“I never had great Muscadet or great Chablis before Martine and Kermit.”
That statement, which sounds as though it might be the last words of a dying wino, came from the mouth of Larry Stone, one of the most celebrated and established sommeliers in America. Larry is not an old man by any measure and only began his career in 1981, which makes this sentiment that much more remarkable. Stop reading, and let its significance sink in for a minute.
The American wine market has transformed dramatically in recent history. Even during my paltry 17 years in the game, I have witnessed considerable growth and change. But aside from a few emerging (or re-emerging) regions such as China, Georgia, and Texas, I can’t think of too many categories of wine that weren’t available when I started out. But for those with a 15- or even a 10-year jump on me, that was not the case.
I spend a great deal of time expatiating on the long history of wine in America, but the reality is, thanks to the amnesic effects of Prohibition, our collective relationship with fine wine was effectively born again in the 1960s. In fact, it wasn’t until 1967 that dry wine sales overtook those of sweet and fortified in this country, and only then by a narrow margin.
In speaking to members of the wine trade who were active in the 1950s and early ‘60s, I’ve learned that it was something of a bleak time in the American wine industry. California production was just getting back on track, and bulk and fortified wines ruled the market. On the import side, despite the pioneering efforts of post-Prohibition importers such as Frank Schoonmaker, Frederick Wildman, and Peter Sichel, options beyond Bordeaux, a handful of Champagnes, and négociant Burgundies remained slim.
The late 1960s and ‘70s were a revolutionary time in the United States, and these radical changes in culture did not exclude wine. A growing wave of artisan importers cropped up, who combed Europe (rarely beyond) and returned their bounty to a growing number of restaurants and retailers. Suddenly, the wine world felt a whole lot bigger. “People were looking for something better than négociant,” Larry Stone recalls, “and were moving away from Bordeaux as all that matters. These importers shifted the focus to the small producers of Burgundy and the Rhône. These wineries were already there, of course, but they hadn’t been well-represented because the négociants were so dominant.”
While their numbers are small by today’s standards, the roster of importers that appeared during this time includes such luminaries as Becky Wasserman, Robert Chadderdon, Château & Estate, Vineyard Brands, Vinifera, and Wilson Daniels. In the 1980s, their ranks were joined by Joe Dressner, Robert Kacher, Marc De Grazia, Jorge Ordóñez, and Langdon Shiverick, among others. Each of these importers made critical contributions to the American wine scene, but this article, presented in two parts, will focus on five: Kermit Lynch, Martine Saunier, Neal Rosenthal, Rudi Wiest, and Terry Theise.
What made these five importers so successful? Surely part of it was their clarity of focus. In some cases, the emphasis was regional, in others it was philosophical, but either way a distinct point of view is what set them apart from the massive importers of the day. The other essential ingredient was work ethic. As MS Joseph Spellman explains, “They believed in something and attached their names to it.”
“They created categories of fine wine from places that Americans didn’t know very well,” says long-time wine buyer Debbie Zacharias. “Plus, they had the perseverance to go out and show them. In the end, they put together portfolios that were so extraordinary, they defined the best wines to come to America.”
And the wines really were incredible. Chave, Vieux Telegraphe, de Montille, Jayer, Pierre Péters, Zilliken, Leroy, Rayas, Coche-Dury, Vietti, Aldo Conterno, Ostertag, Karthäuserhof, Bründlmayer, Gentaz, Dagueneau, Tempier, Joh Jos Prum—all brought into the United States for the first time. Our five importers uncovered and imported what would come to be considered some of Europe’s very finest wines. And the relentless promotion by these importers helped build the vintners’ reputations both inside of the United States and internationally. Larry Stone remembers how it used to be. “In the mid-1980s, when I went to visit Clape, which was represented by Lynch, Auguste himself showed me around. He wondered whether his son would join him, because there was no money in Cornas and it was laborious to farm.” Larry continues with an incredulous tone, “It wasn’t a big business back then. They weren’t superstars yet.”
