Part Four (partial release):
It’s been difficult, at times. But, things are getting better.
They always do. At least, that’s what they tell you. If nothing else, that’s what I’ve always believed. In fact, this simple thought, this concept, it has shaped so much of my personality that it cannot be overstated.
What happens when you are stuck waiting for things to simply work out? When you wish for certain individuals, or even small groups to wise up and simply be good, if not fair? For me, patience isn’t something that I was given. In fact, I rebel against the thought of patience that it’s no surprise that I’m often left wishing I had some semblance of it. To that end, I’ve often folded my hands, in a manner of speaking, waiting for common sense to enter into a situation.
Through the past five years, my life, my career, it has all been shuffled. I went from wanting and needing to be the type of Father that my children and my parents would be proud of to not having my children at all. I wanting to make a wine, in the fashion that I chose, and to have it be good or better. This wine might be many things, but its first duty was to be one that satisfied my curiosity of what made Burgundy special. I did this, and at once, it was taken from me.
While I’ve always had a modest confidence to myself, I wouldn’t label myself daring, nor ambitious. I don’t think that I actually aim for the back of the bleachers when taking a swing. I’ve been there merely to experience the crack of the bat myself, and to feel that sensation personally. I just want to feel as though I’m somewhere, as much as I can be. This principle, this foundation, is why I couldn’t buy someone else’s wine and call it my own. I needed to get my own hands dirty and try things myself.
This same thought is one that many can’t understand themselves, at least not for their own lives. So many others have similar thoughts, which are there for only but a few moments before their mind sways in another direction. Call it what you will, but my obsessions stay with me. I am consumed by them. And it comes at a price, of course. You can be too close to something which limits your overall field of view. This is what happened with Maison Ilan.
At the time that I wanted to recreate myself, I did so while in a moment of desperation. Mind you, this wasn’t an actual desperation that I felt in the same sense of being against the wall, decisions needing to be made and all. No. There was within me a deeply rooted fear of not taking advantage of my potential. It’s laughable, of course. I was making decent money, had dropped out of college, but had enough capital to pay bills, travel and have fun. I wouldn’t say I was interesting, or overly bustling with talent. I was a guy, plain and simple.
I wanted to fulfill something. Anything. I wanted to be impassioned, to feel as though my life mattered. It truly hadn’t previously. Meanwhile, I was busy thumbing my nose at people that had interests such as wine. Who the hell would want to drink old grape juice while eating perfectly cooked fish or steak? And why would wine lovers try to make it seem like they knew something that others didn’t. I didn’t get it.
Many of you know the story that I’ve told about finding wine and how I fell in love with it. Part of the story that never gets told is that I needed wine. I needed to be engaged, to be switched “on”. I was in a loveless marriage filled with issues and so I dove deeply into my new distraction. From the issues that were there in the relationship, I decided that I needed some sort of reprieve, something to make life make sense for me. I ran towards what was making me happy, my obsession with wine deepening as things at home deteriorated.
Suddenly, I couldn’t help but read everything that I could get my hands on to read, or watch every television clip that was wine related. My fascination led me to wine tastings; meetings with friends that would endure beyond a decade; and entry into a new world. I was hooked!
Eventually, I decided to go all in and make my own wine. Luckily, I was able to find grapes that I had previously thought to be beyond the scope of possibility. I relied on simplicity to guide my every move while making the wines, and it seemed to work.
All the while, I had detailed my journey online. I had mentioned on Robert Parker’s forum when I was expecting my first daughter, showing everyone her nursery that I had painted and decorated. I posted there too when I decided to get my securities licenses to work with Merrill Lynch and even when I quickly decided to leave finance to make wine. The support was enormous, if beyond pale, in a reality. I was just a basic guy, trying to reinvent myself. I knew quite a bit less about wine than nearly everyone else on the forums. It didn’t matter to me though, I had decided what I was going to do. The support was exactly what I needed at the time.
