He shall henceforth be referred to as he refers to himself – Bobby. As far as I know, “Robert” was solely a feature of his importer’s strip label.
Bobby Kacher, 'Then' and 'Now'
Bobby got me my first job in the wine business, with a company whom he supplied. I knew a decent beginner’s amount about wine, and absolutely nothing about the business of selling it, buying it, or how any of the pieces fit together. So I watched Bobby to see how things were done, and much of what I observed was enormously valuable, and has endured.
Bobby was talented, determined, and markedly successful. If you don’t remember him or the impact he had, that has something to do with the way he retired, rather abruptly, and with no evident wish to preserve his portfolio in the form in which he assembled it. He lives on in the aforementioned strip labels and in the memories of those of us old enough to recall when his star was perhaps the brightest in the importer firmament.
He was championed by Robert Parker, as many of us were, but I always had a sense the two men were simpatico in most of their fundamental views of wine. Conspicuous success often attracts conspicuous jealousy, and Kacher and Parker’s views made them easy targets for critiquing. I had a few of my own quibbles with elements of those views, but I also felt that (too) many criticisms were made by people far less serious or knowledgeable than Kacher or Parker. Be that as it may, Bobby was a lightning rod if for no other (valid) reason than his definite points of view and his sometimes categorical ways of insisting on them.
I’m not going to litigate them again here, except to the extent it becomes unavoidable when Bobby gets too provocative. This is an interview with a man I like and respect. A small but vivid minority of his portfolio was, let’s say, controversial, but the majority of the wines he offered were simply outstanding and tended to punch above their weight. (My own desire to offer everyday wines of higher than “everyday” quality came directly from observing Bobby doing the same.)
He and I had – and maintain – a friendly disagreement about the significance of terroir. My view was influenced by my formative immersion in Rieslings gown in German soil. His frame of references were different. But as we were chatting outside the formal “interview” we found ourselves agreeing on a phenomenon we’d both observed: Wine growers, when they are with their colleagues, talk mostly about what they do and not about the things they talk with customers or writers about. The mechanics of the work are what interests them when they’re with one another. Bobby, observing this, repeated the following anecdote (names omitted for obvious reasons!)….
“You learn a lot by listening. I remember in January 1992 at [redacted] his wines were very hazy in cask. I was there with [two prominent names] and [one of them] was quite concerned. [Our hero] asked about whether he used enzymes at vinification, and he wasn’t quite sure what he meant. [The other guy] said that was one of the first things he learned when working at [biggest among big names!]. A package of powdered proteinacious enzymes were added to each fermenter during macération. These enzymes extract color from the skins, and precipitate the hazy proteins in the process. Later that day we went to [yet another huge name] for annual tasting and had the same conversation.. [Huge-name] said these are things you don’t discuss in front of journalists, buyers and strangers.”
Indeed! We’ll get into this again presently….
TERRY: When did you actually retire from the wine business?
BOBBY: I had a buy out arrangement with my partner that ran through 2016 and finished in 2017. I was turning 66 years old.
I started Robert Kacher Selections in 1984.
TT: Why did you retire from the wine business?
BK: Well, that’s complicated, there’s really isn’t one answer.
With the way I selected cuvées and wines, it required a lot of time, attention and care. So that meant being in France 4-5 months a year, often more. I loved the work, but I was away from my son too much after my divorce. I was on the road for 33 years and that was grueling.
TT: Tell me about it. My schedule was less grueling than yours and I still got fried. What do you miss most about it?
BK: Being part of a generation of wine professionals that made a big difference in the style and quality of wines produced is something to be proud of. I miss the growers of course, immensely. They were friends. and as I stepped back many were passing the estates on to the next generation.
TT: What do you miss least about it?
BK: I do not miss the stress involved in the currency fluctuations and the financial risk and obligations. The RKS company sold wine in a lot of places and for years in Japan too. So we had account receivables all over the place. We also participated in the production of wines at several estates, so we bought our own barrels yearly and we invested in that process. In short, we were deeply involved and hopefully it showed in the quality of the wines. It was definitely a constant work in progress.
