Book review: The Road to Burgundy: The Unlikely Story of an American Making Wine and a New Life in France

One of the many vineyards in Burgundy

Many people think of giving everything up to follow their dream. Very few, however, end up taking the plunge. This is the story of Ray Walker who had a secure career in finance until he took a wine-tasting vacation which ignited a passion for wine that he couldn’t stifle.

Now the interesting part of the story is that unlike most wine lovers who develop their passion over many years, Ray Walker could not be bothered about wine and actually could not really see the point or stand snobbish behaviour related to wine. But once the wine bug hit during a tasting of Burgundy wines, he could not get away from it and pursued his dream taking huge risks and sacrificing family life.

Not speaking French, he took the plunge by  watching TV or reading old books trying to learn the techniques of wine making and the language and daydreaming about what it would be like to create his own wine.

He quits his job and gets his hands dirty with some winemakers in California before heading to France to start a winery with little money, a poor command of French, very little winemaking experience and no guarantee that he could procure grapes to produce his own wine.

I would recommend this book not only to wine lovers wanting to read about the life in one of the most talked about wine regions of the world but also to those who want to read about a story of someone who, despite the heavy odds stacked against him, follows his dream to pursue what he really wants in life.

In the process, Ray, becomes the first non-French winemaker to purchase grapes and produce a wine from Le Chambertin which is considered by many to be the king of grand-crus in Burgundy and which challenges Romanee-Conti and Montrachet Grand crus. A few days before the first harvest, he was not yet sure whether he would procure any grapes. At first he set his mind to create a generic ‘village wine’. But by a stroke of luck, he manages to get not only get generic grapes but also the coveted Le Chambertin, a grand cru.

At times ridiculed for using ancient techniques which no longer were in vogue, this is also a story about an amateur whose passion and inexperience leads to a creation which may be considered as special. I will not write more about the story not to ruin the fun other than to say that I will visit Ray when I am next in Burgundy. And I look forward to tasting his wines called Maison Ilan.

Below you will find a short video about how he pursued his dream.


Book review: Palmento – A Sicilian Wine Odyssey (At table)

As the holiday season in Europe slowly starts to come to an end, one starts to think of the cooler months but also about what books to read to remind oneself of the summer.

Palmento, A Sicilian Wine Odyssey has been earmarked as one of my summer reads after I read Corkscrewed by Robert V. Camuto about wines in France (I will review the book later).

But I can imagine myself reading this book on a cold winter evening, with the rain knocking on the windows maybe with a glass of wine to accompany the reading. In fact, I am sure that this coming winter, I will come back to read this book given I have rarely read a book so beautifully written about the subject of wine, the region and its people.

Now, I may be biased because as you may have seen, my interest in wine more than 15 years ago came from the discovery of Sicilian wine and its many facets.

As the author itself wrote, Goethe wrote in the eighteenth century “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.”

The same can be said about its wine. For many years, Sicilian wine was sold up north to add more body to Northern Italian wines and even French wines. Over the past years, however, Sicily has developed into one of the most interesting wine regions in the world, with many winemakers describing it as a ‘continent’ because of the many terroirs which one can find on the largest island in the Mediterranean.

The book starts with a dinner at Sakalleo in Scoglitti (a fishing village in the very south of Sicily) which is probably the closest point that can be reached by boat from Malta. And again, maybe it is for nostalgic reasons or because the memories of eating at this place (probably the finest fish restaurant that I have been to) but the author describes the meal he had there in perfect detail reminding me of the three times I have been to this place.

Camuto says “Even before the arrival of the sixth dish – sweet steamed mussels – Sakalleo had earned a place in my personal pantheon of most remarkable restaurant meals ever eaten… The most inspiring food, I’ve learned, comes in simple packages without the self-consciousness that accompanies critics’ stars. Sakalleo was turning out to be an orgy of the sea in an impossibly plain brown wrapper: not so much comfort cuisine as it was comfort itself.”

This is pretty much my philosophy about food so as soon as I started reading the book I knew that I was in the right company.

