The Road to Burgundy by Ray Walker

road to burgundy

I just spent the weekend in Burgundy. Well actually, I was on my front porch in Chicago reading The Road to Burgundy by Ray Walker, and it felt like I was there all over again.

This book is Ray’s personal story based on his crazy dream to leave California and go make wine in Burgundy. Ray wasn’t even much of a wine expert – he’d only been tasting wine for a couple of years before he quit his day job – but there was just something about the purity and the story of the wines from Burgundy that seized his imagination and wouldn’t let go.

When I started the book I had serious doubts. Ray seemed a little delusional. I felt sorry for his long-suffering wife Christine. Who goes and makes wine in Burgundy (arguably the epicenter of winemaking in the entire world) without any experience, any clout, or any French language skills?

Well, Ray did. And it makes a great story, whether you know a lot about French wine or not. It takes you to the small villages of the Cote d’Or in Burgundy, and into the hearts and minds of the locals, who couldn’t resist helping Ray achieve his remarkable dream. (Well, there were a few notable exceptions, including a nasty Frenchman named Xavier and the typically frustrating French bureaucracy, but every story needs a villain or two).

This book will make you reexamine what you thought was possible with nothing but a dream and a whole lot of determination. It’s a great lesson for those of us who over-analyze, finding more reasons to keep it safe than to take a leap of faith. Ray’s whole story is summed up by the saying “Leap and the Net Will Appear.”

It’s downright inspiring.

At the very least, this book will make you want to call Air France to book a trip to Burgundy. In the meantime, you’ll have to satisfy yourself with a trip your favorite local wine shop and some photos from my Burgundy wine tour in 2012.

Before you settle down with The Road to Burgundy, stop by your local wine shop for a bottle of a nice Pinot Noir from Burgundy. This one's from Gevrey- Chambertin, not far from the vineyards where Walker's grapes grow.

Before you settle down with The Road to Burgundy, stop by your local wine shop for a bottle of a nice Pinot Noir from Burgundy. This one’s a 2009 from Gevrey-Chambertin, not far from the vineyards where Ray Walker grows his grapes. (Yum.)

As I was reading Ray’s book, I just had to pull out my photos and travel notes from my own trip to Burgundy in September, 2012, which to my great fortune just happened to coincide with harvest season.

I booked a wine tour with Tracy Thurling of Burgundy by Request, who did a great job of customizing our tour to the wines and vineyards we were interested in seeing. My husband loves Chardonnay while I’m more of a fan of Pinot Noir. After spending a day sightseeing and wine tasting in Beune, we were ready to see where the wine was actually made.

We started the morning with the whites in the south (Puligny-Montrachet) and then worked our way north to the reds of the Cote de Nuits (Moret-Saint-Denis) and eventually back to our hotel in Dijon. It was a lot to accomplish (a/k/a drink) in one day. Ideally, I would recommend you schedule one full day for the reds and another full day for the whites, leaving yourself time for a nice little nap before dinner. Because, after all, wine tours are really just legitimized day drinking with a designated driver.

The best part about Burgundy is getting out into the villages and vineyards, where the locals are as homespun and friendly as they appear in Ray’s book. Even on harvest day, we were welcomed into the fields to take photos and ask questions. It’s so different than the big corporate feel you get in Napa Valley in California.

A map of Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuits from Dijon to the north and St. Aubin to the south.

A wine map of Burgundy. From Dijon in the north, down through Nuits-St.-Georges and Beaune in the middle, toward Chalon-sur-Saone in the south. These roads are small and narrow, so to get from Ray’s first winery in St. Aubin to his grapes up in Gevrey-Chambertin and Moret-St-Denis would have been quite a schlepp.

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Harvest day September, 2012 in Puligny-Montrachet. White rental vans and red tractors crowd the tiny roads of Burgundy in September. You can feel the buzz of excitement in the air. These are world-class grapes.

