flopped. People couldn't get their minds around them. But this guy in Hawaii kept buying them. So I had to come out and meet him. Caperosa had launched his entire career our of pairing wines from a worldwide palate to the Asian-Hawaiian fusion cuisine found here. And he was doing a really great job of it.

B: Tell us a little bit about some of those wines you were bringing in that you couldn't give away back then. Where are those varietals now in terms of hipness?

KL: Rose is the easiest example. In 1976 I imported 25 cases of Bandol rose from Provence, France. I think we drank half of them. People would take one look and turn their noses.

B: Like they were French, ironically.

KL: [Laughs.] Exactly! The irony. Anyway, I couldn't give it away. Today I import several roses. That Bandol I bought 25 cases of? I now bring in 1,500 cases from the same maker and I can't keep them on the shelves. It just slipped in to style somehow. People began understanding the flavors. And, incidentally, they really work well with many of the foods of the Pacific region.

B: Great. So what else works well here? What do you like to drink as soon as you step off the plane?

KL: One afternoon after arriving in Hawaii, when we were looking at this house in Waimanalo, I checked in to a hotel in Waikiki. I was sitting in my room about 20 stories up, looking out at nothing but ocean. I poured a glass of gris de gris and walked out on to the lanai. I held the glass against the blue sky, with the crystal blue ocean below it, and proclaimed "This is the wine of Hawaii!" The colors just worked perfectly. I bought a house here that same day.

B: What advice would you impart to some of those who enjoy wine, but don't know a lot about buying it? Or even pairing it with favorite foods?

KL: The best advice I could give is don't buy wine by the ratings. I never do. I don't even like drinking wine with people who. You don't drink a rating or a number. You drink something that inspires you. Something memorable. Something that tastes good going down. Drink wines that are fun to swallow. The experience is very personal, so you need to go out and find what you like. It could be a $6 bottle. If it puts a smile on your face...

B: What are some of your favorites"

KL: I love the way a Chablis Vaillon Raveneau tastes with the ocean flavors of Hawaiian fare. The fresh seafood. You can really taste the changes in terroir between a chardonnay and a Chablis. You can taste the salinity in the soil of the Chablis, right through to the grape. It's astounding. I love the Cornieres gris de gris, which is really a rose. Oh, and I recently had an early [from the 80s] Barbera Cabernet from Louis Martini. They really hit the nail on the head back then. Big without that ridiculous oak flavor that most of the California producers are beating consumers over the head with right now. My favorite go to has to be early white Burgundy. They are all around great wines that I think everyone can appreciate.