I didn’t ask for help, but it was give just the same. I would land a job working for one of the most talented and thoughtful individuals I’ve even known, Ed Kurtzman. He didn’t laugh at the dreams I had, and supported me in my blind ambition, even if I couldn’t even tie a hose around a spigot the right way. Within a few months, I’d documented every task I’d done at Freeman Winery in Sebastopol, California, with a small group of wine lovers taking note of my progress.
And just like that, as soon as I started, I would decide to move forward to making my own wine. Mind you, a lot of folks, especially in California say that they “make” their own wine. They don’t. Many “winemakers” are merely the face in front of the carefully crafted wine advertisement that you may or may not be buying in to. I didn’t want that. I knew the value of my pursuits were to satisfy my own curiosity. Instead of being an armchair winemaker, complaining about others having chosen to add foreign yeasts, add sugar, or make judgements on what types of barrels were used, I decided to do it myself. I’m competitive as all hell. I truly am. But, this wasn’t a competition. This was to find out what would happen if I made wine in a manner that was basic as all hell, straight to the point, but potentially without commercial interest.
If nothing else, I could drink it myself. Looking at it honestly, how in the World can you truly understand a process by watching? Your own two hands need to touch as many points of experience as possible while you are able. And so I did.
Knowing that there were issues at home, I’d tried to focus on straddling both the US and France for residence. I couldn’t leave my family in search of a dream. My plan was to get to France, and get a plan. I know what that looks like, but that’s me in all honesty. And while this is crazy (it really is), it generally works. The reason I have this approach is that paralysis can set on if there are too many self-placed obstacles at the start of idea creation. There are many variables that are unknown, hypotheticals which may or may not happen. It makes the most sense to simply push forward after doing your homework, sorting out likely ways to avoid potential pitfalls and put some of those variables in motion in order to deal with the reality of the project. If you don’t, it is easy to talk yourself out of it all before ever having taken the first step.
I continued on, writing as I went on the Parker forum. At that time, Robert Parker, an easy target to many, had not only been the World’s most influential wine critic. He was also an active member of the forum. A certain group, increasing in size, would later be called “wineberzerkers” by Parker in an attempt to highlight their seemingly misplaced zeal for causing issues, and more to the point, attacking Parker with personal insults.
Parker was no friend to this group, and so many of this took pride in slinging enough insults at him to earn bans from the open and free internet forum. Many Burgundy lovers (of which I was included), having grown tired of the aggressive comments by Parker about Burgundy and those that drink their wines, decided to look for other places on the internet to discuss wine.
Just then, one of the members that had been an instigator of issues on the Parker site decided to create a site that would appeal to those that were cast away from Parker’s site through banishment or those that had left the site from frustration. The site was named as a clap back from the term coined by Parker, and the forum grew moderately.
Over the next few weeks, I would have my nose in every book on Burgundy that I could find, including French books about wine. I would also watch French movies, all for the sake of teaching myself the language. After a while, many of us Burgundy lovers from the old forum were told to visit the new forum. The site wasn’t a haven for misfits, mind you. There were many wine producers, distributors, winemakers, and others within the industry that had visited the site in the hopes of finding interesting content.
Unfortunately, what they, and I found, were countless threads attacking Robert Parker, his wife, house, lack of professional skill and even his dog. Every photo was scrutinized, and personal attacks showed no boundary.
In one of the threads, the owner of the site was asking for input on how to make the site better. Knowing that the growing reputation for the forum was one based upon insults and speaking obsessively about Parker, I suggested that content be generated that was of absolute value to the community.
Speaking further, I volunteered to create a weekly tasting series about Burgundy. The entire community was invited to contribute. Each week, I would pick a new village in Burgundy to highlight, give a background on the vineyards, often translating chapters written on the village from my (since stolen-more on that later) priceless book collection dating to the late eighteenth century. Everyone would be invited to write tasting notes on wines that they were tasting specifically for the weekly event, or from previous tastings.
The result was a dramatic increase in visitors to the site. More importantly however, was an adjustment in what the culture of the site portrayed to onlookers and those within the community. On the other wine sites, members of those forums would promote the weekly Burgundy tasting series which increased the legitimacy of the site.
