Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer's Tour of France

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9780374100971: Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer's Tour of France

When Adventures on the Wine Route was first published, Victor Hazan said, "In Kermit Lynch's small, true, delightful book there is more understanding about what wine really is than in everything else I have read." A quarter century later, this remarkable journey of wine, travel, and taste remains an essential volume for wine lovers. In 2007, Eric Asimov, in The New York Times, called it "one of the finest American books on wine," and in 2012, The Wall Street Journal pro-claimed that it "may be the best book on the wine business."

In celebration of its twenty-fifth anniversary, Adventures on the Wine Route has been thoroughly redesigned and updated with an epilogue and a list of the great wine connoisseur's twenty-five most memorable bottles. In this singular tour along the French wine route, Lynch ventures forth to find the very essence of the wine world. In doing so, he never shies away from the attitudes, opinions, and beliefs that have made him one of our most respected and outspoken authorities on wine. Yet his guiding philosophy is exquisitely simple. As he writes in the introduction, "Wine is, above all, about pleasure. Those who make it ponderous make it dull . . . If you keep an open mind and take each wine on its own terms, there is a world of magic to discover." Adventures on the Wine Route is the ultimate quest for this magic via France's most distinguished vineyards and wine cellars. Lynch draws vivid portraits of vintners―from inebriated négociants to a man who oversees a vineyard that has been in his family for five hundred years―and memorably evokes the countryside at every turn. "The French," Lynch writes, "with their aristocratic heritage, their experience and tradition, approach wine from another point of view . . . and one cannot appreciate French wine with any depth of understanding without knowing how the French themselves look at their wines, by going to the source, descending into their cold, humid cellars, tasting with them, and listening to the language they employ to describe their wines."

Here, Kermit Lynch assures a whole new generation of readers―as well as his loyal fans―that discussions about wine need not focus so stringently on "the pH, the oak, the body, the finish," but rather on the "gaiety" of the way "the tart fruit perfume[s] the palate and the brain."

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About the Author:

Kermit Lynch was born and raised in California. In 1972, he opened a retail wine shop and later began importing and distributing nationally. In 1988, he published Adventures on the Wine Route, which won the Veuve Clicquot Wine Book of the Year Award. His second book, Inspiring Thirst, was published in 2004. Lynch divides his time between Berkeley and Provence, where he lives with his wife, the photographer Gail Skoff.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