From left to right, Raymond Trollat, Kermit Lynch, Gérard Chave, and Trollat Sr. in 1983
In some cases, these importers introduced entirely new categories of wine to the drinking public. Martine was among the first to champion the Savoie, Kermit Chablis, Rudi dry Rieslings from the VDP, and Neal Alto Piemonte and other remote pockets of Italy. Terry Theise was particularly adroit at championing beautiful obscurities, most famously grower Champagne. Per Larry, “Before Terry, no one had any idea as to grower Champagnes. He completely changed everything. Now, sommeliers don’t want to even look at the Grandes Marques.” Terry also helped introduce American sommeliers to one of their all-time favorite toys, Grüner Veltliner. Bobby Stuckey, Master Sommelier and owner of Frasca, was among the earliest acolytes of that grape. “Terry Theise and Vin Divino played a major role in bringing Grüner to the States. It was completely unknown.” He adds, “Now you can have a glass of GV at the airport!”
The reach of these importers regularly extended beyond purely liquid confines. As all their businesses had started before sommeliers were commonplace, they often had to assume an active role in how their wines were paired with food. Rudi was extremely influential in getting American sommeliers to match Riesling with Asian and fusion cuisines. And Kermit Lynch’s affiliation with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse is legendary. As Chuck Furuya, MS, recalls, “Up to that time, the finest restaurants of Hawaii—and I'm sure other cities—featured classical French and continental cuisine. This meant French Chardonnay with beurre blanc and Bordeaux with Périgourdine sauce.” He remembers his first visit to Chez Panisse and the surprise he felt that the waiter offered Tempier by the glass, rather than a wine from nearby Napa Valley. The server explained that their food was inspired by Provence, and that the Tempier would simply work better with those flavors. Chuck was impressed. “From that inspiration came subsequent pairings such as Clos Sainte Magdeleine Cassis Blanc with bouillabaisse and Regaleali Rosato with cioppino. [They] opened a whole new chapter on pairing wines with foods, to a whole new generation of sommeliers and wine lovers.”
These importers also functioned as educators. To many in the industry, this was nearly as important as the wines they brought in. “Before the internet, Terry Theise’s catalog writings were so valuable to sommeliers trying to learn about Germany,” Bobby Stuckey tells me, admitting to stockpiling back issues in his basement. “Terry, even Robert Parker, these guys would do so much research on the region they were reporting on. It was such an essential resource.” Bobby would also track the importers down in person whenever able. “Rudi Wiest was such a road warrior back in the day. He used to come to Aspen every year. It was so hard to acquire information 20 years ago. Imagine going up to Rudi and asking him to explain the Charta system. He would spend so much time with me; he was tireless that way.”
It is possible to overstate the importance of these importers. Aside from encouraging things like not filtering, estate bottling, low SO2 usage, or organic farming, they themselves were not the ones making the wine. Their role was very much one of a middleman. But by shining a light on these brilliant winemakers and undiscovered regions, they helped to usher in a new era of wine appreciation in America. And it almost goes without saying that their work set up the fledgling sommelier profession for success. Imagine a wine list today that didn’t have a Grüner Veltliner, a Cornas, a Muscadet, a Bandol, or at least a grower Champagne listed in its pages!
As Paul Grieco so eloquently puts it, “Not a single sommelier in America, regardless of standing, would be able to achieve a compelling, fun, intriguing, tasty wine selection without the incredible heavy lifting done by these importers. The romantic notion of a somm travelling the wine highways and byways, discovering wine, carrying it back to their humble joints on the back of an Equus africanus asinus named Steve, then serving it to their thirsty guests ended under the reign of Queen Victoria or Richard Nixon. At present, we are too damn busy doing what we do, and these incredible importer folks make us look great and talented and insightful. Personally speaking, that is a hard task.”
“I started my business in 1972 with $5,000 I borrowed from my girlfriend,” Kermit Lynch tells me with a twinkling smile. His wiry frame threatens to disappear inside the swollen cushions of his green leather sofa, a glass of Corsican wine in his hand. “Though I ended up owing her $8,000,” he confesses, laughing. “Things came up!”
