Down to Earth: An Unfiltered Perspective from a Candid Vintner

By | 27 May 2024

A vintner’s memoir should be compulsory reading for anyone considering a career as a winemaker.


Raymond Blake

Raymond Blake reviews Climbing the Vines in Burgundy: How an American Came to Own a Legendary Vineyard in France by Alex Gambal.

Gambal looks like he’s suffering from a week’s jet lag. A sense of relief rather than outright happiness escapes the fog of weariness—victory has been snatched from the jaws of defeat. Harvest for him consisted of an epic, all-hands-to-the-pumps race against time as he battled to get as many grapes as possible into the winery before the rain. It has been a tough couple of days, but the effort has been worth it.”

I penned my insights about the 2010 harvest in Burgundy shortly after visiting Alex Gambal’s winery in Beaune. This was during my trip there on September 25 that same year. He had set foot on the famous Côte d’Or in 1993, as a novice with a dream of making his wine. Fast forward to today, and his name is synonymous with the Burgundy legacy, and a reputation of creating fruity wines with a chic taste.

Now, after three decades, Alex Gambal’s journey has come to an end. Maison Alex Gambal is held by Boisset, albeit with a level of self-governance. This pattern remains consistent with the other names Boisset has taken under its wing. Gambal has come back to his homeland, the United States. For this author’s joy, he has written his story, one that serves as a stern warning for any prospective winemakers, filled with brutal honesty. This tale should be mandatory reading in wine schools around the world, and for anyone who dreams of owning a winery if they hit the jackpot, this should be the first book they pick up. This book should shatter any rose-coloured glasses one might wear when contemplating the wine industry. If I may exaggerate a bit, I’d suggest this book should have a clear warning on its cover: “Read this before you join the wine industry.”

Making worthy wine year after year, regardless of the unpredictability of weather, from the planting of the vineyard to the bottling of the final product, is indeed a task. Yet, that is only half of the challenge. The other half comprises of something most overlook: the fact that the wine won’t sell itself. Gambal calls attention to the harsh reality of the sales aspect in his book with an underlying air of prudence.

Delving into this book, one is immediately drawn into the unvarnished truths it illuminates. Particularly noteworthy are chapters 22 and 23 which delve deep into the complex and winding legal pathways involved in buying coveted vineyard land in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. The chapters provide an enlightening, yet somewhat exhausting, read filled with interesting facts and insights.

In a shift of tone, Chapter 26 recounts the dark April morning in 2016 when a severe frost, amplified by the morning sun, obliterated the vine buds. The vineyards sheltered under cloud cover were fortunate enough to be saved from overwhelming damage. The novel solution to this repetitive threat was implemented by the local grower associations in 2017 in the form of burning large hay bales to create a smoky cloud providing the required shield.

Despite the gripping chronicles, the book falls short due to multiple typographical errors and redundant sentences. The fascinating story of Climbing the Vines deserves a better drafting, to be polished by the critical eye of an experienced editor. As with Henry Goulding’s Thoughts on a Wine Cellar (WFW 78), I found it would benefit from the careful attentions of the Académie du Vin, which is now the largest wine-book publisher in the world. They should work on improving the quality of images and including an index.

Although Climbing the Vines can be verbose at places, it is evident that Gambal is pouring his heart out onto the pages. A life beautifully encapsulated within these chapters, the narrative is intriguing and devoid of any attempt to sugarcoat the reality. Hear it from a man who has not just learned about it, but experienced it firsthand. Essential reading for anyone considering a career in the wine business.

Climbing the Vines in Burgundy: How an American Came to Own a Legendary Vineyard in France

by Alex Gambal

Published by Hamilton Books (imprint of the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group)253 pages; €27.49

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