LOIRE
 

CASTING A backward glance at my first trip to the Loire, I see a younger man who supported discomforts that sound torturous today. I flew from San Francisco to New York, changed planes, landed in Paris, rented a car, and drove to the Loire. Twenty-two hours all told, with a nine-hour time change. Those days the excitement, the novelty, and the thrill of the chase kept me going nonstop from one cellar to another. It was a period of discovery—discovering wines, winemakers, discovering France—and the adrenaline flow kept my blood as warm as the Loire cellars were cold.
It was late fall, the hunting season, and I settled into a little one-star hotel. I collapsed into bed for a late-afternoon nap and two hours later struggled to emerge from that deep black hole of sleep familiar to all who have suffered jet lag.
The hotel dining room was animated and colorful, filled with hunters dressed to kill in their shiny black-leather boots and bright red coats. I shared the spirit that filled the room. I had my own hunting to do.
The Burgundies on the restaurant’s wine list were négociant bottlings priced higher than I charged at my wineshop in California. The Bordeaux selections were too expensive and too young. However, there was an intriguing collection of little-known Loire Valley reds: Chinon, Bourgueil, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, and Sancerre. Mixing research with supper, I asked the proprietor to bring up his best Loire red. He poured a Bourgueil. The price was painless, the color a promising bluish purple, the aroma loaded with berrylike fruit, the flavors original and delicious, so delicious that I asked him to prepare a few tenths to take along in the trunk of my car to share with friends and winemakers along the route. Thus began my love affair with the Cabernet Franc of Chinon and Bourgueil, wines which at their best have such a strong personality that novice tasters are often startled. After that initial taste, it will be love or hate. It is no different than one’s reaction to an individual with a strong personality.
The hotel proprietor, seeing my appreciation of his Bourgueil, next recommended a Sancerre rouge. I had thought all Sancerre white. No, he said, there is a small proportion of Pinot Noir planted there. The wine was brilliantly vinified. Anyone who could produce an impressive Pinot Noir in an unlikely place like Sancerre deserved investigation, so I jotted down the name of the domaine, which I must call Domaine X for reasons that will soon be obvious.
A duet of hunting dogs and church bells woke me up early the next morning. There was a bright glitter of sunshine that did nothing to thaw the brittle chill in the air.
I had two days for Sancerre. Domaine X was one of several producers I visited, including a large négociant who appeared to own most of downtown Sancerre, and whose name was sarcastically mispronounced by certain proprietors so that it came out meaning “half-water.” A disturbing number of wineries had decorative oak casks outside and stainless-steel tanks inside their cellars. But the visit to Domaine X deepened my understanding of wine and helped set me on a course which I follow to this day.
Truth be told, Monsieur X was a wry, crusty old fellow who wanted to talk about his absent son more than anything else, including wine. His son, who spoke several languages fluently, who had been around the world four times already, and who would one day take over the wine domaine—that is, if he was not elected president of the republic first. “He’s in Indonesia right now,” Monsieur X said, checking his wristwatch.
One after another, all day long, each Sancerre blanc I had tasted had been drawn from either glass-lined or stainless-steel tanks. There was a pleasant, easy sameness to them. Some growers were preparing to bottle their wine a mere six weeks after the harvest! It is simple. You heat your cellar to speed up the fermentation, then you run your wine through a sterile filter before bottling it. Your worries are over. The Sancerres of Monsieur X were still leisurely bubbling along, fermenting in ancient gray oak barrels that had nurtured many a vintage. I came from California, where new oak was a sign of seriousness and quality. Why did Monsieur X use old barrels?
“New oak masks everything,” he growled. “The virtues and the flaws. I have nothing to hide behind the taste of new oak. On the contrary.”
I was struck by the fact that fermentation in barrel produced a wine with more depth, more dimensions to it, than those from stainless-steel tanks where the wine is boxed in tight as a knot. In barrel there is an exchange between the wine and the air. The wine breathes through the pores of the wood. And the air it breathes has certain aromas, the cellar smells, which, however imperceptible, are soaked up by the wine. Perhaps that is why whites that see glass only, or stainless steel only, seem one-dimensional in comparison. Of course, if the winemaker is not fanatically attentive, the wine in barrel can breathe too much, and instead of a beneficial evolution, instead of this subtle seasoning, you will have an oxidized wine. It is work to keep an eye on each barrel, to keep all of them constantly filled up to the top to avoid oxidation. Thus, the predominance of stainless steel today. It is easier, safer, and the large tanks take up less space. Something is lost, however.
