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

Burgundy
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: 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.