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Here’s a porteur with the big cone-shaped backpack they use to collect the newly picked grapes. He had just leaned over, and with a somewhat graceful one-legged kick-out, dumped his grapes into the truck.

The vineyard of the legendary Batard-Montrachet.

The vineyard of the legendary Batard-Montrachet (literally the Bastard of Montrachet, who under French inheritance laws was entitled to a share of his father’s property).

So what are the odds that I would have a wine tasting at Olivier Leflaive's in Puligny-Montrachet, the same place where Ray and his wife first stayed the winter of 2009?

So what are the odds that we had a wine tasting at Maison Olivier Leflaive’s in Puligny-Montrachet, the same place where Ray and his wife first stayed in Burgundy in 2010 (Chapter 10)? We even got to meet Olivier as he passed through the tasting room to say hello. Olivier was the first of many very generous locals who agreed to help Ray with his crazy quest.

Me in the wine tasting room of Olivier Leflaive's grinning from ear to ear over the 2007 Grand Cru Batard Montrachet I'd just tasted.

In the wine tasting room of Olivier Leflaive’s. I’m grinning from ear to ear over the Grand Cru Batard Montrachet we’d just tasted. Too bad this isn’t Guilliame, the nice Brazillian fellow that Ray become pals with in the book – it sounds like he was gone by the time we got there.

And if you think Burgundy couldn't get any prettier, this little out building in Chambertin-Clos de Beze.

And if you think Burgundy couldn’t get any prettier, this iconic little out building in Chambertin-Clos de Beze might put you over the top.

Pinot Noir grapes in the Cote de Nuits

Pinot Noir grapes in the Cote de Nuits just days away from harvesting.

Clos de la Roche Grand Cru vineyard just north of Morey-Saint-Denis in Cote de Nuits, right next to Ray Walker's Les Chaffots.

We got to see the Clos de la Roche Grand Cru vineyard just north of Morey-Saint-Denis in Cote de Nuits, right next to Ray Walker’s grapes in Les Chaffots.

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As the day was fading, we stopped at the Latricieres-Chambertin Grand Cru vineyard in Cote de Nuits. We got to taste a 2007 from Domain Rémy in Moret-Saint-Denis. This vineyard is awfully darn close to more of Ray’s grapes at Charmes-Chambertin.

If you really want to see some great photos of Ray Walker’s wines at Maison Ilena, go to their website and see for yourself. Their photos are way better than mine. In fact, they look so good they’re making me thirsty for a good French pinot, but then so does The Road to Burgundy. Worse things could happen, that’s for sure.

The Road to Burgundy by Ray Walker: Highly Recommended

I received nothing of consideration in exchange for this review. I just wrote about it because I loved it and I think you will too. If you’d like to read a post about another French wine book tour, check out my October, 2012 post on Wine and War by Don and Petie Kladstrup. Cheers!

Also recommended for the more serious wine geek: Grand Cru by Remington Norman.

Also recommended for the more serious Burgundy wine geek: Grand Cru by Remington Norman.

Wine and War in France

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Wine and history pair up well together, especially in France. More than anywhere else, the story of French winemaking is a lesson in history and tradition. Some French families have been making wine for dozens of generations. Don & Petie Kladstrup’s book Wine & War tells the story of how some of these families survived the two great wars of the 20th century. It makes for fascinating reading whether your interest is in history or more toward the wine. And if like me, you like both, it’s a must read. It makes a perfect companion for a wine tour in France.

Wine & War focuses on four French winemaking families: The Drouhins in Burgundy, the Hugels in Alsace, the owners of Lauren-Perrier in Champagne, and the Miaihles in Bordeaux. These are still some of the most prominent wine producers in France today. Their stories are triumphant and gripping, often involving deceit, risk and resistance in their battles to save their family legacies from theft and ruin by the Germans. In many cases, the winemakers even had to fight for their lives.