A second difference between X and the others: he had not one Sancerre blanc, but three. There are different terroirs or soils at Sancerre, he explained, and he had vines planted in three types of soil: limestone, flint, and clay. At the other domaines, it would have been a matter of selecting for purchase the cleanest, best-balanced Sauvignon Blanc, because the fruit dominated. At Domaine X, the Sauvignon character was evident, but only as one part of the taste impression. More important was the personality imparted by the soil in which the vine nourished itself, because the wine from each soil type was vinified and bottled separately with the specific vineyard name on the label. Here were wines from the same grape, the same cellar, vinification, and vintage, but tasting them side by side, one encountered three remarkably different personalities. And the wine from flinty soil, for example, consistently showed the same personality traits no matter which vintage we were tasting, being leaner, tighter, with a stronger mineral flavor than the other two. If only everyone could make such a comparative tasting, I thought, instead of those silly blind tastings that are such the rage. Here was a comparative tasting that deepened one’s awareness of the mystery of wine.
The third striking aspect was the old winery itself, which had been constructed on different levels of the hillside in order to permit racking and bottling by gravity flow. By avoiding mechanical pumping, Monsieur X produced bottled wines which retained all their nerve and vigor. Subsequently, I began to make inquiries about bottling methods a routine part of my visit to new wineries.
The point is, Monsieur X’s wines were not one-dimensional quaffers like so many Sancerres. They were more serious, more exciting to taste, because observing and defining their personalities engaged the intellect and the imagination. Rather than leaving the impression that wine is simply another beverage, they inspired the notion that wine can communicate something.
For several years I imported the Sancerres of Domaine X. In certain vintages I would buy the wine from all three terroirs. I cannot say that they had a fabulous commercial success; wine with a pronounced personality appeals to a small part of the public. But I took great pride in selling them because I believed I was importing the best. Imagine my emotions when I showed up one fine spring morning and was received by the son. He had thrown up a new barnlike winery building and filled it with stainless-steel vats. The reflections shimmering off the tanks gave the impression of a circus hall of mirrors. My face appeared two feet long. There was a new centrifuge. There was a special tank for refrigerating the wine down below zero to eliminate the possibility of tartrate crystal deposits. There were various pumps and filtering devices. The place looked like a winery-equipment showroom. Even worse, it smelled like a sulfur-dioxide factory. Where were those solid, proven old casks gently bubbling along? Where were the beautiful wooden tools like the hand-carved mallet Old Man X had used to knock the stoppers loose from the bungs of the barrels?
I could not restrain myself. I asked why he needed to centrifuge, cold-stabilize, filter, and dose his wines with massive quantities of sulfur dioxide (SO2). This fellow was taking no chances! He led me into his office, strutting like a rooster, a cigar poked into his bushy beard, his head blown up into a big balloon of self-congratulation. He pointed to a map of the world tacked on the wall behind his desk. I was represented by a colored pushpin stabbed into California. England had one too, and Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and so on. He stabbed a finger at a lone pushpin lost in the middle of the African continent. “I sell fifty cases a year here,” he said, “and there is no way to know what the shipping conditions will be. I have to protect my wine so it won’t spoil.” Here was a man willing to strip his wine of its character in order to protect fifty cases.
I tasted the sulfur-laden wines. They were all alike, poor things. I walked out without placing an order. I drove away swearing out loud. That horse’s ass ruined my Sancerre!
Touring the wineries in France over the years, I began to see that my experience at Domaine X was representative of a general evolution in French winemaking, and finding the old-style wines in each region and educating my clients to the diversity and virtue of those wines became a kind of crusade to me.
*   *   *
After Sancerre I headed west into the Touraine to investigate their reds. I found a Chinon and Bourgueil that I imported and presented to my customers as little country wines because that is what they were, nothing more or less than pretty little quaffers fun to drink cool for their berrylike fruit. As is often the case, a first visit to a new region did not turn up the finest wines. It serves as a scouting trip, and hopefully I will stumble across something of interest, good wines to whet the appetite of my clients, or perhaps some leads for subsequent visits. The wines I bought were not monuments to the vintner’s art, but they were unlike the California reds of the day, which seemed to be the result of a contest to see who could turn out the biggest alcoholic monster. Open-minded tasters appreciated those Loire reds. One said they tasted like “Bordeaux Beaujolais” because of their Cabernet character and their youthful charm.