During this time, I had packed up for Burgundy, continuing to document my experiences on my personal blog. At the request of the website owner, I started reposting these entries of my journey from living in California and making wine to putting together a winery in Burgundy onto his site. The response was overwhelming with support and encouragement. At that time, I was looking for modest grapes. I hadn’t had any luck, but that soon changed. I would go on to find sources for buying fruit from two grand cru vineyards, and from one premier cru vineyard. One of the vineyards was a world-renowned site called Chambertin. It had been noted as one of the most exceptional vineyards in the World over many centuries, and I was getting the opportunity to make wine from it.
Me. From Oakland. Not many years from dropping out of school in New Orleans, my head typically full of braids. That was still me. The guy that came back to California disenchanted about the California lifestyle and everything that it exhibited. Me, the guy that had a few years earlier let a girl drive my BMW roadster in San Francisco on Brotherhood Way while I was the passenger, a night that involved my car being totaled as we drifted passenger-side into and through a turn signal pole. I’d take the rap for the accident as the girl ran off, was later found at gunpoint, only to insist that I was the driver. She was let go and I would shoulder the blame and suspicions from my parents. In that moment, having changed little from moments such as those where I needed to look inward to find something to feel good about, it was a shock to actually have people, strangers, encouraging me.
As time went by, I would share my wine making progress with everyone, the analysis, everything I could really through photos, videos, and documentation. I was transparent not for the sake of being transparent. But, for the sake of allowing others similarly obsessed. Hell, I didn’t even know if the wine would be good, so I decided to always be neutral in my prose relating to the wine. I adopted a dry tone when discussing my impression of my own wine, while allowing my full enthusiasm to shine through when speaking of others.
From the beginning, there were naysayers suggesting that I had been duped into buying Moroccan grapes, or that someone else must be making my wines. It was suggested that I couldn’t possibly make sound wines from Chambertin and other famous wines myself. Some every stated without any suggestion as to why the accusation would be suggested, that I bought the wine in barrel and claimed it as my own. When others pointed out my unprecedented level of documenting everything throughout social media, my blog and on the wine forum, no apologies or corrections were ever offered. Instead, those that were baseless doubters would disappear into the shadows waiting for more nonsense to sling against the wall.
A few months in, Becky Wasserman’s son Peter and I went to one of his favorite places to eat in Burgundy. It was located just off the main road, the RN74, in a small village called Ladoix-Serrigny. It was a beautiful place, with overgrown ivy climbing up the tattered painted walls of the main restaurant. The dining room was rustic, in the best way possible. It smelled of old wood and red wine, the scent of the forest that was in the rear of the building softly blowing through the opened century-old windows. Nearly fifty emptied bottles of rare bottles of Burgundy and Bordeaux stood proudly at attention upon the old marble fireplace. Decades worth of old Burgundy Village wine tasting posters clung desperately to the yellow-tinged wallpaper that went from floor to a fluted mahogany-colored exposed beams.
We ordered duck confit, and two dozen escargots. The chips arriving with the perfectly meaty piece of duck thigh, fried in its own fat, were precise golden cushions of delight. As soon as the plate hit the table, it seemed that tradition compelled you to wolf down the whole lot of them, skin of your tongue be damned. I couldn’t have known at the time, but this meal, at this place, would eventually become my favorite restaurant in France.
Peter showed me the ropes of Burgundy decadence. More accurately, he showed me how to be what some craving to use a spot of French would describe as being a “bon vivant”, someone that lives well. Me? I think the guy simply sought pleasure in everything he ate and drank, and so I would always follow suit in his food choices. He’s to thank for my love of dipping marzipan in vat of double cream while drinking Sauternes. What he is also to blame for is my first international article.
“Petey, what’s new?” A voice cracks out behind me.
“Craig”, Peter motions over to our table for Craig to join us. Craig calls out,”Nah, join us, man.”
Peter gets up and I follow, both of us joining Craig at a table of six other guys, mainly well-dressed Americans.
“Pete, you know everyone here. Who’s the new guy?”
Peter smiled back then barked out a laugh, “This guy?”
