The Road to Burgundy
The Unlikely Story of an American Making Wine and a New Life in France
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.
My bag was packed. One small black suitcase placed next to our front door. The house was still dark in the moments just before the sun would come up. There was a chill to the house, a briskness that kept me too alert for that time of morning. I tiptoed out, their trying not to awake my wife and my one-year-old daughter, Isabella. It was four in the morning, but they had just fallen asleep a short while ago. They wanted to see me off, but when their eyelids started getting heavy we had said our good-byes. Kissing my daughter’s forehead and my wife’s lips hours before made me realize that I would miss them the moment my hand touched my luggage. “Good luck, honey,” said Christian. She’d said it a million times to me before that moment. She’d said it before my meetings with potential clients, before starting on a long drive, before any task that required strengthened resolve. But this time was different. I wouldn’t hear her voice in person for another three months.
I shut the door quietly behind me and felt surprisingly calm. I knew my family was safe. And I knew that while I was entering into a situation filled with endless possible outcomes, I was undoubtedly walking toward a much brighter future.
Until now, every part of my life had been in the United States. Everyone I knew was here, the boundaries of my experiences were defined by this country. I only thought about going to France, not of leaving California. It was as if I had closed my eyes on the flight up to altitude only to notice how high we actually were above ground just as I was leaping from the airplane. Suddenly, I was feeling more excited than ever before. While planning everything leading up to this moment, I never gave into this feeling. I worried that it might jinx it. But the moment was finally here, and once I got into the car taking me to the airport, there would be no turning back. I would be calling Burgundy home.
As the driver pulled away from the curb I prattled manically about the turn of events that put me on this path—wine, history, movies, learning French, the possibility that every aspect of my family’s life was changing during that car ride.
“You know, I’m from Brazil,” he said. “I came here with a dream as well. I’m a musician but I also own this shuttle company. My friends at home were telling me that it would be tough on me and my family. But I believed that what I felt in my heart was the right thing. And that this feeling was best for my family. I’m sure it’ll work out for you.”
His words echoed the sort of mantra that had been playing on repeat in my brain for the past eight months. Hearing it spoken aloud by somebody else made me feel better about the giant leap of faith I was about to take.
Arriving at SFO, I found the Air France desk and queued behind a young French couple with their young daughter. I leaned in toward them, hoping to make out a bit of their conversation and hoping to validate my months of studying. I’d stayed up late every night watching old French movies and reading antiquated books about Burgundy. Now, eavesdropping as best I could, I celebrated a small victory every time I caught a word or phrase I understood.
This was the first time I’d be going on an international flight by myself. Gone was the fuss of getting Bella situated with toys and videos and other distractions, or helping Christian get her carry-on in the overhead bin. I was traveling light—just a few pairs of jeans, some T-shirts, and a wallet that had seen fuller days. Practical, yes, but perhaps more so if I’d also packed some formal winemaking training or experience beyond one brief harvest in California. Or maybe a location to produce wine. Or tools, equipment, the basics. Barring that, even having a place to live once I got to France would have been nice. That, or grapes. Or a visa. But this was my last chance. It was the only chip I had left. Failing in Burgundy would mean going back to a life that wasn’t mine. It would mean working on someone else’s time, for someone else’s dream. There’s no way I could go back to sitting at a desk hemmed in by monitors and memos and bad coffee, suits and ties, and central air; not after I’d gotten a taste of freedom.
I got comfortable and closed my eyes, but opened them again when I noticed the woman next to me needed help lifting her bag above our seats. Jumping up to help her I accidentally elbowed the headrest of the guy in front of me. “Je m’excuse, pardon.” It seemed like every passenger turned around to see who was recklessly destroying the grace of their language.
“You’re American?” the woman’s husband inquired. “You speak . . . lovely French.”
“Really? It’s not too bad?”
He offered an even wider smile, but saying nothing, glanced nervously at his wife as she sat down between us. “What are your plans in France?”
“I’m going to Burgundy,” I answered, a bit relieved we were switching tracks from praising my clearly subpar mastery of his language.
“Burgundy?” he said. “Why not Paris?”
“Well, Paris is nice, but they don’t have any wine.”
“And what do you know about Burgundy?” the man and woman seemed to ask at the same time.
“I can’t say that I know a lot, but I love Burgundy enough to change my life for it.”
“We’re from Champagne. It is quite close to—”
“Of course I know Champagne!” I explained that my wife and I had traveled there just months before with our baby girl. It was just over two hours away from Burgundy, but at the same time, they were worlds apart. To my mind, the fussy estate-riddled Champagne lacked the grounded, rich, agriculture-centric culture of Burgundy, but even I knew better than to say so.
“That’s not a bad place to live!” I said, making my envy apparent to even those a few rows over from us. I might not have wanted to make wine there, but you couldn’t beat the scenery.
“Burgundy is beautiful as well. Have you been?”
“Just once. I went there with my family earlier this year, in January.”
“So, you will be living in France? In Burgundy?”
“Well, that’s the plan. Well, actually, I don’t really have a plan, but that’s where I would like it all to end up.”
“Oh, well, we must speak more French then. You need to practice right away. That is”—she looked at the Wine Spectator on my lap—“unless you are too busy.”
“No, I’m not busy at all,” I said, throwing my magazine under my seat as if I were in grade school and clearing the baseball cards off my desk before the teacher came back into the classroom.
For the rest of the flight we spoke in French. We exchanged thoughts about wine, food, their life in Champagne. I loved watching how alive they were when they spoke, so animated. Their eyes would open in excitement or for emphasis only to close narrowly to convey the gravity of a pronouncement. “You must visit the market on Saturday! [eyes wide] And then be sure you try the Époisses. [eyes narrow]” Their hands too said nearly as much as their lips did—opening, closing, widening, waving above them, or tightening down to a point with a finger pressed into their lap tray. I’d try to mimic the fluidity, repurposing their words in an attempt to learn more nuanced expressions. They were patient and kind, and seven hours later, we’d learned an incredible amount about one another, perhaps to the chagrin of those trying to sleep around us. The ease I felt in speaking with them erased much of my nervousness. They weren’t “French” people waiting for me to slip up on a French word, they were just good people.
“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.”
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