Then, on my next trip to Burgundy, Jacques Seysses at Domaine Dujac told me he had recently returned from a tour of the Loire vineyards with a small group of Burgundian winemakers. One wine stood apart from the rest, he said, the Chinon of Charles Joguet. I jotted down Joguet’s name in my notebook and a few days later drove off to find him.
There is no autoroute from Burgundy to Chinon unless one drives all the way up to Paris and south again to exit at Tours. I took country roads that zigzag aimlessly across the landscape from one small village to another: Varzy, Donzy, Cosne-sur-Loire, Vailly-sur-Sauldre, Aubigny-sur-Nère, and Souèsmes, villages in which anyone visible gazes intently at your license plate, trying to divine from the last two digits where you hail from. One has the impression that this is the high point of their day, and on the surface at least the villages seem deathly dull. After Sancerre, in the Sologne, the forests crowd up to line the route, and at that time of year the autumn leaves swirled behind my car as I sped along, trying to keep up with the setting sun.
I arrived late at Joguet’s village, Sazilly, near Chinon, and was later still because I could not find his house. There was no sign to indicate it. Little light remained. It was painfully cold. The ground crunched underfoot. As I poked my nose through the opening of a tall hedge, I came upon the eeriest-looking person I have ever seen, a twisted, gnomish, hunched creature who peered up at me with difficulty because he could not turn or bend his neck and had to lean his body sideways and down in order to meet my eyes. I would not have been more surprised had I seen a witch on a broomstick.
“Monsieur Joguet?” I inquired.
He tugged at my sleeve and led me to the side door of the simple bourgeois house. He knocked crisply and sidled off into the icy ash-colored twilight. I heard irregular footsteps within. The door swung open and there in the light I beheld a second warped figure whose head tilted at a weird angle. He offered his hand for shaking and there was a finger or two missing. My God, I thought, there is a whole colony of them. Oh well, anything for a decent bottle of wine. But I also noticed that the eyes were full of fire and intelligence and a dash of self-humor. It was Charles Joguet.
My gnomelike guide, I learned later, had assisted at the domaine all his life, working the vines, tending the goats, rabbits, and chickens. He was not a Joguet; it did not run in the family. No, Charles had recently suffered an automobile accident. His tilt was temporary, due to the cast and metal brace he wore to help mend his broken vertebrae. The fingers? An old tractor accident. The magic? He has it.
We began tasting with his newly vinified 1976 out of barrel. The nose was thick with black currants and violets. It was sizable on the palate, too. Ripe, rich, and succulent, it felt as if it must be staining my tongue purple. A serious, extravagantly flavored wine, this was way beyond the little country wines of my first trip. Very simply, at that stage it was the finest 1976 red I had tasted from any of the French vineyards. A Chinon! And Charles had never laid eyes on an importer. I felt like Columbus discovering the New World.
From the winery we trudged through the dark across a field. Charles opened an old wooden door into the hillside. We entered a limestone cave with a dirt floor. It was furnished with hundreds of old bottles. I have never been colder than in that cave. My teeth chattered and my hand trembled when I held out my glass for a taste of 1975, followed by 1974, 1973, 1971, 1969 …
Have you ever seen someone in a back and neck brace pulling corks? But I could not taste a thing. The wines were close to freezing, but the corks kept popping as he moved onward, or rather backward in time: 1966, 1964, 1961. Finally we took his 1959 back to the house and resorted to swirling our glasses over a wood fire, trying to liberate a bit of the wine’s icebound aroma.
Then Charles took me to dinner at a nearby truck stop, Sazilly’s only restaurant. He left the bottles behind, all those old Chinons from which only a taste or two had been poured, and we served ourselves glasses of the same plonk the truckers were drinking. The bulk stuff. Plastic bottles. Barely wine.
“Too bad,” I told Charles. “It’s the first wine I can really taste.”
“It’s not shitty,” he said. “It’s ultra-shitty. Shit- de- merde!” he exclaimed, laughing as he pounded his glass on the table. “Shit- de- merde” must be the ultimate franglais. Charles is endlessly scatological and endlessly pronouncing maxims: “Everything is possible!” he might offer, then: “Nothing is possible! Wisdom is all; wisdom is shit. Everyone seek...

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Lynch, Kermit
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2013)
ISBN 10: 0374100977 ISBN 13: 9780374100971
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