TT: Do you still get to Europe regularly to keep up friendships with your growers? (Do you still think of them as “your” growers?)
BK: I do get to Europe, but less often. We communicate by phone regularly. I really don’t look at the growers today as mine, and am flattered that my best colleagues now represent many of them today.
TT: Would it be correct to observe that, all things being equal, you’re more of a Rhône man than a Burgundy man?
BK: Both The Rhône and Burgundy brought RKS a lot of attention.
The work we did in Burgundy was huge, and the region was in transition, and needed a lot of attention. Both portfolios became an all star list of producers. Our growers would taste together very often, exchanged information and even shared equipment. It was an amazing generation in European wine, as you well know.
With a Burgundy portfolio that included: Ambroise, H. Boillot, J.J. Confuron, Chopin Groffier, C. Dugat, Jayer Gilles, Lecheneaut, A. Morot, M. Morey, D. Mortet, N. Rossignol, Serafin, Pommier and Cordier… that was prodigious amount of work and prestige.
My Rhône Valley grower portfolio included; Michel and Stephane Ogier in Cote Rôtie, plus the Jamet brothers since 1979 vintage! Albert and Philippe Belle in Larnage, Crozes Hermitage, Pascal Perrier St Joseph, Domaine Gramenon until Philippe Laurent died.
Domaine Brusset in the very early days and Domaine Santa Duc in Gigondas. In the beginning in Chateauneuf du Pape Les Cailloux Andre Brunel. And the Sabons at Mont Olivet. Later I added the wines of Francoise Mayard, with her great site in Courthezon. Some of the most fun was in Nimes on the other side of the Rhône! With Cassagne, Campuget , Bressades, Carlot, Guiot and D’Or et de Gueules!
I had a rustic apartment in Gigondas for a few years that I rented from the Brusset family. Laurent wasn’t even a teenager then. So, that was a great place to be in the mid1980’s. I lived across the square from Yves Gras, of Santa Duc. That was an amazing period of exploration and discovery
TT: I always supposed your work was much more technical than that of other importers – certainly more than mine.
BK: Terry I was around for a long time, and 4 to 6 months a year in France built lots of credibility. I was the importer of record with a great portfolio. I was the American importer that brought 75 Americans on tour every year. Burgundy is very incestuous and small. And of course Parker visited my growers yearly, then (Pierre) Rovani and (Steve) Tanzer, etc.
TT: I wonder if you’re being a little too modest. There’s something you were rarely accused of! But you were hands-on in a truly unusual way. You’d have to use a lot of tact and respect to encourage growers to listen to and work with you to improve their wines. I lost a couple agencies when the guy thought I was “intervening” too much. (None of them went on to great success in the U.S., as it happened…) Paint me a picture of how you did things.
BK: I was certainly more active making my own cuvées than most of the importers. And I spent more time in France on the production side I would say. With my partner Richard Watson running the office in DC, I was free to do what loved most, being in the cellar. (He just recently passed away, he was a very special person.)
I always arrived in France November 1st to evaluate the harvest early, and make pre-selections, this was to sort out the harvest. This was especially important in the southern Rhône. There was a great advantage to taste the harvest tank by tank before any wines were assembled. Then you could separate the best lots. I would stay in France until Thanksgiving, and return home for my favorite holiday in DC. I returned to France January 1st to do it all over again. I lived life by a calendar, dictated by the wines and their evolution. My January trip would include buyers coming to taste, a rather significant tour of clients. The winter trip ended at the end of February. With total exhaustion!!
TT: When you were an importer, did you feel you had a distinctive style in your portfolio?
BK: Not particularly one style. My Rosés had to be impeccably fresh, and my reds were made in a more reductive style you could say?
TT: How would you differentiate it from the styles of your leading “competitors,” such as Rosenthal, Weygant, Lynch, etc. And was your style more distinctive in your red selections, your white selections, or neither?
BK: Don’t know! Each wine had its own personality?
