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An American Abroad in Burgundy

L-R: One of Maison Ilan's grand cru wines; "The Road to Burgundy"; Ray Walker
© Vins de Burgogne/Gotham Books/Christian Walker | L-R: One of Maison Ilan's grand cru wines; "The Road to Burgundy"; Ray Walker
In 2008, Ray Walker threw in his job at Merrill Lynch to become a winemaker. In this extract from "The Road to Burgundy: The Unlikely Story of an American Making Wine and a New Life in France," he recalls the day he found a dream vineyard in Morey.

"We drove through Vosne-Romanée on a tiny dirt road surrounded by vineyards. A plume of dust floated up behind us as his car jostled and shuddered over countless bumps along the way. We passed Vougeot and Chambolle-Musigny, and the scenery was breathtaking. My first glimpses of these vineyards had been through an invisible border; now the color of the leaves seemed so much more vibrant; the smell of the warm soil and lush vegetation more redolent.

Once in Morey, we drove though the center of town and continued on toward the vine-drenched slopes above the village. Each individual parcel of land had its own unique slope, undulations that you could find nowhere else but at sea. We continued to climb up higher until the vines that we had first driven past looked like tiny rows of green dots.

'This is it.' Because the grapes were still available so late in the season—much less available to me—I was preparing myself for the worst. I imagined the vines would be suffering in some way, maybe sick or dehydrated or falling over from negligence. But there was nothing wrong with them; in fact, they were some of the most lush, vibrant and lively vines that I'd seen in Burgundy. The vines and the view looking across to the famous Mount Blanc was a sight unparalleled by anything in the region.

We walked through eight of the forty or so rows. I studied the vines we passed, making sure nothing looked odd—either diseased or vines known as Pinot Droit, which are thought to be clones more fit for higher yields than for quality grapes, versus Pinot Fin, which produces wines of the highest quality. After the widespread root-destroying insect phylloxera decimated Europe's vines in the 1870s, growers had to graft their European vines to American roots, which were somehow immune to the bugs. The new grafts worked perfectly, but there were some growers who chose poor clones that produced huge berries with little character, merely because of the bigger yield.

I was also looking out for vines that were too young. Before the phylloxera outbreak, vines in Burgundy were commonly over a hundred years old, but now you can find more variation, and it is generally thought that vines less than twenty years old, with their shallower roots, haven't been exposed to the complex geological system below. Wines from younger vines can taste "good," but the full potential of the terroir isn't unlocked until the plants reach deep into the underlying soil.

Harvest time in Walker's Les Chaffots vineyard
© Maison Ilan | Harvest time in Walker's Les Chaffots vineyard

But none of this tells you the complete story of what would become harvest. You can have the prettiest vineyard and rule out things like poorly tended vines, subpar clones, and young plants, but until you have wine in a barrel, you have no real idea what you are working with. But standing in Les Chaffots, with the majestic view and beautiful vines, I had a good feeling. It was a good sign that a lot of the vines had a mix of tiny and medium-size grapes, which meant the skins would be nice and thick and most likely add a deep intensity and character to the wine. Big, bloated berries would produce more wine, but volume wasn't what I was after. It was the spirit of a place I wanted to capture, and I felt at home.

'Which section is mine?' I asked Gregory.

He looked confused. 'This is the vineyard that I said you have access to. It's yours.'

'I get it. I get it. But which section would my grapes come from?' I kicked at a little chunk fo limestone before crouching down and grabbing a handful of the soil, squeezing it and then letting it flow out of my palm in the hillside breeze.

'Everywhere.'

'So, it is a mix?' We looked at each other, sure of the lunacy of the other.

'No, this complete section is yours. All that they have is yours.' He spread his arms out in front of the glorious view.

'This whole place?' I waved my hand over the sea of immaculately manicured vines in front of us.

'Yes, this whole place.' He was now using a short-of sign language to further clarify what to him was exceedingly obvious. 'Yours.' While he pointed at me.

Just like that, the landscape broke out from the glass wall it was hiding behind. I could touch it, breathe it in, knowing that it was mine to have. I couldn't wait to taste the wine that the grapes promised to create.

'It should make five barrels in a normal year,' he continued once he saw that I was grasping the situation. 'This year will be around four.'

'I don't care how many it is, I've never seen a vineyard like this.' I was still taking in the view. 'How much will this cost me?'

'It won't be more than three thousand euros per barrel.' At this point, this price didn't matter. I told Gregory I'd take it.

Maison Ilan's vineyards now include the premier cru grapes of Chambolle-Musigny's Les Feusselottes
© Maison Ilan | Maison Ilan's vineyards now include the premier cru grapes of Chambolle-Musigny's Les Feusselottes

Gregory was doing me a big favor by showing me the vineyard rather than his other—most likely wealthier—clients. But, as he explained to me, he was merely sharing his good fortune. The owners of Les Chaffots had historically sold their grapes to a huge winery that produced over a thousand barrels a year and had grapes from all over Burgundy and a few vineyards in California. In Morey, they had both Les Chaffots and Les Monts Luisants, a vineyard just a hundred feet away.

This year, though, the executives decided that two Morey premier crus were too much and ultimately decided to drop Les Chaffots. But as Gregory put it, 'I was glad they were making this mistake.' He couldn't wait to put this vineyard into more appreciative hands. The secret Gregory knew, and what the giant producers didn't, is that Chaffots is bordered on two sides by the grand cru of Clos Saint-Denis, and that this little vineyard—despite its premier cru ranking–produces wines that mirror those from the adjoining land. He promised the owners that he would find someone who would treat these vines like the gems they are.

'The wine from here, you will like it—it is nothing ordinary,' Gregory said, breaking my bear hug. 'Just don't screw it up.' Before I could slug him in the shoulder, he added, 'You know, now that we've met, you don't seem so stupid after all.'"

* Ray Walker's wines are produced as Maison Ilan.

** "The Road to Burgundy: The Unlikely Story of an American Making Wine and a New Life in France," by Ray Walker, is published by Gotham Books at $26. It is also available in a Kindle edition.

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