With those words, Ray Walker did it. Unhappy in his conventional office job, Walker decided to walk out and instead pursue his dream of making wine, becoming a hero to all of us who have ever gazed out the window (or over the cubicle wall) and wondered if there was something more and better out there for us. Walker’s is a story that will hit too close to home to many wine-loving office drones.
There were a couple problems, though. First, Walker had no experience, no job prospects, and limited connections to the wine industry. Second, he had a wife who was seven months pregnant and had a job that could not support a family on her own.
“If you can get a job at a winery, I’d support you in it. . . . I believe in you.”
With those words, Christian Walker became the first of many heroes in “The Road to Burgundy: The Unlikely Story of an American Making Wine and a New Life in France.” From letting Ray quit his job with no other position lined up, to convincing him to purchase Chambertin grapes without having funds in place, to allowing him to rent them a house sight unseen in Nuits-Saint-Georges, Christian was the very picture of a loving and supportive wife, without whom all of this – the new career in winemaking, the winery in Burgundy, called Maison Ilan, and in turn this book – would never have been possible.
Make no mistake, though, there is no shortage of champions throughout Walker’s tale. First, there’s Ed Kurtzman, the winemaker and partner in August West, a San Francisco-based winery. Kurtzman provided Walker with a harvest job for fifteen dollars an hour – the one (and only) winery position Walker would have before launching his own winemaking operation, thereby solving the first problem alluded to above.
Then there are all of the people who helped Walker once he made his way to France: Olivier Leflaive, the famed producer of white Burgundy, who gave Walker and his family a place to stay while looking for grapes; Roz Seysses of Domaine Dujac, who convinced Walker to think bigger than just village wine; Thomas and his father Dominique, the courtiers who arranged for Walker to purchase the grapes for his first vintage harvest; Dave Warco and the other nameless investors who loaned Walker the money to get his upstart operation running; Fabrice from the Chamber of Commerce, who helped Walker navigate the byzantine French business laws; and Pierre, who rented Walker space in his cellar to crush and ferment his first wines.
(Walker’s story is not without its villain, however; Pierre’s partner Xavier threatens to prematurely end Walker’s dream at almost every turn.)
Many of us are already familiar with the basics of Walker’s tale; after all, he has been profiled in The New York Times, featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” and of course interviewed right here at Terroirist. However, I had no idea just how many obstacles Walker had to overcome to produce the bottles that are now resting in our cellars. The second half of the book is a breathtaking series of events – pratfalls, near misses, and sleepless nights – that must be read to be believed.
Naturally, given his ultimate success, the real protagonist of this story is Ray Walker himself. His journey from suit and tie to wine-soaked Led Zeppelin t-shirt will sound all too familiar to the wine geeks among us. Walker went from thinking red wine was disgusting, and wine drinkers pretentious, to gradually becoming obsessed with wine. The catalyst was an engagement trip to Italy, where Ray and Christian learned the magic of wine and food pairing. Upon returning, Walker dove headfirst into the world of wine tasting, gadgets and online wine bulletin boards. He started, as many of us do, with Bordeaux before discovering Burgundy.
“Bro, you just got yourself an expensive hobby,” said Justin, the store clerk who poured Walker his first taste of Meursault. Like I said, this story hits close to home.
Reading his book, you can feel Walker’s passion for Burgundy. The way he describes wine is a message straight from his soul, the words leaping off the page and into your own heart and mind. “To me, each bottle . . . was an expression caught in a moment and stored in a time capsule waiting to be opened and shared with others,” Walker writes about Burgundy. “It was like a meditation.”
Walker, on the other hand, would surely deflect any attempt to call him a hero. He would say the wine – his beloved Chambertin, and the other grand and premier cru wines he makes – is the central character of his story. Walker is just the “wine shepherd.” His philosophy is just to “nurture [the] wine in a way that allow[s] it to express its true self.”
His humility aside, Walker’s story is no doubt heroic in the true sense of the word: he made bold decisions resulting in a dramatic story that is as compelling as it is unlikely. For a first time author, his book is well crafted in an eminently readable (I finished it in two days), entertaining way.
But like his winemaking, in which Walker says his job is “to simply get out of the way,” my sense is that the writing of this book was much the same. If you have a story as good as Walker’s, it pretty much writes itself. Walker was just the shepherd.
Terroirist.com received a preview copy of “The Road to Burgundy” from the publisher. It is available for pre-order now and will be on sale in stores this Thursday, July 11.