I laugh with him. Partly because it’s hard not to—Kermit’s gaiety is rather catching—but partly out of incredulity. It’s already difficult to imagine a time before sommeliers Instagrammed Raveneau on the regular or mounted empty bottles of Gentaz on their mantles like the stuffed heads of rare animals. But to start it all with such a sum, small by even 1970s standards? Impossible.
Kermit Lynch, one of America’s best-known names in fine European wine, hails from the San Joaquin Valley—the source of a considerable amount of California plonk. He made his way to Berkeley during his college years and never left. An aspiring musician, he lived in a closet-sized apartment and tended small jobs, even selling newspapers on a corner, to stay afloat. He did time in a couple of wine shops and liked the work but couldn’t make employment stick. “This was the Nixon oil recession, the dollar was really weak, and people were firing, not hiring,” he says.
His girlfriend at the time suggested he open a store of his own and lent him the startup funds. “With that money, I had first and last months’ rent, all the fees, phones, a paint job, and 33 cases of wine that I just spread around the room.” This unceremonious arrangement of wine on the floor would become something of a signature for Kermit, who didn’t install racks until the year 2000. “The customers had to bend over, which was against every retail rule. But I thought seeing the cases would encourage them to buy the whole thing.”
The poor economy was forcing businesses of all sorts to close, and his competitors were discounting their wares. Nonetheless, Kermit Lynch, broke before he even started, opened his doors. What was going to set him apart, he believed, was a simple vow. “Right away, I started a mailing list, and I promised to never sell a wine I hadn’t personally tasted and approved.” While today that hardly sounds like a radical proposition, at the time it was a point of departure, differentiating his from the other stores with their indifferent selections. It was also the beginning of the first-person narrative that would trace his career. The customer was invited along, but this was Kermit’s ride.
Initially, Kermit worked with California wines and a handful of imports brought in by others such as Frank Schoonmaker. His favorites among the local producers included Ridge, Calera, Chalone, and Gemello, but he had a special affection for Swan. “To me, the greatest California winemaker of all time was Joe Swan.” The two men became close friends, despite their 25-year age difference. “Joe had a cellar full of French stuff. I’d go over to his place and we would drink until we were pissing wine.” Swan passed away in 1989, but Kermit still boasts a considerable amount of Swan in his cellar. “I had a 1979 Zinfandel last week. It was tremendous. I doubt any French ‘79 in my collection is even close to as youthful.”
After only a few months of buying, Kermit felt there was room for more high-quality foreign wine. “Wine was successful in the Bay Area, but all the stores sold were Bordeaux, Sauternes, and négociant Burgundy. That was about it for imported wines, other than maybe a straw flask Chianti.” He soon began traveling to Europe, and the first thing he discovered was how much he had to learn. “In the beginning, I didn’t know anything about food and wine.” Laughing, he recounts the first time he was served oysters in France. New to the ways of the bivalve, he picked up his knife and fork and set to cutting. This horrified a passing waiter who hissed in French, “Massacre!” Kermit admits, “I learned to be the last to reach for my fork to watch what everyone else did with theirs.”
A critical year for Kermit was 1975. Now secure in his table manners, he visited André Noblet at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Noblet, cellarmaster at the venerable estate from 1946 to 1985, confessed that in his estimation, the greatest winemaker in Burgundy was Hubert de Montille. Intrigued by this glowing review, Kermit booked an appointment for the very next day. What he tasted there in Volnay changed his life forever.
Kermit was floored by the quality of the de Montille wines. “These were startlingly different from the other Burgundies I had tasted. Most of what was on the US market at the time was heavily chaptalized.” Lithe but with intensity, the de Montille wines dazzled the young American with their complexity and bouquet. “I felt such a thrill tasting those wines. I said to myself, this guy’s the Joe Swan of Burgundy!”
