Each week, as regular readers know, Terroirist poses 16 questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Ray Walker of Maison Ilan in Nuits-Saint-Georges.
Until seven years ago, Walker knew nothing about wine. But while on a trip to Italy with his soon-to-be wife, something clicked – and he quickly became obsessed. A few months later, Walker tasted a Meursault – a 2002 Domaine des Comtes Lafon Meursault Clos de la Barre – and knew that his passion would be Burgundy.
Fast forward to 2008, and even though Walker had just started a new job as a financial analyst at Merrill Lynch, realized that he would never be happy with a life in finance. So with the support of his family, he quit his job to learn about wine and landed a job at Freeman Winery in Sebastopol with Ed Kurtzman.
Shortly thereafter, Walker decided to go make wine in Burgundy – and secured access to an incredible array of vineyards just in time for one of the region’s best vintages. And just before his 29th birthday, as Eric Asimov recently detailed, Walker “became the first American ever to make Le Chambertin, the grand cru red Burgundy that is one of the most revered names in wine.”
His first two vintages are sold out, but a small amount of his 2009s are available at Woodland Hills Wine Company. (Production will expand – slightly – with 2011.) Check out our interview with Walker below the fold.
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
2006 Lafarge Volnay “Selection Vendage”
How did you decide to pursue a career in wine?
I traded the risk of living an unfulfilling life in finance for the risk of possible failure in following a path to Burgundy. I figured that even if I were successful in finance, all of the money that I could earn wouldn’t make me happy. Looking for what felt right brought me to only one option, so I took it.
How did you learn to make wine?
I can’t say that I know how to make wine, really. I learned how to wash barrels and tanks from Ed Kurtzman and Eric Buffington during the 2008 harvest in California. The first and hardest part in my current position is to be lucky enough to be offered exceptional grapes from historically celebrated vineyards. This is the make or break in the resulting quality of the wine. My role in this is to be as simple and logical as possible. My only real skill is being thorough on the manual sorting table. As cliché as it sounds, the rest is nothing more than common sense.
How do you spend your days off?
Just like every other wine geek, I spend a lot of time reading anything I can find about wine. Over the last three years, most of my computer time has shifted over to reading old French wine books from the 18th and 19th Century. I can’t say that I find any recipes for what I would like to do, but the context of holding and learning about what passed on before my short time here is more precious than I could ever relate.
Who are your favorite winemakers in history?
Funny as it sounds, those that I mention here as my favorites wouldn’t call themselves wine “makers.” But, I absolutely cherish each bottle of Jacky Truchot, Henri Jouan, and François Bertheau that I get to open. There is a common thread here, of course. I believe their wines transcend being described as merely wine. Their humble demeanor only add to how much I respect them and their work.
What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
New? I’d say I’m more personally interested in older producers such as Henri Jouan that are doing things as they were done in the 60s. I would love to find younger producers that are doing something equally engaging, but this gives me something more to search out.
What mailing lists, if any, do you purchase from?
I am on Henri Jouan, Van Volxem (M-S-R), that’s it.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
I can’t answer that honestly. Most interesting might be a Madeira from 1818 that I had. But, this is interesting in the frame of it being unique to everything else that I drink.
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
Four bottles of 1959 Lamarche La Grand Rue. They still say “Tête de Cuvée” on them. Most expensive? La Tâche 1989
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
Henri Jouan 08 Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru “Les Sorbés” for red. If I had to drink a white every night, any Roulot Meursault from ‘07 would work
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
Each year, the main challenge is to be physically fit and to be safe during harvest. The wine takes care of itself as long as I stay simple.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world — other than your own?
I’ve had a few flings with Rieslings from the Mosel over the years. I drink maybe 10-12 bottles a year that aren’t from my home wine region.
Is beer ever better than wine?
Yes, when you are having searing hot weather or thirsty beer works wonderfully.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I don’t watch sports.
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Then I’d be dreaming about being a part of wine production and fighting tooth and nail to do so! There is no other option.
How do you define success?
Being a solid foundation for your family to count on, to be true to your loved one’s, including yourself and to die knowing that you put forth the effort, persistence and level of finesse that was require to reach ever one of your goals.