MP: How do you think about the Asian wine market?
KL: I only know what I read in the papers. I haven’t sought out any connections there. I’ve been contacted a few times by people who wanted to buy my selections of French & Italian wines for the Asian market, and each time I turned it down. I’m really happy with the way my business is. So I haven’t followed.
I understand for example that the Bordeaux market of the cru classé is very much oriented towards the Asian market now, and in fact the Asian market sort of sets the prices, like the United States used to do, that’s what I keep hearing. I’m sorry I don’t have more of a take on it. I’m naive about it.
MP: How do you think about the Asian palate?
KL: We should have some wine here and do a test! You know that’s an interesting question, I don’t know the answer. A French winemaker, one who was quite educated, told me that the superpower, the economic power in the world, actually sets the taste for French wines.
They’ve always depended on export and he cited for example Bordeaux: when Bordeaux was exported almost entirely to England, it was the English who set the taste of Bordeaux wines. When the United States took their place, and you had for example Robert Parker the wine critic really being the most powerful man in the world in terms of the Bordeaux market, they completely changed the taste of Bordeaux wines to sort of suit the American palate which demanded bigger wines – one could even say oakier wines. Where Bordeaux in the time of the English used to be a more austere wine, it has become a little more jammy, and no vegetal qualities permitted anymore. The Americans don’t want it. So there’s been a real change.
I’m asking myself, well if it’s true, where are they going to go now; what is the Asian taste now; and what kind of changes are going to be required for French wines to satisfy that market which is becoming so much stronger?
MP: For those who are new to wine, what’s your advice on navigating the huge wine world?
KL: One’s own experience can’t be beat. I’ve learned over the years – the French have a saying: “À chacun son goût,” which means each person has his own taste. And I’ve noticed that’s true in wine. When you start in wine you think the experts know everything. But they’re the same way, they all have different palates, they all appreciate different things about wines.
The top American critics – like Robert Parker – you can’t help but notice the kind of wines he awards 100 points to. But they’re really not my style. So my wines hardly ever get those kinds of scores. The kinds of wines I like are just not what they’re looking for, and vice versa.
I think its important for an amateur to understand that there’s nobody out there who’s right about how wine should taste. They will be right for themselves. So instead of following leaders, I think it helps to read a couple of books about wine, but more general texts like maybe a Hugh Johnson book. I think he does it better than anybody to give an overview of the world’s wines.
I would also say get a little group together and start wine tasting.Get some wines that maybe they’ve read about that seem like top examples, or good for the money, or something like that. There’s no need to cover the labels. Taste the wines and sort of discuss it. Someone might say ‘Oh, this is too light for me, I don’t like it’; then another would say, ‘just think of it with the food you’d be eating, you want a lighter wine with it, you don’t want something that’s going to overpower it..’, etc. So there’s talk around the table, and you find out what you like, and learn things from what other people like. I think that’s the smartest way. With a group you get to taste a lot more wines, since everyone is bringing a bottle or two.
MP: Looking back, what are the top three lessons you’ve learned?
KL: To listen. I use the word “listen” figuratively. To listen to each wine and see what it has to say, and not arrive at preconceptions – I think that’s very important. A lot of people have in their mind that they’ve tasted some great wine ten years ago and they’re still looking for it in every wine they taste: ‘No it’s not as good as that one was.’ Again, that’s not the point of wine.
If a Beaujolais winemaker sets out to make the same wine as the Château Latour, he might achieve 100% success with a lovely wine, but it’s never going to taste like Bordeaux. And it shouldn’t. So listen to each wine. For example, say you’re in Beaujolais. One winemaker is going to have a different statement to make with his wine than some guy a mile away with the same grapes, with different terroir and vinification. Let’s say this guy likes a smooth seductive Beaujolais. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the guy over here, no, he leaves the skins in longer, he leaves the seeds in, he wants to extract the tannin, he loves a big tannin in his wine. Both of them are valid.
Listen to each wine and appreciate it for what it is. Don’t criticize it for what it’s not.
Price has almost nothing to do with quality. It’s what’s in fashion that sets prices. When I got into this business Bordeaux wines and Burgundies were more expensive than Cabernets. But today some California Cabernets are $200, $300 dollars a bottle. Things have really changed, and that will change again. Barolos were almost free when I first started in the wine business in 1972. Chiantis – all those magnificent estates were for sale for nothing. The wine business was dead at that time, people were deserting them, they were falling into ruin. You go there today they’ve been snapped up again, it’s the fashion now, Chianti is very much in fashion.
Those people who bought those properties, what a deal, what a huge deal they made.
So price is completely related to the mode. We were talking about what market sets the style, and for years now it’s been the big powerful wines that Americans like: sort of like American movies. – It’s a cultural thing. In American movies there’s always got to be a big explosion or a car wreck. You know, boom! That’s how it’s got to be, that’s America. Well, they want wines the same way: ‘Wow! Oh my God! I can really taste that one!’ Everybody is looking for the great Bordeaux or the big California Cabernets, but there are so many other wines.