On my recent travels through Burgundy and Alsace, I brought along my copy of Wine & War and was able to make quite a few connections with the book. Here is a Google Map to save you the trouble of writing down the addresses and directions yourself. Our wine guide Tracy from Burgundy by Request (highly recommended) had read and enjoyed the book, so we were able to discuss some of these sites as we drove from town to town.

Maison Robert Drouhin, Beaune, Burgundy:

Burgundy: Maison Joseph Drouhin has been in the hands of the Drouhin family for the last 130 years. Today, the fourth generation of Drouhins (the great-grandchildren of Maurice Drouhin) maintains the caves at the same location as Maurice did during World War II, at 7 rue d’Enfer in the heart of Beaune. Wine tastings are available and highly recommended!

Burgundy: In one of the most dramatic passages of the book, the Nazis knock at the door to arrest Maurice Drouhin. Maurice has been prepared for this moment, and evades arrest by escaping through his tunnel of wine caves. He comes out of a secret doorway onto rue Paradis, and runs to the Hospice de Beaune just two more blocks away, where he hides out for 10 months.

“Even with a candle and his knowledge of the vast cellars, the darkness made it difficult for [Maurice] to find his way. On one of the four levels of passageways that made up his cellar, he finally found what he was looking for. Maurice brushed away the cobwebs and eased himself behind the wine racks; then he gripped the handle of the door and pulled. It opened easily. Stooping slightly as he went through, Maurice quickly made his way up several steps that led to the street outside,the rue de Paradis, or Street of Paradise.”

Burgundy: Hospice de Beaune. A hospital that owns some of the best vineyards in Burgundy. It has its own labyrinth of caves underground, and that is where Maurice Drouhin was able to hide from the Germans, no doubt with the help and confidence of his friends and fellow winemakers.

Comblanchien, A Village in Burgundy with a Tragic History

Wine & War includes the story of Comblanchien, a small winegrowing village in the heart of Burgundy. It was the center of much of the local Resistance activity. The locals Resistance fighters often sabotaged or blew up the German trains as they passed through on the main line from Paris to Lyon. In 1944, the Germans were on the run, but not before they retaliated against the village that had caused them so much trouble.

On August 21, 1944, the Germans attacked the village of Comblanchien, burning people out of their homes and their church. Eight people were killed, fifty-two houses were burned to the ground, and the church was reduced to a pile of ash. Some were able to survive by hiding in their wine caves while their houses burned above them. Twenty-three villagers were arrested and taken to Dijon for execution. Eleven of them were eventually freed, but the rest were deported to work camps in Germany.

Burgundy: The memorial in Comblanchien for the eight villagers who were killed in the German attack on August 21, 1944. The ranged in age from 72 to 18 years old.

Burgundy: The war memorial in Comblanchien, France.

Burgundy: The “new” church in Comblanchien, built to replace the church the Germans burned to the ground in 1944.

Alsace: The Hugel Family of Riquewihr

The story of the Hugel family’s experience in World War II is particularly interesting because of their unique position in Alsace, which was annexed back into Germany in 1939. It had been French ever since the end of World War I, but the Germans returned and changed everything as soon as they could, from the language to the road signs and the even the names of the wine houses. Hugel et Fils became Hugel und Sohne. “If you even said bonjour, you could go to a concentration camp.” The Hugel sons were drafted into the German army, and the Hugels were forced to close their 300 year-old family business because Jean Hugel refused to join the Nazi party. In fact, Jean escaped to a hotel in nearby Colmar where he had pretended to be a member of their staff.

Alsace: Riquewihr, France on the Alsace Route du Vin between Colmar and Strasbourg. An absolutely beautiful town for a day visit.

Alsace: Hugel et Fils in Riquewihr, France

Here I am geeking out a little bit over the fact that I really did find the Hugel winetasting room. They even had a French copy of the book in their shop.

Wine & War by Don and Petie Kaldstrup: Highly recommended.

Burgundy by Request: Highly recommended.

Note: I received no consideration for this post. I bought my own copy of the book and we paid full price for Tracy Thurling’s full-day Grand Cru wine tour, which we loved.