Kermit resolved to import the wine himself, despite his lack of both a license and mastery of the French language. To set the terms of their arrangement, the two men drove to the tourist office in Beaune and consulted a translator. Frank Schoonmaker generously agreed to import the wines while Kermit applied for a permit and consolidated the de Montille cases in one of his containers. While waiting for the shipment to arrive, Kermit pre-sold the entire lot. He was convinced his purchase was going to change the world and was extremely anxious to receive it. When the wines landed a few months later, however, something was wrong.
“They were nothing like I tasted! I got angry—I thought maybe he was trying to trick me, and sent something else.” Kermit called de Montille to express his frustration, but de Montille insisted the wines were as promised. The problem, it seemed, was the long boat trip across the Panama Canal and up the West Coast. Kermit hadn’t even thought to ask if the containers were refrigerated. “He told me to let them sit three or four months and they might come back. They did, but not all the way.”
This experience prompted Kermit to make another oath: to only ship in reefers (refrigerated containers), no matter how inexpensive the wine. As with the promise to his mailing list, this set him apart. It also caused him massive frustration. Kermit quickly learned that the temperature control problem extended beyond the wines’ time on the sea; he also had to account for time spent on the ground. “Truckers couldn’t stand the reefers because the noise they made drowned out the radio, and so they would unplug them. I would tell the winemakers, ‘If the truck shows up and the reefer isn’t plugged in, don’t give them the wine!’ Additionally, as France didn’t allow trucks on the road on Sundays, sometimes a container might be parked on the side of the highway for a whole day, roasting in the sun.”
Kermit’s relationship with de Montille was a catalyst and set him up as something of a Burgundy specialist early on. Through him, Kermit was connected to several like-minded producers, generally small in scale, family-run, and contemplating US export for the first time. Each of these winemakers then introduced Kermit to their own network of friends and colleagues, and the portfolio grew accordingly. Among his first wave of Burgundy brands were Aubert de Villaine’s Bouzeron, Coche-Dury, Raveneau, Chevillon, François Jobard, and Michel Colin. Kermit eventually ran so much business through Beaune that he opened an office there. Becky Wasserman, a Burgundy resident and close friend of Kermit’s, was on hand to help him put out fires. Today, she is a significant importer in her own right (though technically she’s an exporter, as she lives in Burgundy).
Back in California, Kermit’s clients were thrilled. “You have to understand, at that time, stores were selling Échezeaux from a négociant for $60 to 65 a bottle. But I was able to sell directly imported domaine Burgundies for $5 or $6, and the quality was vastly superior.” Consumers weren’t the only interested parties; restaurants soon came knocking. To accommodate this new demand, Kermit opened a wholesale arm of the business. One of his first and most important clients was Alice Waters.
Waters had opened her Berkeley institution Chez Panisse in 1971 to great acclaim. Her focus on seasonal, local ingredients and a lighter style of cooking ran contrary to the roasts and heavy sauces of the day. Kermit’s wines, which tended to hail from small family farms and be made in a lively and transparent style, were the perfect accompaniment. In many senses, the cuisine of Alice Waters and the wines of Kermit Lynch were part of the same zeitgeist—a movement away from impact and toward finesse. This was an evolution of the American table, certainly, but can also be thought of as a big turn of the wheel of taste that continues to revolve today.
Kermit claims that he and Waters started the rosé revolution. “Alice’s favorite producer was Tempier. Prior to that, the only rosé we could find around was Lancers.” Kermit credits Tempier’s unique style with the success. “At that time, Tempier was making rosé in big oak foudres that went completely through malo. Other producers were making their rosés and whites with blocked malo, fermented in stainless steel. Californians were not going for that. They weren’t used to the acid, and the blocked malo was too hard and harsh for them.” Even so, for the first few years he claims he gave away more bottles than he sold. “Of course, now there’s not enough to go around!”