So don’t follow modes if you’re looking for bargains. If you’re looking for bargains, my motto is don’t look where other people are looking. Go where nobody’s looking.
MP: Looking ahead, how do you imagine your industry evolving?
KL: The wine world in general? I’m sort of pessimistic. I must be naturally that way, because when I started going to France I saw that technology was taking over the wine industry: the wines were being super-filtered and they were adding things to stabilize it and pasteurize it, more and more. This had never been done there, winemakers didn’t even know how to do it – then all of a sudden there are technology schools and they go and learn chemistry and so on, and apply it to their wines. So I thought ‘Oh, we’re going to be left with industrial wines, factory wines.’ All the heart and soul has been stripped out of them – that’s the direction they were going.
But, my God, the pendulum has really swung back, and now there’s quite an explosion of what people like to call “natural wines”. It’s hard to define what that means, but I’d say it’s the opposite of industrial wines. Is a natural wine organic? I don’t know. I don’t think it has to be called organic. A lot of people don’t want to have their wines certified organic, like my winery over there. I just don’t want another set of bureaucrats coming through my winery telling us what to do, and paying $1000 to get it certified. It is a natural wine, it is organic, but I don’t care to have it on the label. So you can say “natural” versus “industrial”.
French winemakers who are going back to try to make the wine their grandparents made, and throwing out the filter pumps. Wines used to have a lot more sulfur dioxide than they do. You need a little, I’ve learned, just a little to protect the wine. So that’s been a big change, and that continues, and more and more French wines are going towards organic and biodynamic cultures. You’re not talking then about the winery, you’re talking about the vineyard. So they’re starting with better grapes than they used to. That’s the kinds of things I’m thinking of. About marketing? I never think about it that much.
MP: There are a great many importers of French wine. Many of them are focused on specific, often traditional regions such as Bordeaux or Burgundy. On the other hand, you have been building your reputation for decades by bringing wine lovers to the next new discovery or new frontier. What’s your inspiration?
KL: I get a kick out of doing that. I don’t mean turning people onto it. I mean discovering it, exploring as we used to say in California during the Gold Rush: ‘Wow, there’s gold in them there hills.’ That phrase has occurred to me. I’m off someplace where no importer has ever been, and taste it and it’s ‘Wow.’ But there again the thing I said about listening to the wine. You can’t say ‘No that doesn’t taste like a Château Latour so I’m not going to buy it.’ No, you’ve got a completely different wine, underappreciated. It’s going to be cheap. You can start out like that. And how many wines have I imported like that? Now that they’re known, they’ve become out of reach ($$) for a lot of wine lovers. I’ve seen that happen often.
MP: Who are the people that have influenced you the most in your career – and why?
KL: I’d say Richard Olney. Do you know him? He wrote the introduction to my book Adventures on the Wine Route. He was an American who moved to France as a young man. He had the goal of being a painter, but somehow he got involved in the world of food and wine, and the next thing you know the Cuisine et Vins de France, the leading French magazine of the day, hired him to write about food with recipes. He made a book out of that and it’s still available in the United States.
Then he wrote what’s probably the book he’s most famous for, Simple French Food, and that had a big influence on chefs all over the United States, especially my friend Alice Waters. He was also a great wine taster and he knew practically everybody. I needed a translator and he didn’t have much money, so somebody told me about him. I asked Alice Waters, have you ever heard of Richard Olney? She said ‘why?’ I said ‘because of this and this…’, and she said, ‘Pack your suitcase!’ Which I did.
I was traveling to buy, so there we were tasting at these wineries, some of which he introduced me to. I learned from tasting with him at different cellars and then dining with him at night. Then later I traveled with him to Bordeaux where he was known by all the grand chateaus and these incredible meals with wines going back to the beginning of the century.
What an education that was. But it’s from him that I got this impression of listening to what each wine has to say. He was very much like that, and I’d never encountered that before. You know the American way, like I said, ‘Oh there’s a winner and all the rest are losers’- that’s what had been my experience when I tasted with Americans. And here was this American who had a completely different take on it. Out of his own cellar he pulled out one gem after another. He had an incredible palate to select wines. He’s the biggest influence.
I would also say Lucien Peyraud in Domaine Tempier down in Bandol, Provence. I said once to somebody, ‘In those days when I’d go out tasting and selecting, I had Richard Olney sitting on this shoulder and Lucien on the other one. I would ask myself, ‘Would I serve this wine to Lucien and Richard?’
Lucien’s thing was natural wine. He was making wines with hardly any sulfur. And wow there would be accidents, or sometimes the wine would turn out fizzy or more fizzy than it should have been because it was a more natural wine.
When you make a natural wine people say it’s a risk. Sure there’s a risk. But when you pasteurize it and homogenize it and sterile-filter it and do all that, you don’t risk anything because the wine’s already dead. That’s stable. The risk for me is if you don’t make a natural wine, you won’t have a decent wine, you’ll just have a factory product. Something that has no character, of no deep interest to you, that can’t really mean anything to you.
Sometimes you have an almost aesthetic reaction to it as a thing of beauty. Once you start with the filters and the centrifuges, it’d strip down the quality that connects one with the wine.