December 27, 2013

Book review: The Road to Burgundy

[ed. note 2015 - I'm leaving this post up for historical purposes, but the author's public interactions have left me incredibly queasy and unable to continue endorsing what's written below. Perhaps I should have done more research...]

After far too long a delay, I just finished reading Ray Walker's The Road to Burgundy. Why the delay? Reasons reasonable and not, none to do with the book. Well, mostly.

Let's start by being clear - this tale is a fun read for armchair wine geek travelers and non-geek dreamers alike. It's not fine literature and the editor in me wanted to break out the red pencil more than a few times. Then I would remember, this isn't my story, just sit back and enjoy it. 

And I did. 

How can I resist the story of an impossible dreamer who throws all common sense aside for his passion? Especially if that passion is making wine, from Pinot noir no less?

Yet for me sometimes that was the problem. While I in no way want to compare my story to Ray's - there's really no comparison - so many of Ray's challenges hit close to home, sometimes way too close, to my own journey from wine making novice to established professional.

Like Ray, I've found most people along my journey to be surprisingly supportive, even miraculously so at particularly necessary moments. Ray compares the  kindness of Burgundians to the indifference of Californians. I kept thinking - Ray's descriptions of Burgundy reminded me of Oregon. People helping for no reason or pay. People working on a small scale for the wine and not the fame. 

Then there are those horrible moments and people who can do nothing but push their awfulness your way. Why? There's no answer, just the reassurance that you're not the first, nor will you be the last, to feel the brunt of someone's fear turned into abrasiveness. 

Reading Ray's recounting of his weird experience with the facility where he made his first vintage was particularly painful for me. I took a while to get through that part, but that's just me, not the book talking. 

Mostly, I loved reading over a tale I largely knew already after I'd followed Ray through the years as an internet acquaintance. I remember his posts online about wanting to work harvest, then the move to France and trials along the way. There was even a terrific Graperadio podcast with Ray, early in his quest when he was still presuming all he could aim for were low level grapes, not the crus he ended up with. 

I also took a bit longer than I might have to finish this book just for the time to process the joy of Ray's story juxtaposed with the bitterness and suspicion of him that I've witnessed in the online world. 

It began with seemingly well intended people who were so condescending in their concern that Ray didn't have the experience necessary to pull off his project. Concern is one thing, but some people were outright hostile to Ray's dream. 

I've never understood why that was, but thinking about it all caused me to slow down my reading of this book. I just couldn't make sense of it, and that was only worsened by more recent nitpicking of everything about Ray from him as a person to his incredible honesty about his concerns for his wines as they were being made, to the usual complaints about when is he going to ship wine, does he even know how to navigate that, surely this will all still blow up in his face. Etc., etc. 

I've never met Ray but it's to the point where the insane criticism I've witnessed about a nice guy who's clearly more complex then one book can convey - aren't we all? - made it harder still to let go and allow the story to envelope me. Not so reasonable, I know. But there you are. 

Ray's book ends on a happy note and by the looks of things, Ray isn't resting after what was just his fifth vintage in Burgundy. Now he's apparently involved in a Nebbiolo project in Piedmont. Could the next book be The Road to Barolo? I'm hoping so.

Just spare me your "wisdom" about how this skinny kid from California, who probably just got lucky in France, is really going to fuck it all up in Italy. Good grief. Just read the book, preferably with some Burgundy in your glass, and enjoy. I know I did. 

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