Kermit traveled with increasing frequency to Europe. Occasionally, he brought along his friend and mentor, Joe Swan. “I couldn’t afford first class, but I’d have Chez Panisse make us a lunch to take on the plane, and we’d open some wine,” Kermit fondly recalls, then complains, “Today, you can’t bring on a bottle of shampoo!” Travel conditions aren’t all that has changed in the time since Kermit’s early days on the road; tastings have modified as well. “When I’d show up at a winery—be it in Italy, France, Germany—we’d start with the new vintage, then slowly go back in time. Producers wanted to show what their wine could do with age, because that added value back then. That simply doesn’t happen anymore.” He pauses and adds, "Also, I had to do it without GPS or a cell phone. No way to call someone and tell them you were running late. Tell that to your young sommelier readers!"
By the end of the 1970s, Kermit’s business was booming. He had expanded to Italy, partly out of a desire to eat there, and was soon importing Vietti and Aldo Conterno. In the store, domestic wines and products from other portfolios shared shelf space with his own imports, but in 1981, he decided to end all that, largely because of Joe Swan. Just prior, at André Tchelistcheff’s urging, Swan had ripped out his old Zinfandel and replaced it with Pinot Noir. Kermit took issue with this, as he felt the Zinfandel was Swan’s best wine and didn’t want to carry the Pinot. Rather than alienate his friend, he simply stopped selling anything he wasn’t directly importing. “There is an implication out there that me dropping California was a condemnation of the wines, but that’s not it at all. Some of the best wines in my life are old California wines. I just needed to focus on my own company. I also needed to solve the Joe Swan problem.”
With his portfolio narrowed to a fine point, Kermit began to open other markets, starting with New York, DC, and Chicago in the early 1990s. He also diversified his business interests, which expanded the reach of his personal brand. Famously, in 1988 he released Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France. This book, with its smart, engaging prose, might be the most influential and enduring part of Kermit’s legacy. There are relatively few narrative books on wine, and Adventures on the Wine Route is still held aloft as the gold standard. He also makes wine, sort of: he recently bought into Les Pallières in Gigondas and has directed the production of Kermit Lynch-branded blends for many years.
We sit in the living room of his large Berkeley home. It’s winter, and a fire is blazing. The spacious interior with its wood-paneled walls might look academic if it were less orderly, but every object appears deliberately placed. Inside our bodies is the fruit of Kermit’s long professional labor, an old-vine white blend from Domaine Comte Abbatucci, but we are surrounded by the artifacts of his other creative pursuits. A telecaster guitar slouches in its stand in a corner, a tiny practice amp its cubic sidekick. Books line the shelves all around us, and a large framed painting of a sprinkles-covered donut dominates the wall behind my head. This image, bold and silly, is the cover art for an old, privately released album of Kermit’s. The man himself sits across the coffee table from me. His gray hair is close-cropped and neat, and his red, thick-rimmed glasses provide the only color on his otherwise dark outfit. One of his ears is significantly larger than the other.
Kermit gets reflective. “I’ve always been a real private person. I wanted to be a musician, but it was uncomfortable. I had, I think, a type of stage fright. But getting into the wine business, I had no choice but to get at ease being around other people.” He sighs and smiles. “The conviviality of the wine industry really drew me in and took me out of myself.” Then, “I created a family, as much as a portfolio of wines.”
In 2015, Kermit sold a part of the business to his general manager. He now spends half the year in his home in the south of France, not far from Bandol. I ask about his own current level of involvement in the company. “I am officially the chairman of the board, semi-retired,” he admits, smirking. “What was it George Bush called himself? The Decider? That’s me.”
And what does he do with his semi-retirement? “Well, I like writing a lot. I just finished a novel. It’s sort of like my fictional Adventures on the Wine Route. Almost everything happens at the table. The main character may bear resemblance to a particular wine importer,” he says, gesturing slyly to himself, “but is much luckier in love than he ever was.”
“Like I said, fiction,” he laughs, sparkling.
Before Kermit, there was Martine.
Her full name is Martine Saunier, but like so many iconic women, she is known primarily by her first. Now that we’ve met, I like to imagine her name followed by an exclamation point: Martine! A shout, or maybe a declaration. An entire sentence in a single word.
