Their passion and their muse

Times Staff Writer

It sometimes seems as if a newsletter or sales circular from a different wine store arrives in my mailbox almost every day. They come from shops all over Los Angeles and Orange counties, from Northern California and from as far away as Springfield, Mo., and Washington, D.C.

Some I toss immediately into the trash, most I at least skim, a few I order from -- and one is so engagingly idiosyncratic and consistently well written that I (and one prominent publisher) think it qualifies as literature.

The mailers range in size from a single sheet of paper to 40-page newsprint tabloids, but all have the same obvious objective: to induce recipients to buy the wines advertised therein. Most consist of little more than prices, sales pitches and scores from Robert Parker and Wine Spectator. But I receive three that have more ambitious goals. They want to entertain and inform and influence customers, to teach them about wine, to lobby for certain kinds of winemaking, to persuade them that the enjoyment of wine is essential to a happy, well-balanced life.

One of these mailers comes from the Wine Country in Signal Hill. Randy Kemner, the 55-year-old proprietor of the 9-year-old store, writes most of the 40-to-44-page monthly, Time magazine-size newsletter himself, and much of it is a clearly heartfelt paean to small, family-run wineries and "winemakers who respect their terroir and don't manipulate their wines."

Kemner writes often of his travels to the vineyards of Europe -- he's now in the midst of a three-part series on his recent trip to Italy -- and he sees these musings as essential to his sales, 60% of which involve European wines.

"Part of my job in the newsletter is to convey to people who were basically raised on California wine that European wines -- and the European approach to wine -- are very different," he says.

Kemner has written about the dinner table as "civilization's ground zero," and when we spoke, he expanded on that theme.

"In Europe, wine is all about the family at the dinner table," he said. "Here, too often, wine is an icon, an accessory to wealth and privilege, so it has to be big rather than balanced, a stand-alone rather than an accompaniment to food."

Kemner is so casually earnest and down-to-earth in his writing that when I read his newsletter -- usually with a glass of wine in hand, when I get home in the evening -- it almost feels as if he's sitting in my living room with me, talking, not writing.

A man of fervent certitude

Roberto ROGNESS of Wine Expo in Santa Monica has a similar philosophy about wine and life, but there's nothing casual about his writing. He tends to wax alternately rhapsodic and agitated in the one-page newsletters he e-mails and faxes to customers every week (and in the eight-page newsletters he mails out quarterly).

Visually, the Wine Expo mailer is among the least attractive of those I receive -- the fax version is a jumble of black and blacker type on a single sheet of paper. But Rogness' fervent certitude about almost everything more than compensates. I eagerly await his weekly communiques to see what new pronouncement, discovery or outrage he wants to share.

Rogness, the only wine merchant I know who calls himself "general manager and creative director," has been in love with music ever since he was taken to a Harry Belafonte concert at age 5, and his newsletters are filled with musical references, some having nothing whatever to do with wine. Last Fourth of July, he urged readers to write their congressmen and ask that "Born to Be Wild" replace "The Star-Spangled Banner" as our national anthem.

Rogness is almost as likely to recommend a CD or a rock concert as he is a wine -- and he's just as likely to recommend a CD-wine pairing as a food-wine pairing. Not long ago, for example, under the heading "Rethinking the Classics," he recommended listening to Sister Bossa's "Cool Jazzy Cuts With a Brazilian Flavour" while drinking one of three Italian wines he was then selling.

"The idea was that the musicians and the winemakers were ... putting a slightly modern spin on [old classics]," he says, and he regarded them as complementary pleasures because the wines were "big, fairly strong, meditative wines and that CD is a tranced-out version of Bossa Nova. I thought that the wine and the music ... would be a wonderful fusion of sensations."

Rogness often compares artists and songs to specific wines and winemaking styles. A frequent critic of Robert Parker and the big "hedonistic fruit bombs" that Parker often favors, Rogness has likened Parker's favorite Zinfandels to "a drag queen in the middle of a great production of Carmen." And he's written, "Thelonius Monk has more to do with the way (and the type) of wines we select than Robert Parker does."

