As summer winds down, there’s still time to think about changing your life and leaving the fast lane of finance for the slow pleasures of winemaking.
Former Merrill Lynch & Co. securities trainee Ray Walker, now a terroir-obsessed expat in Burgundy, did it on a shoestring, and, and thanks to a run of astonishing luck, succeeded beyond his most far-fetched dreams.
In 2009, at the age of 28, he became the first American to make wine with grapes from the famous Le Chambertin vineyard, whose red was prized by Napoleon.
Over glasses of Domaine Pierre Gelin Gevrey-Chambertin Clos de Meixvelle, at Bar Pleiades in New York, Walker recounts his tale of how he arrived in Beaune from California with little money and ended up making premiers and grands crus reds under the Maison Ilan label he owns with his wife, Christian.
“I love being the underdog,” Walker says. “Besides, I had no back-up plan.”
Now 32, Walker has chronicled his winemaking adventure in “The Road to Burgundy: The Unlikely Story of an American Making Wine and a New Life in France,” published last month.
His charming story fits in the same genre as “Under the Tuscan Sun” -- this time for the wine crowd.
Tall, lean, and soft-spoken, Walker seems pretty humble about his accomplishments. His extremely polite, almost naive manner doesn’t hide a dogged determination, warmth, and passion for red Burgundy, essential qualities for an outsider trying to prise coveted grapes from a vigneron in this close-knit region.
Growing up in a non-wine-drinking household in Oakland, California, he worked for the family real-estate business before going into finance.
He fell hard for wine on a trip to Italy with Christian, then his fiancee, in early 2005. However it was his first sip of Burgundy, a 2002 Domaine des Comte Lafon Meursault Clos de la Barre, six weeks later at a San Francisco tasting that really stunned him.
“I thought the white was good, and the red Burgundies poured after it drove me insane,” he recalls.
Walker began memorizing names and locations of Burgundy’s hundreds of vineyards by studying antique maps in old wine books, from which he also extracted very traditional ideas of terroir and winemaking.
At 26, after just seven months in finance, he left behind the suit and tie and bad office coffee to spend a harvest as a cellar rat helping make pinot noir at Freeman winery in Sonoma.
Less than a year later, he headed for Burgundy with money raised through wine forums and $20,000 from a generous backer, and fumbling French learned watching films like Jean-Luc Godard’s “A Bout de Souffle.” His mission: acquire a few barrels’ worth of village-level grapes.
“There are certain things that call out to you and you have no choice but to stop everything and change your life,” he says earnestly.
After months of discouragement, fortune smiled on him. A broker offered him grapes from grand cru vineyard Charmes-Chambertin, and from Le Chambertin itself. The cost? $130,000. Luckily Walker’s generous backer sent him a check to cover it.
Thinking it presumptuous to decide what Chambertin should taste like, he opted for non-interventionist winemaking. “I figured the less I did, the better,” he says.
The first year he made 2,800 bottles, selling 70 percent of them after posting what he was doing on a wine forum. In year two, he grossed 1.1 million euros.
This year he expects to make 13,000 bottles of four grands crus and seven premiers crus.
A couple of years ago I tasted a wine from Walker’s first vintage, the harmonious 2009 Maison Ilan Charmes-Chambertin in Burgundy. It was an earthy, generous wine with hints of black cherries.
His bright, striking 2010 Maison Ilan Morey-Saint-Denis Les Monts Luisants premier cru ($125) is rich and plush with pure ripe red fruit laced with smoky notes.
I recommend skimming the first 100 or so pages of Walker’s book. Then you can focus on the best-written and most fascinating part starting with Chapter 10 where he’s in France tracking down grapes, finding a cellar, and finagling his way through the convoluted French bureaucracy for setting up a business.
I won’t spoil things by telling you how he solves the problem of getting 11 barrels of wine weighing 600 pounds (272 kilos) each down into his new cellar in the middle of the night.
Walker’s wine story has a classic fairy tale ending -- at least so far. All but one of his vineyards even escaped the hail that ravaged Burgundy last month.
“I’ve always had people who were watchful over me,” he says, “I’m lucky they’ve supported my dreams.”
Of course, it helps that his wines are pretty stellar, too.
His eight wines from the 2011 vintage arrive on shelves this fall.
“The Road to Burgundy: The Unlikely Story of An American Making Wine and A New Life in France” (320 pages) by Ray Walker is published by Gotham in the U.S. at $26 or 17 pounds in the U.K. To buy the book in North America, click here.
For more information on Walker’s wines, see http://www.maison-ilan.com.
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