Camuto has a deep passion for wine. He visits Sicily when he turns 50 and spends a year chronicling his journey from Ragusa to Palermo, Marsala to Pantelleria with trips to the rugged interior of Sicily and the heights of Mount Etna.

Here he stops to meet winemakers, Sicilan and not, including the renowned Belgian winemaker Frank Cornelissen who has taken Sicilian wines by storm making natural wines from the Mount Etna region which are world renowned.

Camuto captures the personalities and flavours and the traditions of this old world which is Italy’s largest and oldest wine region but the world traveler’s newest discovery. He goes to among others, Azienda Agricola COS, Benanti, Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Marco de Bartoli, Planeta, Tasca d’Almerita to mention just a few.

A full immersion into Sicilian wines and cuisine, Camuto portrays Sicily at its best. He speaks to some of the largest wine producers in Sicily as well as to the small producers which are experimenting with traditional methods of winemaking which have  to a certain extent been lost.

If you love Sicily or are curious about getting to know more about Sicilian wines, then this is a must read. If you love wine, this is also a must read. I actually wish there were more books like this about other wine regions in the world.

Two quotes from the book:

“To be Sicilian is not to be a son of consumerism. It is to be direct and human – a son of real life. Sicily tells us: You can be rich from a noble family or poor. We are all the same.”

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Originally from Il Gattopardo and quoted many times by Sicilian wine producers.





Book review: Shadows in the vineyard – the true story of the plot to poison the world’s greatest wine

Vineyards in Burgundy

What kind of man the cellarer of the Monastery should be

1) As cellarer of the monastery should be chosen from the community, one who is sound in judgement, mature in character, sober, not a great eater, not self-important, not turbulent, not harshly spoken, not an off-putter, not wasteful.

2) but a God-fearing man, who will be a father to the whole community

3) He is to have charge of all affairs

10) He must regard the chattels of the monastery and its whole property as if they were sacred vessels of the altar

(Chapter 31 of the Benedictine Rules, as posted in English inside the Burgundy’s Abbey Notre Dame de Citeaux)

So starts the book, Shadows in the Vineyard, the true story of the plot to poison the world’s greatest wine. The author Maximillian Potter admits at the end of the book that when he came to write this story for a magazine and later turned it into a book, he knew very little about wine. This is all the more amazing because the book reads very well, has incredible details and history of the wines of Burgundy. On top of it all, he recounts a true story which happened in 2010 and which threatened to ruin the wines of the Domaine de la Romanee Conti.

Now for any serious wine lovers, the wines from this Domaine are the holy grail of wines. On just about any list of the world’s top 25 rated wines you will normally find seven wines from this wine house: the Richebourg, Echezeaux, Grands Echezeaux, La Tache, Romanee-St Vivant, Montrachet and Romanee-Conti.

Burgundy wines are well known for their finesse, particularly if they are well made. But finding these well-made wines is not as easy as it seems.Made from Chardonnay (white) and Pinot Noir (red), no other region is as complicated even for wine experts as Burgundy. The reason is that this north, it is very difficult to make wines and therefore terroir plays a very important if not crucial role in the wine production. With so many appellations based on villages (87 in total) and vineyards shared by some 3,5000 winegrowers it is no wonder that Burgundy wines can be confusing.

Getting your way through Burgundy wines is like getting a very thorough geography lesson. You need to know the villages, where the vineyard is, in which part of the hill it is and whether it faces the sun or not.

You need to know why a wine from a village may cost double or triple the price of another which is produced just across the road but from another village.

There is therefore a certain allure to Burgundies, and when you discover well made Burgundies even from small producers, you normally return to buy these wines time and time again first because a well made Burgundy wine is fantastic.

But the wines from DRC as the Domaine is often known are among the world’s most sought after wines and also unfortunately unaffordable to many.

Few people knew about the story to poison these wines. So when I spotted this book, I was immediately curious. I actually thought it was a work of fiction and had to check the story out before I actually bought the book,

The author writes beautifully about the wines and the Burgundy region, the plot reads like a thriller and makes you really curious to find out what finally happened.