I butt in, shaking everyone’s hands as I introduce myself. “I’m just Ray”
Craig looks down his glasses at me, giving me a once-over and mutters to himself, “…just Ray. Ok, got it. So, Petey, what’s new. What’s the scoop right now?”
Peter smiles again, “Well, if you want to know what’s going on,” he tilts his head towards me, “it’s this guy”.
Everyone looks at me. I know what they’re thinking. I was the least dressed out of everyone. I was in flip flops, a t-shirt and shorts, they were in suits. Craig motioned for me to come out with it,
“Alright, what’s the story?”
“Well, there isn’t a story. Not yet at least.”
Everyone at the table chuckled. Craig just leaned in, repeating himself,
“The story, c’mon, spill it.”
I didn’t see what the big deal was. I explained that I was from California, doing finance, with no experience in wine to speak of beyond what I’d done at Freeman and August West. I was trying to teach myself how to speak French, and mainly just cracking people up when they heard me speak. I wasn’t a success story. I was a guy wanted to to pull back the curtain of Burgundy wine making by being basic in my approach, nothing fancy. No story.
Halfway in, his mouth was hung open. It was the first time I’d seen anyone actually doing that facial expression, so I’d caught myself somewhat laughing while I was telling the story until he stopped me dead mid-sentence.
“Hold up, hold up. What’s your name?” He fumbled with his jacket pocket and then reached into his sack that he had under the table.
Peter nodded to himself while the others at the table started to speak out about their impressions of what I was doing. Craig continued to rifle through his things until he stopped, sighed out loud and then slammed down a recorded onto the table, sliding it in front of me.
Looking in my eyes, “All of it. Every fucking word.”
I told my story again, Craig nodding the whole way through, interjecting with questions as they came to him. He asked me and then looked at Peter, “What grapes?”
Peter motioned back to me, the eyes at the table pointed at me in anticipation,
“Morey Premier Cru” everyone got really quiet, “Charmes”
Craig choked, “Charmes-Chambertin?”
I nodded, “Yeah.”
Craig looked at the others, chuckling, “Californian with Charmes…”yeah”. Ok, what else?”
“Chambertin.” The table fell flat, and dove down into a hundred meters of silence. Craig nodded, looking me over, now chewing gum that I didn’t know he had been chewing, “Yeah. Yeah. Ok, I’m running it.”
“Running what?” I didn’t know what the hell he was was on about. “What’s your name?”
Craig offered his hand out for a shake, “Craig Copeta, I write for Bloomberg. This is a story, kid.”
From there, things looked up. I’d appear in Bloomberg again, BusinessWeek, USA Today, and others before Eric Asimov contacted me from the New York Times. Long story short, the article did well. A day later, I noticed that the story was trending on the NYT site, so I called up Eric to thank him.
“You know, Ray, the story did well. I have people sending me notes on the story. I wouldn’t be surprised if you got a book deal or even a movie deal out of this.”
I couldn’t believe it. Writing had been my first dream. I didn’t want to place much hope in the possibility of his words being anymore than a compliment that would surely stay with me the rest of my life.
As things happen, not thirty minutes later, Eric informing me that Penguin contacted him wanting to get in contact with my literary agent, wanting me to write a book. I didn’t have an agent. Long story short, I wrote the book myself, my typing flaws aside. Turns out that people liked the book. I decided to not talk about race, or how my marriage had been, instead I wrote about everything that was needed to move the story arc forward. Nothing more and nothing less.
It’s interesting to note that several forums at the time begrudged my appearing in the New York Times. A few said that the only reason I was being discussed was because I am African-American. After responding to these ignorant statements setting the record straight with showing pictures of my parents, one being white, the other African-American, race would have a stronger undertone to the public comments of my detractors.
It is interesting to be a writer, an author. On one hand, when you are unsure of whether or not you will be published, you have both a hope that you will be published but also the benefit of knowing that you might hold onto to an intimate anonymity with your work. In that sense, you can write knowing that you yourself decide and dictate whether or not there is an option that your thoughts, words and impressions will be shared.