I suppose some folks might find this pretentious. I don't. Rogness is knowledgeable and passionate about both wine and music -- he played in professional bands for years, still plays guitar, bass and harmonica and has a 300-CD changer constantly going in the shop -- and even when I disagree with his characterizations, I find them intriguing and worth considering.

Rogness and Kemner are salesmen, of course, but it's not the sales pitches that make their newsletters worth reading; their gripes are often more interesting than their grapes. Their genuine enthusiasm for whatever they're writing about and their sheer delight in sharing their discoveries and philosophies with their readers get my attention even when I'm not in the market for their wines.

Still, my favorite among all the wine store newsletters I receive is written and published by Kermit Lynch, the Berkeley wine merchant who has made a career of discovering and importing superb but little-known wines from France, where he lives about six months of every year.

Lynch's monthly newsletter -- usually eight to 16 pages, each about the size of a page in Readers' Digest -- is so well done, so literary, that this month Ten Speed Press is publishing a 400-page, book-length collection of excerpts from it.

"Inspiring Thirst: Vintage Selections From the Kermit Lynch Wine Brochure" includes passages of Lynch's prose dating back 30 years.

Lynch opened his shop in 1972 and two years later found himself somewhat anxiously awaiting the arrival of what he calls "an especially esoteric collection of wines." In an effort to give his customers some sense of "what to expect when they uncorked a bottle," he decided to include with his regular price list a brief explanation of what he found compelling in each of these wines.

He mailed out that annotated price list, and he's been writing and mailing it every month since. When he's in France, he faxes it to his Berkeley store and it's mailed from there.

Fax? Not e-mail?

"E-mail? I still write with a pen," he says.

Lynch, 63, wrote the delightful 1988 book "Adventures on the Wine Route," and his wine recommendations go far beyond the typical newsletter's listing of a Parker score and exhortation to buy before the supply is gone.

Peripatetic observations

Lynch's newsletter -- he calls it a "brochure" -- is filled with reports of wines tasted, cellars visited, meals eaten and winemakers interviewed. He includes recipes, menus, travel tips, restaurant recommendations, personal philosophy, obituaries and appreciations of favorite winemakers and such bits of inside information-cum-observation as, "The personal life of a winemaker can influence his wine. My pal Joseph Swan made the worst wine of his career the year his wife left him."

Some of Lynch's writings are downright quirky, as when -- in 1996 -- he wrote several paragraphs about a personally inscribed book of recipes he'd received from Elvis Presley's former cook. Lynch seemed mildly troubled that the book contained "no wine recommendations," so at the end -- tongue firmly in cheek -- he suggested that Presley's favorite bedtime snack, a peanut butter and banana sandwich, be accompanied by a 1921 Chateau d'Yquem.

Of course.

"I've loosened up in my writing, had more fun in recent years," he told me the last time we spoke. "Some people might find some of it odd. I make up characters and tell stories that have nothing to do with cherries and berries and 100-point scoring systems."

Thus, here's Lynch on a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo:

"You are hiking alone over the Italian Alps. You've selected your freeze-dried food packets carefully. Your Cote Rotie pellet is fantastically realistic dissolved in the icy spring water. Then the weather turns cold. First thing you know, you are freezing to death. You need shelter quick. A dim light in the distance. A small stone cottage. The peasants invite you to sit at their hearth. A bowl of hot pasta with tomato sauce and cheese is placed in your icy hands. And the wine, the wine is Montepulciano d'Abruzzo!! Dark, robustly flavored, a bit of roughness perhaps but subtlety doesn't matter a whit in the presence of a rich tomato sauce."

Through his newsletter, Lynch has introduced Americans to many great wines -- the Rhone reds from Vieux Telegraphe, the Chablis of Francois Raveneau, the red Burgundies of Henri Jayer, the white Burgundies from Coche-Dury, the Bandol rose from Domaine Tempier. But I'd read his newsletter every month even if I didn't buy much wine. He gives readers some of the most engaging travel, food and personality writing around. And unlike the wine, it's free.

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com. To read previous "Matters of Taste" columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-taste.

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