Kermit Lynch, Wine's Rock ‘n’ Roll Icon

Kermit Lynch, Wine's Rock ‘n’ Roll Icon

Posted by Andy Comer on

For the man who introduced the U.S. to natural wine, the act of listening—to soil, to farmers, to his own inner compass—has long been a guiding principle. On the 50th anniversary of his trailblazing company, and with a powerful new album of songs (!!) hitting shelves, it’s time to listen to him.



“Good rock 'n' roll is something that makes you feel alive. Rock 'n' roll is an attitude, it's not a musical form of a strict sort. It's a way of doing things, of approaching things. Writing can be rock 'n' roll, or a movie can be rock 'n' roll. It's a way of living your life.” —Lester Bangs

In the half-century since he opened his first, now-mythic wine shop—a cramped storefront in Albany, California, where you could grab a neglected bottle of Grand Cru Burgundy for under $10—a whole lot has been written and said about Kermit Lynch. He’s been called “a revolutionary wine merchant” by Alice Waters and a “pioneer in rediscovering the vinous treasures of the Old World” by Jay McInerney. Rightfully so. Without Lynch’s insatiable curiosity as an importer, and his then-lonely advocacy of rural France’s small, unheralded wine farmers, where would wine—and specifically, what we now call natural wine—be today?


Lynch, outside his Berkeley home.

“Kermit brought the very idea of natural wine to the U.S.” –Rajat Parr

“Kermit brought the very idea of natural wine to the U.S.,” says Rajat Parr. “Chinon, Cornas, Bandol—we wouldn’t know these appellations without him. Kermit was anti-filtering from the start. You could argue that what’s called natural wine started with the Gang of Four in Beaujolais (Lapierre, Foillard, Breton, and Thévenet), and Kermit was the one who found them. He imported them all.”

What’s lesser known are the roots of Lynch’s do-it-yourself worldview and the defiantly joyous spirit that pushed him in this direction. It all goes back to a childhood where his father, a preacher, warned him that “music was sinful, and dancing was really sinful,” and to the career he pursued before wine: rock 'n' roll artist.

Lester Bangs famously called rock 'n' roll “an attitude…a way of living your life.” It’s a contrarian, no-bullshit sensibility you could argue runs through all of Lynch’s iconic work, from his restless quest for authenticity in wine (against the surge of oaky, high-alcohol wines orchestrated by Robert Parker) to his vocal denunciations of blind tastings, scoring systems, and vintage charts as having “nothing to do with the conditions under which the wines will presumably be drunk, which is at table, with food,” to his five—yes, five—full-length albums of recorded music. As Jancis Robinson once observed of the name Kermit, “it’s a Celtic word meaning, most appropriately, free man.”

Now 81, and splitting his retirement between Berkeley and Provence, Lynch has come full circle to his musical roots, recently releasing a new album called To the Brim (after a Jerry Lee Lewis lyric—give it a listen here). It’s a powerful, beautifully performed collection of songs—fronted by Lynch, with a formidable backing band made up of Grammy winners and Country Music Hall of Famers—that Lynch says “speaks to my life, my personal life.”

Kermit, in a 9th Street studio near his Berkeley home, cues up his new album for The Waves.

On the verge of the 50th anniversary of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, The Waves visited the man himself in Berkeley to give To the Brim a listen, learn more about the wine icon’s rock 'n' roll roots, and (of course) open a few bottles from his legendary cellar.


Andy Comer: Readers may be surprised to learn that “To the Brim” is your fifth full-length album.

Kermit Lynch: Yeah. The first one I did (2005’s Quicksand Blues) came about through Boz Scaggs (Grammy-winning recording artist). Boz was a client at my Berkeley retail store, and we'd go to Chez Panisse together. In 2001, he came and visited me in France. I’d been invited to Gérard Chave’s place, who was having Robert Parker over for dinner. I don't think he knew that Parker considered me a nemesis. (ed. note: Lynch famously skewered Parker’s points-based system in his 1988 book Adventures on the Wine Route.) But I wouldn't miss that!

Kermit’s second release, Man's Temptation (2009).

So I asked Gérard, can I bring Boz along? Parker's a music fan, and he'd love to meet Boz Scaggs. It was an incredible dinner, all made by Chave himself. We had deep-fried lamb testicles, veal kidneys, and Chave's own cured anchovies. Gérard was a great cook. He’d trade wine with Alain Chapel (Lyonnais chef whose self-named bistro earned three Michelin stars in 1973), and Chapel would give him cooking lessons, and they’d both get totally drunk together. A good trade, right?

