About six months ago I reported on Alex Gambal, a Bostonian who moved to Burgundy in 1993. He attended viticultural school in Beaune and became a négociant (someone who does not own vineyards, but makes wine from purchased fruit). Gambal accumulated vineyard parcels over the years, and in March became the first American to own part of a Grand Cru vineyard site by purchasing land in Batard-Montrachet.
Now Burgundy has another American winemaker, with an even more improbable story this time. Barely 30 years old, Ray Walker did not grow up in a wine-drinking family, and had no contact with wine until he met and married his wife. His moment of epiphany occurred in 2005, when he sampled a 2002 Meursault Clos de la Barre from Dominique Lafon (an experience which would convert even a devout Baptist). He quit his job at Merrill Lynch; after a brief apprenticeship at Freeman Winery in Sebastopol, he moved his family to Burgundy.
Walker founded Maison Ilan, which he describes as a micro-négociant. The tiny firm produced less than 20 barrels of wine in 2010, from five vineyard sites. He recently became the first American to make wine from Le Chambertin, which he had not even tasted prior to securing the contract for the grapes. He works in one other Grand Cru site (Charmes-Chambertin), as well as three Premier Cru vineyards—two in Morey St.-Denis and one in Gevrey-Chambertin.
It’s an extraordinary achievement for an American in one of the most closed societies on earth. Ironically, he was aided in his quest by the recession, which enabled him to buy fruit from vineyards usually not available on the open market. Walker is an avid reader of old winemaking texts, and is a great believer in traditional methods. He uses no new oak to age his wines, and follows a philosophy of minimal intervention and manipulation during the winemaking process.
The Charmes-Chambertin from Maison Ilan sells for $160, while his Le Chambertin is closer to $240. If these prices seem high, don’t fret—the wines are already sold out.