This is not to say Martine lacks subtly; she is, in fact, quite refined. But her tiny frame is packed with intensity and her life with intense actions. It has been that way since the beginning.
“I was born in Paris, between the wars. By age three and a half, I was going to restaurants and could hold a fork and knife. I could eat food like the adults.” She cuts into her appetizer as if to prove the point. “They would give me a wine glass to drink from. If it had water, I would start to cry and ask for wine. And if they put a drop of red in it, I would be happy.”
We are meeting for lunch near her home base in Marin, where she has lived ever since arriving in the US. Martine is wearing a floral blouse, small tasteful jewelry, and lipstick; her hair is short and stylish. I feel slovenly by comparison, brutally American with my un-ironed shirt and smudged eyeglasses. This is the woman who brought us Rayas, Leroy, I think. My awe deepens.
Martine was still quite young when World War II began, and her father, a veteran of the first war, left to join the fighting. To spare her from the difficulties in Paris, Martine was sent to live with her aunt in Burgundy for a few years. She thrived in the countryside. “We lived very well. We had cows, horses, a big vegetable garden, chickens, rabbits. Life was good. We didn’t feel the squeeze of the war.” There she learned to butcher animals, churn butter, and—most important to her future—make and appreciate wine.
“I remember the crushing,” she starts. “As long as I worked during harvest, I didn’t have to go to bed. And I tasted everything!” By age 10, Martine was conversant in malolactic fermentation; in the same year, across the world, most Californian winemakers still hadn’t heard of it. “I used the tastevin owned by my grandparents, and I knew when it was a good wine.”
Later, Martine moved to her grandmother’s house in Paris. The city was still occupied by the Germans, and the situation was tense. Her previous bountiful life on the farm made the transition all the more acute. “In Paris, I was put in a private school. We had nothing to eat. I was starved; I became like this.” She holds up a knife, dangling the blade between two pinched fingers. “I remember the soup at the school would be clear water with one carrot and a nugget of beef that you couldn’t chew. Every day we got a vitamin C biscuit.” When the Americans finally arrived to liberate Paris, Martine was elated, and went to their camp to thank them. Her neighbors invited some of the soldiers over for dinner. Martine was struck by the young, handsome servicemen. “To this day, I can still remember their names.”
Years later, Martine herself became an American. In 1964, at age 30, she married a radiologist and moved to Mill Valley, California. There, her social circle consisted mostly of doctors, who drank wine with dinner. “They would only have California Cabernet, which of course I tried.” Martine goes on to joke, “But they would start with two martinis first. So they would jump from martini to Martini.” Because she was French, the doctors all wanted her opinion on whatever they drank, and their favorite sport was serving her blind. According to Martine, she would always guess the wine correctly.
Of all the California wares she sampled, her favorite producer was Beaulieu Vineyards. One day, she made the trek to Napa Valley and was received by the winemaker, André Tchelistcheff. Though Russian, he had been educated in France, and had cultivated a lifelong love of French wine. Martine recalls, “I told him, ‘I adore your Cabernet, but my real love is Pinot Noir.’ The only good one at the time was Hanzell. So he took me outside and said, ‘This soil is not right for Pinot Noir. It is too warm. If you need Pinot Noir, you have to get it from your own country,’” she pauses. “Around this same time, my doctor friends were asking me to find some French wine for them, so I went to San Francisco with a corkscrew in my pocket.”
In those days, the only Burgundy that Martine could find in the Bay Area had been shipped in cask to England and bottled by Avery’s. Its journey from there to the United States was certainly harrowing and, Martine suspected, carelessly handled. “Once, I bought some Santenay, and when I got home, I saw the corks were popping out and the wine was cooked. I took it back and complained, but the store owner fought me.” Later, she met a German man who was importing European wine into California. He told Martine that he brought in the large négociant Patriarche, who was making the finest wines in Burgundy. “I looked at him and said, ‘I doubt that.’” She bought a case, hated it, and told him so. “He was shocked and yelled, ‘How dare you?’ and I said, ‘Well, you asked my opinion.’"
