The Road to Burgundy
The Unlikely Story of an American Making Wine and a New Life in France
By Ray Walker
(Gotham, Hardcover, 9781592408122, 320pp.)
Publication Date: July 11, 2013
Enter your zip code below to find indies closest to you.
An intoxicating memoir of an American who discovers a passion for French wine, and gambles everything to chase a dream of owning a vineyard in Burgundy
Ray Walker had a secure career in finance until a wine-tasting vacation ignited a passion that he couldn’t stifle. Ray neglected his work, spending hours poring over ancient French winemaking texts, learning the techniques and the language, and daydreaming about vineyards. After Ray experienced his first taste of wine from Burgundy, he could wait no longer. He quit his job and went to France to start a winery—with little money, a limited command of French, and virtually no winemaking experience.
Fueled by determination and joie de vivre, he immersed himself in the extraordinary history of Burgundy’s vineyards and began honing his skills. Ray became a pioneer in his use of ancient techniques in modern times and founded Maison Ilan. In 2009, Ray became the first non-French winemaker to purchase grapes and produce a wine from Le Chambertin, long considered to be one of the most revered and singular vineyards in the world.
Along with his struggle to capture his wine’s distinct terroir, Ray shares enthralling stories of late-night tastings, flying down the Route National on a vintage Peugeot bicycle with no brakes, and his journey to secure both the trust of his insular Burgundian neighbors and the region’s most coveted grapes. Capturing the sunlight, the smell of the damp soil, and the taste of superlative wine, The Road to Burgundy is a glorious celebration of finding one’s true path in life, and taking a chance—whatever the odds.
Ray Walker lives with his wife, Christian, and their two daughters, Isabella Ilan and Siena Jesline, in Burgundy, France.
An LA Times editor's pick
“Wine lovers, Francophiles and anyone who roots for dreamers will want to raise a glass to Ray Walker.”
“An intoxicating tale…Mr. Walker’s story is sure to inspire a few more leaps of faith.”
“In this rich account, Walker chronicles his five-year journey from Northern California to the French countryside with self-deprecating humor and earnestness. . . . Wine geeks will enjoy Walker's blow-by-blow account of the winemaking process. Those less inclined to appreciate wine's back story can revel in his descriptions of Burgundy's food and lifestyle. Walker's tale evokes the exquisite thrill of finding and following your passion, no matter how crazy it might seem.”
“Walker’s energy and warmth lift this book.”
"The main appeal is the amazing story of how someone was able to realize his seemingly farfetched dream."
—New York Journal of Books
"True oenophiles will love it. . . . a great summer read."
"Readers who share his passion for fine wine will be entertained by his detailed descriptions."
"The Road to Burgundy is an extraordinary story told by an extraordinary person set in the world's most extraordinary of wine regions. If Ray Walker's journey had been told in a work of fiction--or film--it would be frankly, unbelievable. He set his mind to doing just about the stupidest, most difficult and unlikely thing an American could do. And emerged victorious. His story, like his wine, is a triumph of idealism, determination and integrity. You will never drink Bordeaux again."
"There are many great stories in the history of wine, but none as astonishingly and eye-bulgingly improbable as that of Ray Walker's. In a page-turning memoir that will convince anyone that their dreams, no matter how harebrained, can be realized, Ray Walker delivers up a thrilling, picaresque, and insightful look into the heart of one man's obsession. An absolute must read for any lover of Pinot, or any aficionado of wine, period."
—Rex Pickett, author of Sideways
“Salut, cin-cin, and cheers to Ray Walker, who followed his passion for wine to Burgundy. Pop a cork and enjoy this lively, brave, and absorbing story.”
—Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun
A Conversation with Ray Walker, author of The Road to Burgundy
Q: When did you first start appreciating wine?
I was 23 years old when I had the first glass of wine that I paid any attention to. I really had no interest in wine until then. I didn’t grow up surrounded by the world of fine dining, and truthfully, I didn’t see what wine could do that beer couldn’t do better. One wine tasting changed my view of wine forever—when I was introduced to wines from Burgundy for the first time. I’d never known that drinking wine could be that kind of intense, all-consuming experience. After that day, I couldn’t think of anything else. Wine was constantly on my mind.
Q: What is so special about Burgundy?
Terroir is one of those holy grail concepts in wine that so many talk about but not everyone truly understands or experiences. In Burgundy, because wine is generally made with one type of red grape and one type of white grape, you can focus more attention on the staggering differences present in the soil. On top of all of this, there is an amazing wealth of history here in Burgundy. The history, coupled with the uniqueness of the land, makes Burgundy unlike any other wine region in the world. Every place is special, but Burgundy captured every part of me after I took that first sip in 2005.
Q: A lot of us dream about quitting our job and moving somewhere exotic, but you actually did it. What finally lead you to totally upend your life?
So much of my life had started to feel closed in. People around me were focused on a mountain of material things, shallow interests, and empty short-term goals. And I was starting to become that kind of person. It scared me to think that if I was successful in my business career I wouldn’t end up with much in the end besides those hollow achievements. I saw where my life was going and how far it had drifted away from something concrete, something more worthwhile. Going after my dream started to seem like actually a practical thing to do with my life.
Q: When you were starting out on this new adventure, your wife and daughter were not with you in France. How did you handle that separation?
Christian was back home with Bella, still working a full time job, and her mother was lending a hand as well. It was tough on everyone, but something just kept pulling me toward Burgundy. I had a gut feeling our life would eventually be the life we wanted there. I didn’t know what was going to happen but I believed that I had to trust in that feeling and just hold on to see it through.
Q: Why did you think you could pull all of this together without speaking French or knowing how to make wine?
It was a wild journey and I just focused on holding onto the rope that was dragging me along. I figured that until I was left with no other moves—no more options for buying grapes because I was out of people to ask, no more locations for a wine making facility—I’d just keep going since every step forward could potentially bring a new opportunity. I knew it was going in the right direction—I just didn’t know how long it would take to get me all the way to where I wanted to be. It was risky, but it was also an adventure.
Q: What did you find most useful in terms of making wine that first time?
The land and culture of Burgundy played a tremendous role. If I’d been trying to make wine in a different place, I may have thought more of myself and perhaps made the mistake of thinking I was talented. The truth is that in Burgundy, it doesn’t matter if I am the best wine maker in the world or not. You just need the ability to not mess up, to care, and to be mindful. Anything else is about aesthetics and it’s not necessary.
Q: What was the toughest part about starting your winery in Burgundy?
The paperwork was daunting. It is incredibly hard to set up a business as an American in France. But though it was a long and frustrating process I knew it was a concrete problem that had a solution I’d eventually find. The most difficult thing was finding the fruit. The fruit is the most important piece of the puzzle—the quality of your fruit decides everything about the quality of your wine.
Q: When did you know that everything in France was going to work out?
When Christian came and visited me the first time in Burgundy, she came with Bella. She tried the wine while it was still in the tank. Before she said a word, I knew, from years of studying her face, that she was tasting something amazing and she was proud. It was the exact reason why I had to be in Burgundy. That look, that moment. It spoke volumes. It lasted a fraction of a second but it was a solid dividing point in my life.