February 2005
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Day February 11, 2005

Buying French wine in California

I ran across something at Crescat which surprised me. Amy Lamboley, in a comment upon an assertion by Professor Bainbridge, claims that "few wine stores in California have a spectacular selection of European wines…"

As a resident of Washington State, where in fact only a few wine stores (especially the terrific folks at McCarthy and Schiering) do have a good selection of European wines, I have to wonder if we’re shopping in the same places. California, in my experience, is home to several of the very best importers of European wines, as well as some fabulous wine shops.

The list, for me, begins with Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, of Berkeley. Kermit Lynch not only carries a number of lower-priced but excellent wines which go directly to refuting Bainbridge’s point, but they represent Jean-Louis Chave, Francois Raveneau, August Clape, Vieux Telegraphe, Tempier, Zind-Humbrecht, Robert Chevillon, and other wonderful producers. Sadly, Kermit Lynch doesn’t have a website, but you can receive their monthly catalog by mail, and likely you have a local representative or distributor if you’re near a major city.

North Berkeley Imports has also built a fine selection of producers, which includes Texier and a number of solid Burgundies. Then, one can look at retail shops like Premier Cru in Oakland, or a perennial favorite, K&L Wines in Redwood City and San Francisco.

Or if you’re interested in unique and very collectible wines, Rare Wine Company of Sonoma has one of the best portfolios in the country. In addition, RWC is the specialist in fine old vintage Madeira.

And if you’re looking for something special or rare and RWC can’t help you, Eddie Gelsman of the Wine Library in Petaluma can probably help you.

Riesling your thing? Age of Riesling in Berkeley is your best source, and Bill Mayer has impeccable taste and superb relationships with the producers.

And that’s just the Bay Area, and the folks I’ve dealt with frequently.

I will agree with Professor Bainbridge’s observation that good $10 European wines are largely gone. The exchange rate and soft dollar have driven prices on many wines which formerly were in the $10-12 range up toward $18-20. Case in point — the Produttori di Barbaresco Langhe used to be $10-12 in the Seattle market, and was a superb case buy. Nothing profound, but at $10 with a case discount I’ll drink it with pasta all year. Now, the 2002 is priced at $18-19, and is no longer worth it. This is happening across the board, but until the dollar is stronger there’s little we can do about it. Except be glad that there’s wine in the cellar.