The above exchanges represent something of a theme in Martine’s career. Time after time, a man would question her abilities, she would prove herself, and the doubter would end up gobsmacked. There was the importer who criticized her for buying an expensive Châteauneuf-du-Pape, only to have her sell it out in record time. The Santenay producer who blinded her on his wines, which she had never tried, and chided her, “Don’t give a silly answer.” She nailed the vintage. The Chassagne vigneron who looked her over disapprovingly when she entered his cellar. And yet, somehow, she never faltered. “I was the first woman on the market like this, but I didn’t know it. Being raised in a winery, I felt very comfortable; nobody could trap me in ignorance. I never stopped to feel insecure about the fact that I was the only woman, so for me, there was no intimidation.”
Often, the men that she bested or berated ended up her allies. That German importer with the forgettable Burgundy was Chris Hildebrandt of Chrissa Imports. After Martine dismissed his wines, she lamented that no one was bringing over the small farmer wines that she knew from her childhood. At that time, most Burgundy growers sold their wine in cask to négociants. Sadly, this was the way of much French wine back then. Only the very top estates bottled all of their production, with the obvious exception of Champagne, which needed to be in bottle in order to age en tirage. “He looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you go find them for me?’” She pauses dramatically, “And that was how it started.”
Martine flew from Oakland to Amsterdam and bought a tiny Volkswagen, which she used to scoot around France. On this first trip, in 1969, Martine struck out in Burgundy so headed to Beaujolais, where she picked up Paul Janin, and then continued to the Southern Rhône. She had neither contacts nor a plan, but, being bold, fortune favored her. At a local restaurant, she asked the waitress for a nice Côtes du Rhône blanc. “The wine she brought was Fonsalette. I loved it and asked for the address.”
The road to Rayas was unpaved and bore no sign. After several wrong turns, Martine arrived, only to be told that M. Louis Reynaud was napping and not to be disturbed. “Two hours later, a little man, a gentleman, in a vest and horn rim glasses, led me to the winery.” Inside, cases of unsold wine reached the ceiling. The wine glass he handed her was missing its bottom, so she couldn’t set it down. He solemnly poured the 1959 and 1961. “It was all so primitive,” she remembers, “and yet I’d never tasted anything more extraordinary.”
Martine ordered 25 cases of each wine and negotiated a price of $2.50 a bottle. When she returned, Hildebrandt was furious. “He said to me, ‘You realize that’s what Châteauneuf-du-Pape retails for around here, don’t you?’” He warned her that whatever didn’t sell, she would have to buy herself. “And so I started Martine’s.” She called some of the doctors and lawyers in her Rolodex and sold a handful of cases. When word of the exceptional wine spread, the direction of communication reversed. Martine stopped making outgoing calls and started managing incoming orders.
Martine with Pierre Morey and his father
Over the next few years, Martine grew her portfolio slowly, adding wine from Pouilly-Fuissé, Vouvray, Cahors, and many other corners of France. Good quality Côte de Nuits, however, eluded her. But that would change in the mid-1970s.
In 1973, one of her producers phoned. He and a handful of other winemakers were heading to California on a trip arranged by the British merchant Avery’s. “He said to me, ‘We have a man who is on his own, very shy, can we bring him to your home?’” This timid man was none other than Henri Jayer. Martine and Jayer struck up a friendship, and she went to visit him the following year. “In 1974, the Burgundians were in big trouble because the press had bashed the 1972 vintage. Jayer had cases and cases of 1972 packed, ready to go, that his British importer had cancelled.” She pauses and says, in her characteristically straightforward manner, “I tried it, I loved it, and I bought it.” When Martine returned to California, she found herself once more in trouble. “Hildebrandt looked at me and said, ‘Again?’” But she sold it all and continued to represent Jayer thereafter.
Then came 1975, a difficult year in the wine trade. A string of bad vintages coupled with overly ambitious futures pricing caused a crash in the Bordeaux market. Because of this, Martine’s importer announced he was not going to pay her producers. Martine hung on long enough to ensure her people got their money, then broke off and found a new partner, a German doctor in San Francisco with a hobby import company.