TT: Fair enough. I may just take a stab at it in a few minutes. Another question: What region did you most enjoy doing business in? Not because of the quality of the wines, but because of the “vibe” and the friendliness?
BK: Burgundy in the winter after the harvest was cold and could be wet and dreary. The vibe in the south was warm, there was sunshine down there as well.
TT: If you look at the whole arc of your career, do you feel your tastes changed or evolved (or developed) over those years? If so, how?
BK: I’m not sure, but I suppose I liked wines that were slightly more elegant! But I always preferred wines that tasted young when they were young. Therefore concentrated.
TT: As a drinker, do you have an upward limit on alcohol-by-volume whereby you usually don’t enjoy wines above –X%–? (My own limit is 14%, lower than most peoples’).
BK: depending on the region? Chateauneuf might need 15% to allow sur maturité. But I’m glad growers are harvesting riper in general. When a vineyard carries less volume, the fruit will ripen!! Lower yields equals more flavor.
TT: You were associated with a preference for new oak in those days. Was this fair, was it a caricature, or a little of each?
BK: I visited top estates early on that made prestigious wines!
They were never vinified in dirty old barrels. Old barrels delivered VA and unclean flavors that generally contributed to faster evolution and decaying phenolics. I’m talking about red wines, and mainly Burgundy. You can’t talk about or criticize the use of new wood without understanding the enology behind it. Most of my critics of new casks were too cheap to buy them, and it made for a great debate. Ask De Villaine to make the wines at Romanée Conti in old used barrels! That would never happen. It also becomes a terroir discussion. Keep the boys down home on the other side of the tracks mentality!!!
TT: Can you elaborate on this perhaps? I interpret you saying that someone with the “wrong” terroir was shoved down, whereas that person often over-achieved and made superb wine because of commitment, which in those cases was more important than having “prestige” terroirs? Accurate?
BK: The use of air dried new barrels provides an exchange of unused wood tannins which help stabilize the phenolics, the color and all solid material in the skins ( or polyphenols) will be fixed!
This happens quickly, and remember in Burgundy the wines go through malolactic fermentation in barrel. Pinot Noir fermented in new cask will almost always have a fresher less evolved color. The belief is they will live longer and remain fresh. Pinot Noir is a unique variety in Burgundy, as it typically has a low pH or high acidity, even when quite ripe. This supports the process.
TT: Yes, but I’m not sure you addressed my question. Can we take another stab at it? You say that low yields bring more flavor. Can this idea be taken too far? Can it preclude clarity and transparency?
BK: That “clarity and transparency” means what? I don’t believe low yields can hurt quality, but over extraction could be a problem. An overextended cold soak, combined with heavy handed punch down might compromise balance. With low yields and ripeness, and a good sorting or triage, you don’t need to force anything in the tank. A few days cold soak is long enough to extract color, it comes easily when the fruit is ripe. Pinot Noir does not support high yield overproduction!
Clarity and transparency, could be a nice descriptive for a pleasant little wine?
TT: I mean clear flavor in a wine whose nuances are easy to taste. In white wine, think of a 1er Cru Chablis, a fine German or Austrian Riesling, a Blanc de Blancs Champagne. These aren’t pleasant “little” wines. ;-)
I often wondered, if a grower was able to reduce yields by, say, 30%, could he charge 30% more for his wines? Even more important, are his wines 30% better, in a way that most wine people could taste? So that’s one thing.
Personally I think density and concentration can be good things for certain wines to be drunk at certain times, but I also find great joy at wines of clear nuance, and have seen that complexity isn’t incompatible with moderate concentration. We may be coming from different places, you and I.
BK: Terry I think your focus and greatest understanding applies to white wine. And often those whites that block Malo. So sometimes we see approach certain vernacular differently
You might say clarity, or transparency and I might say diluted, depending upon the origin of production.