I will not spoil the story of the book but if you are interested in wine, want to discover a bit more about Burgundy and read a different sort of book related to wine, then I highly recommend it.



My tips for summer reading – Fiction

Summer holidays are fast approaching and with it maybe a bit more time to enjoy reading books which you might otherwise neglect throughout the busier time of the year. The following are some of the books (fiction) I have read over the past few months and which have left a lasting impression.

For non-fiction recommendations please wait for a forthcoming post. If there is one book that I would recommend you read from the list below it would be The Remains of the Day.

It is a fantastic read and one which I cannot believe I discovered so late. I might actually re-read it again it is so good.

an officer and a spy

An Officer and a Spy – Robert Harris

Robert Harris is the author of my all-time favourite book Pompei. It is a book which I have returned to time and time again because of the way Harris plots his story based on the famous eruption of Pompei. He crafts the story expertly from the perspective of four main characters.

An Officer and a Spy is his latest instalment and a very topical one at that. This book is actually a spy thriller and examination of the infamous Dreyfus affair which took place in 1895. It is unbelievable that this is based on a true story.

It is told from the perspective of a functionary-turned-whistle-blower and brings to mind the recent cases of mass surveillance and cover-ups. I leave you to read this political and psychological thriller. Dreyfus was wrongly convicted for a crime he did not commit. If you have never entered the world of Harris this is a good place to start.   remains of the day

The remains of the day: Kazuo Ishiguro In a way it is amazing that it took me so long to discover this book. It was written in 1989, was in the home library for quite some time but I never noticed it. When I discovered it and downloaded the ebook, I started this ebook and was instantly hooked.

When I told my wife what book I was reading she told me as a matter of fact that we have it in the library and that it was a briliant book. I can now understand why.

The story is about an English butler who has dedicated his life to the service Lord Darlington. When the house is bought by a new owner, the wealthy American who takes ownership encourages the butler to borrow his car to take a well-earned break, a ‘motoring trip’.

On this trip, Steven, the butler starts a deep reflection about his past. In it he speaks about his relationship with his father, his love for a colleague who loved him but he was too blind to see, the concept of loyalty and also a reflection of how different people have different priorities in life. In the book there are great moments like when the butler is looking back at the things he missed in life and how he finally sees that he has missed the wood for the trees. If you only have time to read one book this summer and you haven’t read it, then make it this one.

the circleThe Circle – Dave Eggers The Circle by Dave Eggers is a compelling read about the implications of our ‘always on’ culture. The Circle is a company which encourages its employees quite religiously to practice what they preach, i.e. to completely forego their privacy and be constantly online sharing even the most private moments online. It is up to you to decide which company Eggers has in mind. What follows is a brilliant reflection of the implications of social media and our obsession with sharing everything. It also looks at the implications for those who do not want to fall into this trap and how that relationship with ‘the connected’ people suffers. Have you taken time to reflect on how you use your smart-phone in social situations and how anti-social this might seem? The story follows the life in the company The Circle of an enthusiastic new employee who is in awe at how great it is to share every moment with friends and even strangers. The story topic might be slightly exaggerated and potentially comical but not too far-fetched when you look at developments like technology wearables like glasses and watches which may soon become mainstream. The book looks at what happens when social media becomes pervasive, i.e. when there is no escaping from the spotlight. What happens in such a society? Up to you to find out.

Book reviews (3) – Give and Take – a revolutionary approach to success

We have all come across exceptional bosses or mentors who encourage us to go the extra mile or who inspire us by bringing out the best in us. And most of us have also experienced bosses who are the exact opposite. They will put their interests first and are more interested in the world of Machiavelli then in bringing out the best of both teams. The same goes for friends or colleagues. There are some who will do whatever it takes to help you, sometimes even ignoring their interest, then there are those who just take without giving.

3Dcover-Paperback3dAdam Grant’s book, Give and Take – a revolutionary approach to success shows that you do not have to be ruthless to climb to the top. This book is on many lists as one of the best books on management and the art and science of success and after reading it there is no question as to why it is so.