The next day we were driving back to Provence and I asked Boz, how'd you like that meal? For a lot of Americans, lamb balls and veal kidneys aren’t…well, you know. And Boz said, “Great, but that's the first time in 10 years that I've eaten meat.” [laughs]

Boz knew that I'd been in bands earlier and asked to hear the garage tapes I’d recorded back in the late ‘60s. “There's some pretty good stuff here,” he said. “I have a studio in San Francisco. Why don't you come over? I'll get some musicians together and record a few of your songs.”

I couldn't pass up an offer like that. I'll bring the wine! [laughs]

“I had no money back in the hippie days and everybody was on drugs, so getting a decent drummer was impossible. It drove me crazy, and it’s partially why I got into the wine business.”

We started getting together and recording. I didn't want to sing—I was always uncomfortable on stage—so we hired a couple of singers. We couldn't get the right take on one song so I sang it myself, and I thought it was horrid.

But one night I was hanging out with Ricky Fataar (South African drummer who’s played with The Beach Boys, Bonnie Raitt, and Boz Scaggs, among many others), going to the movies in his car. And he puts on this music…oh my God. He’d mixed one of my practice vocal takes with the full band. It sounded pretty good, and Ricky said, “next time you should sing.”

This all made me think back to the late ‘60s. I had no money back in the hippie days and everybody was on drugs, so getting a decent drummer was impossible. It drove me crazy, and it’s partially why I got into the wine business. Now I’m hearing what’s really possible.

AC: So this recording session with Boz in the early-2000s was a redemption of sorts. Tell me about your musical roots, and what inspired you to make music in the first place.

KL: My mom had a piano and a lot of records. She liked Frank Sinatra, the big bands. But my dad was a man of the church. He believed that music was sinful, and dancing was really sinful—a stand-in for making love. The only singing I ever did was church gospel songs.

The big day for me was in the late-‘60s, when my wife brought home a Jimmy Reed record—At Carnegie Hall. I just couldn't get enough of it. I started playing harmonica and got a band together with some friends. Those were the days of the Grateful Dead, and the idea that anybody could make music.

“My dad was a man of the church. He believed that music was sinful, and dancing was really sinful.”

AC: Was there a moment when you realized, I just can’t pursue music right now?

KL: Absolutely. I had a side business at the time called The Berkeley Bag, making ladies' handbags out of oriental rug scraps. It was my only income.

AC: Do you still have any of those?

KL: My wife has one. I hated the work. But they were really popular, so whenever I couldn't pay for a meal, I'd make a bag and sell it to a shop.

AC: When did you fall in love with wine?

KL: In 1970, somebody came along and offered me money for the business. I had rented a lousy little room in the worst part of town…the only thing inside was a huge antique sewing machine. This guy bought that and some rug scraps and gave me $2,400—a lot of money back then.

So my girlfriend Joan Connolly and I went to Europe for four months, and that was where I fell in love with wine and food. It was so different from the Bay Area. I'd learned how to drink wine with meals in San Luis Obispo when I was in high school, from a neighbor. So I always drank wine with meals. But in Europe I was in a place where everybody else did, too. It completely opened my mind.

We visited several countries, but more often than not ended up back in France. I remember driving from Barcelona to Salzburg late at night. I was really tired, and we pulled off the freeway and got a hotel room. It was pitch black outside and we entered through the hotel’s back entrance. The next morning, we wake up and walk out the front entrance, and it’s the port of Cassis. You know, like, holy shit. Where am I? Paradise. We ended up staying there a week.

In fact, I spent a lot of time in Cassis this summer. I live 20 minutes away (in Provence), and I like going for a swim and lunch there, with that big view of the Cap Canaille. Two of my best friends are Francois and Jonathan Sack of Clos Sainte Magdeleine. That is the most amazing vineyard on the planet.

Francois planted a lot of Marsanne and I convinced him to plant some Vermentino, because that was not part of the Cassis appellation. Of all things, Vermentino was not part of the Cassis or Bandol appellations. The holy appellations, I'm telling you. Stories like what the French wine authorities did to Corsica. It should be illegal. They tossed out all the Corsican varieties. And they put in Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre…

"I had intended to get another band together. But now there was wine. Nobody would hire me because there was an enormous depression in the wine world. So my girlfriend, Joan, said, 'why don’t you start your own shop?'"

AC: So you come back to Berkeley from Europe, and… Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant is born?

KL: Well, I had intended to get another band together. But now there was wine. Nobody would hire me because there was an enormous depression in the wine world. So my girlfriend, Joan, said, “why don’t you start your own shop?”

I showed her my empty pockets. I said I didn't know anything about wine. Still, she loaned me five grand, and I opened a little shop in Albany. I started out not as an importer, but just a retailer.

