Next Life

Ray Walker Would Rather Make Great Wine


Shortly before the 2009 grape harvest in Burgundy, France, Ray Walker decided to leave his job at Merrill Lynch (BAC), rent a house in the Côte de Nuits countryside, and open a winery there. That year the 30-year-old vintner became the first American to make Chambertin wine when he founded Maison Ilan.

Walker worked in the family real estate business before joining Merrill as a financial adviser. He wasn’t happy, though, and he was “obsessed” with wine. “I told my wife I wanted to quit to clean tanks and barrels,” he says.

It took one season as a grunt at Freeman Vineyard in Sonoma County to convince Walker he wanted to run a winery of his own. “My passport was expired, I had no contacts, no money, and had never gone to France before,” he recalls. He got lucky when an investor he met in a wine forum offered to match Walker’s $25,000 with a $25,000 loan. Walker moved to France in 2009 and then brought his family over. He first tried to buy the lower-priced village grapes for $6,000, thinking to use the remaining money for equipment and facilities. But the only grapes he could find were the higher quality grand cru and premier cru, so he went back to his investor for $100,000 more. In his first year he ended up buying 11½ barrels of grapes and a 95-year-old wine press. In 2011 he expanded production to 32 barrels and made eight different wines.

“In real estate it’s one thing to say, ‘I have this client,’ ” he says. “It’s another to go into your cave, pick up a bottle, and say, ‘this is what happened in this vintage and these were the struggles and sacrifices,’ all in that one bottle.”

Advice

 
1. Don’t fixate on finance
If you approach business just looking at the numbers, then you lose sight of what’s important. If you look at the best product possible, you’re protecting your brand and its integrity because you’re not diluting it.
 
2. Crash the club
Nothing has to be a boys’ club you’re locked out of. People limit what they can do because they listen to their friends and do what other people think they’re capable of, rather than what they really think they can do.

With A. Craig Copetas

Silicon Valley State of Mind
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