TT: You’re right about that. And right about malo, because as a rule I dealt in wines where it wasn’t called for. This applied less in Austria and much less in Champagne, so I had a pragmatic approach to the question. I further agree that we use language according to our frames of reference, but saying that, I feel I must insist that clarity and transparency can be found in red wines as well as white, and in large-scale wines as well as delicate wines. An example of this might be the many wines coming out of Ribeira Sacra, where even the wines at or above 14% alc can show an almost bracing brilliance and buoyancy.
BK: I’m not saying the descriptive use of clarity or transparency is flowery, but maybe it’s used in place of steely, racy, vibrant or terms describing wines that are pointed and high in acidity. Not complex, or packed with much character?
TT: I think our distinctions are clear now! I might have described your selections as showing density of texture and concentration of flavor, with a preference for firmness and muscle over suppleness and (what they’re now calling) glou-glou. Would you argue with me on that?
BK: No and thank you Terry, I could not have said that better!
TT: Now that you’re a “civilian” once again, what wines do you find yourself drinking most often for pleasure?
BK: I’m actually fishing a lot so cold light beer suits me just fine in the heat. I need something fresh, and higher in acidity. Good Chablis, Loire whites and Champagne. When it is cold outside I turn to reds, northern Rhône and red Burgundy. I eat and drink according to the season. That’s how I do it anyway.
TT: You and I have had different points of view on the question of terroir versus the human influence. If I said that you believe terroir can be misapplied as a romantic justification for mediocre winemaking, would you agree? (I may well have a follow-up question to this one!)
BK: Terroir ugh! The notion is definitely romantic, a sense of place, and there are places that are absolutely more advantageous than others. When it’s raining all summer you want to be planted on the hillside! In a drought that doesn’t work, unless you’re allowed to irrigate. Terroir is only the potential a vineyard has to make fine wine in my opinion! And furthermore if a terroir is not alive it gives nothing. When you ferment a tank of wine using the indigenous yeast from that vineyard that has millions of microorganisms!! That can produce and individual wine, but not guaranteed. What about the date of harvest? And all the factors that man decides? Do you triage your harvest, or destem the fruit? And at what temperature do you ferment? What about macération? Is it cold, warm or punched down, or pumped over? Yes, there are a myriad of variables and I’ve just covered a few.
So when a client visits and asks about a certain flavor they taste, or start using flowery terms to describe what they sense or taste!, well it must certainly be the Terroir, right?
On the other hand, when making a white wine such as dry Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc using indigenous yeast, no barrels etc there can be a sense of place. But add the variables of the harvest date, whole cluster pressing and the fermentation temp you may be able to make many different wines from the same place!
In France, we say c’est L’homme qui fait la différence.
TT: Do you feel the wine community as a whole is developing in a positive direction in the years since you retired? If not, why not?
BK: Yes, it’s not so elite. The new world and its amazing thirst for knowledge has taught the old world to continue what we all started 50 years ago! We, Terry were there to push for better wines, and brought our ideas, we listened to science too! But there’s more to be done.
All in all, Burgundy suffered after the 2nd World War with the advent of agricultural chemicals for weed killing, and fertilizers very high in nitrogen. Rot sprays (poison) produced good looking grapes on the outside, but the fruit was often rotten on the inside. (Geosimin) These poisonous sprays were virtually eliminating or killing the natural microorganisms in the vineyard. These are the indigenous flor or yeasts the give the wines largely their sense of place when used for fermentation. They originate and bloom in the vineyard. With weed killers, many growers just stopped plowing, they vineyards suffered without aeration, and hardened like concrete.
To pioche a vineyard is to eliminate the scraggly vine roots the grow just under the top soil. These surface roots absorb and pump water to the grapes. And prohibit the deep vine roots from searching for nourishment and water. And of course this encourages swelling and rot. Things had to change !! That’s what our generation did.
TT: Looking back are there opportunities (professionally) you missed?
BK: Probably! Yes I could have worked another 10 years and I probably should have.
TT: My sense of you was that you were an excellent salesman who didn’t especially enjoy selling. Accurate?
BK: I sold well out of the need to survive!! The better my wines were the more confident I became. Knowing the origin and understanding of the product is what made me successful.