The book is simple in its premise. In life, most people are either givers or takers. Grant shows that while takers may sometimes win in the short-term, givers are not only at peace with themselves but have all that it takes to inspire people and do well in the long run.

I have no doubt that this will become a classic book on leadership and management. Grant makes a great case and includes countless examples of givers who have made a success out of their approach that you start to look at people in a completely different light.

This is a definitely a must read for anyone who wants to be successful in life. Grant shows with many examples to back his thesis that one of the secrets in life is that those who win most are often those who give most.

Some quotes I highlighted:

  • It takes time for givers to build goodwill and trust, but eventually, they establish reparations and relationships that enhance their success.
  • Being a giver is not good for a 100-yard day, but it is valuable in a marathon.
  • The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.
  • If we create networks with the sole intention of getting something we won’t succeed. We can’t pursue the benefits of networks; the benefits ensue from investments in meaningful activities and relationships.
  • Takers have a distinctive signature: they like to get more than they give.
  • Advice seeking is a form of powerless communication that combines expressing vulnerability, asking questions and talking tentatively.

Book reviews (2) – Choose Yourself

I do not know how I came across James Altucher first. It was definitely not by word of mouth though I wish I had discovered him earlier. My hunch is that I came across him via Twitter though I cannot be sure. He has written many books but I first stumbled upon his book Choose Yourself a few months ago and it remains one of the best books I have read about oneself if not the best.

Choose yourself – one of the best books I have read in the past months

To put everything into perspective, I subscribe to countless newsletters which i receive on a daily or weekly basis in my mailbox. Most, unfortunately end up not being read because of lack of time. Worse, many end up in the trash can even before they are opened. But those by James Altucher are different. There are always interesting insights and nuggets of wisdom which make you stop to think.

Choose Yourself is a fantastic book no matter in which situation you find yourself. Whether you are in employment, in business, in between jobs or careers, thinking about setting up a business or else unemployed, Altucher strikes many chords and makes you think first and foremost about yourself and what you want to be. He is blunt and says things which others might find difficult to speak about.

One of the most important lessons that I have taken from this book is to try and generate 10 ideas on a daily basis. Sit down, do it once, do it twice and you realise that generating 10 ideas a day, sometimes even 10 ideas a week is not as easy as it sounds. What Altucher however insists on is simple. Once you discipline yourself to writing ideas, you become an idea generator in whatever situation you find yourself in. When you look back at your ideas after a few weeks you can start to connect the dots and build connections which lead you to many executable ideas.

This blog came about from this idea generation. It has been on the back burner for I don’t know how many years but the problem with ideas is that unless you execute them, they remain ideas. So despite the fact that I have a busy day job and two young children, I have managed to carve some time to build this blog by writing every evening. Once this becomes a routine, it becomes so much easier.

It is the same with exercise. How many times do we procrastinate about exercise. But once it becomes part of your daily or weekly schedule, then it becomes easy no matter how bad the day is.

I read at least a book a week and I have found that in the case of this book, I end up recommending it to friends time and time again irrespective of the books I read in the meantime.

You can read about James Altucher on his website but he is a successful entrepreneur, chess master, investor and writer. His next book is “The Power of No”. Having seen his blogs, I am sure that he has a lot to say about this topic.

These are a few extracts from the book I have highlighted.

  • Rejection – and the fear of rejection  – is the biggest impediment we face to choosing ourselfs.
  • What you need to do is build the house you will live in. You build that house by laying a solid foundation: by building physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.
  • Only do things you enjoy.
  • Spiritually we need to recognise the importance of wanting less in our lives, to the point that we want to disappear.
  • If you think you can do something, if you have confidence, if you have creativity (developed by building up your idea muscle), the big ideas become smaller and smaller.
  • Every day, read/skim chapters from books on at least four different topics
  • Write down ten ideas. About anything. It doesn’t mater if they are business ideas, book ideas, ideas for surprising your spouse in bed, ideas for what you should do if you are arrested for shoplifting, ideas for how to make a better tennis racquet, anything you want.
  • Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s all about execution.

Disclaimer: I read an e-book version of the book which I purchased myself.

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