“This was 1977. My marriage was falling apart, and I had never really worked the market before.” With no more access to the Chrissa salesforce, she had to hit the streets herself. At first, she focused on the French restaurants in the Bay Area, but soon expanded to other cuisines and cities. “Between 1977 and 1978, I sold all that I had brought in, over half a million dollars of wine. I decided it was time for me to fly.” I pause to think about this accomplishment. Having sold wine for several years, I know how difficult it can be. And to achieve what Martine did alone, with neither support staff nor buyer relationships, 30 years prior, is astonishing. I try to communicate my regard, but Martine is not interested in being fawned over.
Deep down, she resented the idea of a partner; Martine didn’t want anyone feeling like they could tell her where to go and what to buy. The problem was, she had no money. “My divorce was final, and the only thing I had kept was the house. I decided to refinance it.” This strategy won her $80,000 of capital, and on Independence Day 1979, the first container of wine to belong solely to her hit land.
Prior to her life in wine, Martine had worked in public relations for the airline industry. As such, she understood the importance of the press, and a handful of early articles helped her fledgling business get established. Robert Parker had founded The Wine Advocate the year before she branched out on her own. One day, he called and invited her to lunch. A few months later, he published an article dedicated to her portfolio. “He called me ‘a stylish French woman!’” she recalls, bouncing a little in her seat. The other articles of import were effectively a collective salivation over Henri Jayer and his 1978s. “Those wines were like boom,” Martine sounds, pretending to shoot herself in the head with an impish smile.
It was the clamor over Jayer’s ‘78s that pushed Martine to expand into other states. For years afterward, she crisscrossed the country by herself, balancing multiple markets while distributing her own wines inside California. Ever independent, she didn’t take on full-time help until 1984. Her business grew a little each year, and by the time she sold to fellow Frenchman Gregory Castells in 2012, she had 18 employees, was in 30 states, and was self-distributing in both New York and California. Though she remains on hand as a consultant, the past several years have seen her busy pursuing what is arguably her other calling—show business. In conjunction with director David Kennard, Martine has produced a trio of films: A Year in Burgundy, A Year in Champagne, and A Year in Port. She makes appearances in all three, her personality, both ebullient and strict, on full display.
Our lunch is winding down. We spend the last leg of the conversation discussing the changing wine landscape. About the proliferation of tiny importers and the rise of sommelier culture. About how there’s more ways to market than ever, and whether people even make marketing plans anymore. Our coffees, ordered several minutes prior, are nowhere to be seen. The large dining space, somehow both barnlike and austere, is very nearly devoid of customers. Servers flit about in the periphery but none look our way. Martine, frustrated, raises her slender arm in the air and waves her white napkin frantically. In any other circumstance, this gesture would have offered surrender. Here, it implied the opposite.
“You can’t believe the changes in the market I have seen,” Martine continues, once the wayward coffee is claimed. “Everything is different. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, there were the two coasts, and in the middle of the country people drank Coca-Cola and milk. Nobody knew about Jayer. We didn’t have the internet. Back then, the men were used to liquor, then they moved on to strong California wines. The ladies liked sweet wines, then oaky Chardonnays. Now I get people coming up to me at tastings and asking specifically for unoaked wines.” She sits back suddenly in her seat and lifts her hands in wonder. “Can you imagine seeing these changes? It’s a whole new chapter,” she breathes, chest puffed with pride, “and I got to help turn the pages.”
Photos from the interviewees' collections. Tremendous thanks to Kermit Lynch and Martine Saunier for their participation in this article!
Very well written article and engaging historically. Great Job Kelli
3rd read through already and each time i am left smiling and wistful thinking of sitting with one of these great humans.
Thanks for joining, John. Welcome to the party.
Great insight, Kelli, thank you! I can only imagine Martine with the white napkin flagging down the coffee.
Kelli White, who are you? I read two of your articles tonight (just joined) and both fabulous. You did in! I feel like em there.