Mongeard-Mugneret’s Richebourg had been selling at retail for $60, $70 a bottle—very expensive in those days. And when I bought it during the depression from Schoonmaker (Frank Schoonmaker Selections), I retailed it at $9.95. That's how I got started.

In those days, wine was a luxury for Americans. I haven't seen a period like that since. There were gas lines. The stores in Berkeley that sold fine wines went out of business. I didn't, because I had crisis-era pricing on great wines.

I started visiting California wineries. Ridge and Joseph Swan, for example. Swan became one of my best friends. Swan’s wines from the late ‘60s…unbelievable wines. His ‘68 Zinfandel was maybe the greatest California wine I ever had. So different from everybody else, still fresh after 50 years.

Swan had very old vines. They produced hardly anything. He was friendly with André Tchelistcheff (influential California winemaker who mentored Robert Mondavi and Stag’s Leap) and asked him over. Tchelistcheff said, “Pull out those vines and plant Pinot Noir.” And that was the end of that supernatural Zin.

AC: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant made its name with wines from France and Italy. California, not so much.

KL: Joe Swan was why I ended up dealing only in French and Italian wine. This Pinot Noir that Swan eventually made…I remember going to taste it. I have always promised my customers: I won't buy anything that I don't taste. I could not bring myself to tell Joe that I did not want to sell his Pinot Noir. I realized then that my heart was in France and Italy, and I made the decision to specialize in those regions. It solved my problem.

AC: Are there qualities common to wine and music that capture your imagination?

KL: This is my fifth album, and this time it’s all covers, no originals. I listened to it again recently, and I was struck by how many of the songs, even though I didn't write them, speak to my life, to my personal life. That brought tears to my eyes. I am in these performances.

Rajat Parr: And that carries through to wine. As a wine producer, when you make the wine, sometimes you're in disbelief. I made that wine? That's totally my style of wine. And I made it. And you realize the style of wines you like to drink are the style of wines you're producing. Not every wine producer does that, because some people want to get fame and scores, or make a wine for other people. But honest producers will do that. Same with music.

"I'm trying to get down to the song—to the soil and the grapes. I'm trying to get to the honest roots. What is this song about? What story does this tell?"

KL: Take the song “She's Funny That Way.” An old standard. Everybody's sung this thing. To me, most singers of the first line are not believable. I'm not much to look at. Frank Sinatra sings that and you go, bullshit. You are something to look at, man! He sings it like Frank Sinatra, the self-assured star. I sing it from the point of view of the guy whose story it is.

And that's one thing about the way I approach songs that you could compare to wines. I'm trying to get down to the song—to the soil and the grapes. I'm trying to get to the honest roots. What is this song about? What story does this tell?

AC: There’s a passage in Adventures on the Wine Route where you compare the wines of Charles Joguet to a Judy Garland performance. “The way she would take over a song, the emotion, the commitment, and the risk with which she invested her performance. I see Charles as a performer, and his wine is his song or act.”

KL: Judy Garland was a daring singer. She would put everything out there. Risk, a lot of risk.

Joguet was that way, too. He had some wines that weren't so hot, but he was an artist. Failure was just one way to get further along.

AC: You built a business that’s now celebrating its 50th year. Any advice for those of us who are just starting out?

KL: I don't know. I certainly didn't feel like I was doing anything more than having a blast. I think I had the good luck to count Joe Swan as a friend. He traveled with me on some of my earliest trips. That experience, of tasting with Joe, was important. And then there were my friendships with Richard Olney (decorated American food writer) and Lucien Peyraud (of Domaine Tempier). When tasting, I always felt I had Richard on one shoulder and Lucien on the other. Would I open this wine for them? They were pretty demanding.

Hey, gents, you know what? Let’s stop talking and start listening.

[Listening session commences.]


Fourteen songs. An hour of music. Kick back, press “play,” and spend some quality time with Kermit—with a glass or two of his wine selections to accompany your listening journey. A perfect marriage!

Get Kermit Lynch's To the Brim here, and our limited "Kermit Lynch Trio" wine bundle here.

Kermit Lynch, To the Brim (2023). Listen on Spotify.

Track listing:

  • Never Let You Go (Joseph W. Scott)
  • Just Like a Woman (Bob Dylan)
  • I’m Ready (Willie Dixon)
  • Don’t Let Her Know (Bonnie Owens)
  • She’s Funny That Way (Charles N. Daniels)
  • She Belongs to Me (Bob Dylan)
  • Femme Fatale (Lou Reed)
  • Late Last Night (James H. Moore)
  • Too Late Now (Alan Jay Lerner)
  • Tell It Like It Is (George Davis)
  • On Broadway (Barry Mann)
  • Cherie Amour (Stevie Wonder)
  • You Win Again (Hank Williams)
  • Blues Stay Away from Me (Alton Delmore)

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