My situation was different. I had the book deal before writing the first chapter of The Road to Burgundy. With having children, I didn’t wish to speak publicly in a negative fashion about my relationship with my children’s mother. I strongly believed that they would one day read my book, and that it would hurt them and their relationship with their mother if I spoke out publicly about things which I figured should not be in the public domain.
As the years progressed, my reputation in the wine world grew. Funny enough, a big part of my reputation grew from unfair wine “tests” which basically involved unfair competitions between my wines and the wine of others. Due to my increasing price that I asked for my wines, some thought blind competitions involving wines of well established and famous domaines should be a test of my wine’s legitimacy. I didn’t see it that way. However, the wines showed well and were even well received by professional critics.
That last point is interesting. I’ll be brief in mentioning this at the moment, but it is my belief that professional critics can be of help but also can harm not only demand for a winery, but more importantly the wine culture at large. The issue comes down to how much stake someone is placing in the palate or words of another. This is true in many categories, but with wine, it is more dangerous as so many, especially here in the US, view wine as an almost mystical beverage. This feeling of not being able to trust your own impressions with wine empowers others to dictate theirs tastes upon others, but also diminishes one’s own experience and knowledge growth. With this in mind, I was already flirting with the idea of discontinuing visits by professional critics, though I’d only received excellent impressions on my wines. My thought was that their lofty compliments shouldn’t be worth more than any other person that would drink my wine.
Having a critic’s unique unrepeatable impression placed on a pedestal was my hurtful than beneficial in my eyes. Besides, I’d seen how a particular broker in Burgundy would traditionally house well known critics in her home, showing them countless wines from producer’s in her own portfolio as well as organizing paid for tasting “experiences” with clients and friendly critics who would go on to champion the wines in said portfolio. I didn’t wish to be involved in this practice even though I was currently benefiting from the rating system myself.
The reviews of my second vintage came out and again the wines were universally praised. One thing bothered me about the scores and comments that I’d received from a truly well known critic that I personally admired. My wines from two completely different vintages received damn near the same scores and commentary. Along with that, there was no mention of my having gone to 100% used barrels which was a great departure from the previous vintage. I griped about this to Peter when the topic came up since he knew this particular critic very well, almost as if they were great friends.
“Pete, you see my reviews for the 10s?”
“Yeah, good job, Bud.”
“Well, did you see the notes on the 09s? Damn near the same thing.”
“Really?” He looked up the two sets of notes and laughed. “I don’t know man. But, they’re nice, right?”
That wasn’t the point. “I don’t think he gets what I’m doing. How can my wines even be judged the same way if they are made in a completely different way, especially without new oak on the grand crus?”
Peter was quiet before eventually letting out a conciliatory exhale. “It isn’t that. He gets it. But…” He hesitated.
“Well, he doesn’t think that you’ve struggled enough?”
What the hell could that mean? I repeated his words back at him, “I haven’t struggled…enough?”
“Well bro, you started out with Chambertin. He doesn’t want to give you too much praise before you do well in a bad vintage, or make some great wine from a mediocre vineyard.”
“Say what? Why does it matter?”
“Dunno. But it does to him. He said he’s keeping it all under 95s until then.”
I was upset.
“Ok, he isn’t tasting them anymore.”
Puzzled, “Taste what?” He laughed, “Dude, your wine?” He laughed again. “He has to taste it, though. ….Right?”
He didn’t actually. “Nope. He’s out.”
“He isn’t out.”
“Well, he can taste, but he can’t write about it.”
“He just won’t taste it then.” He sounded almost nervous for me, but at the same time he liked the idea of there being a potential dust up from the decision that I’d made.
“Wait. You can’t block him and let others taste.”
“Why not, it’s my damn wine.”
“Well…” He was back being nervous. “What if…just hear me out. What if others say good shit about your wines that you let taste and then you block someone you feel doesn’t exactly get what you’re doing? Kinda looks sketch. Either everyone tastes or no one. Anything else? Sketch.”
“Alright. No one tastes professionally.”
Peter howled over the phone, “Dude, this is gonna piss some folks off!”
….to be continued….