Who knew that the genre Memoirs By American Wine Importers would vie for its own Dewey Decimal point? Following in the footsteps, physically and literarily, of trailblazer Kermit Lynch‘s Adventures on the Wine Route (1988), and then, much later, Neal Rosenthal‘s Reflections of a Wine Merchant (2008)—Lynch and Rosenthal were onetime partners, later competitors—along comes Roy Cloud and his To Burgundy and Back Again (Lyons Press, 216 pp.).
Cloud is the founder and President of Vintage ’59 Imports, which, like Lynch’s and Rosenthal’s outfits, specializes in small-production, grower-made, predominantly French wine “whose common thread is a respect for the land and a value decidedly placed on vineyard work over cellar wizardry,” as Cloud’s bio puts it. (I’ve always had a thing for the wildly aromatic and quite inexpensive white wine, Champ de Roy Blanc, of Coupe Roses, a Minervois producer imported by Vintage ’59.) He is in town not only to promote his new book at A Southern Season, but also to lead a tasting of wines in his portfolio from Burgundy’s excellent 2009 vintage. Some real studs are included in the $25 tasting, which includes hors d’oeuvres.
As for To Burgundy and Back, although it breaks little new ground either geographically or philosophically—Lynch and Rosenthal are old-school terroirists, champions of family-owned and operated domaines, and have much larger portfolios than Vintage ’59—it is written with a distinctly youthful ebullience and sense of purpose. (Cloud harvests an inspirational quote from a 1951 book called The Scottish Himalayan Expedition: “[T]he moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves, too.”) When Cloud first went to France to prospect for vignerons, in 1997, he loved wine and knew it well but “had little experience with the intricacies of importing and distributing.”
To top it off, he spoke no French. So he took with him his older brother, Joe, who had learned the language while studying abroad years earlier. To Burgundy and Back reads like a sort of Kerouacian, brothers-on-the-autoroute reminiscence—but with wine as the operative dharma.
Yet there is a sobering subplot. Thanks to a geographical coincidence and a freak accident, the Clouds’ father lay in a coma in the Burgundian city of Dijon during their trip. On vacation there, Cloud père had gone over the bars while careening downhill on a bicycle. In To Burgundy and Back, his sons arrive, find him still in his coma, and spend the next couple of weeks driving around France in a treasure hunt for wine to import.
The narrative involving their father doesn’t really develop—he soon disappears from the book until the epilogue, which reveals him to have emerged largely okay—but it does remind the reader that wine importers in the Cloud/Lynch/Rosenthal mold are, like the winemakers whose product they import, human beings. They have lives, feelings, families and personalities, and their wines reflect their characters and circumstances just as they reflect the grapes, the winemakers and the vagaries of any given vintage. Tuesday’s tasting offers a sort of reading of Chapter 2009, Burgundy, in the story of Roy Cloud and Vintage ’59.
“A Sit-Down Burgundy Tasting” with Roy Cloud of Vintage ’59 is Tuesday, Nov. 8, at 6 p.m. at A Southern Season. The $25 cost includes hors d’oeuvres. Cloud will also sign copies of his book. Call (919) 929-7133 or visit www.southernseason.com.