Ray Walker: The Innovation Interview

Ray Walker, Vinificateur/Owner of Maison ILAN shares his thoughts and insights on burgundy and how technology and innovation are impacting the wine industry.

Ray Walker had a secure career in finance until a wine-tasting vacation ignited a passion that he couldn’t stifle. Ray neglected his work, spending hours poring over ancient French winemaking texts, learning the techniques and the language, and daydreaming about vineyards. After Ray experienced his first taste of wine from Burgundy, he could wait no longer. He quit his job and went to France to start a winery—with little money, a limited command of French, and virtually no winemaking experience.

Fueled by determination and joie de vivre, he immersed himself in the extraordinary history of Burgundy’s vineyards and began honing his skills. Ray became a pioneer in his use of ancient techniques in modern times and founded Maison Ilan. In 2009, Ray became the first non-French winemaker to purchase grapes and produce a wine from Le Chambertin, long considered to be one of the most revered and singular vineyards in the world.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

Innovation for me is taking from the mistakes and successes of others and yourself and bringing something new to the discussion or project.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

Every industry should do this, to take risks. There will undoubtedly be failures but the failures of today are the foundations of tomorrow’s great successes.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

My father often quoted his mother as saying in life you either wore out or rusted out. My life is going to be spent living each moment, taking advantage of each option in front of me and finding a way to make possible things that I used to think were impossible. If not, why am I here? Anyone can go through life eating, sleeping and hoping, but how many shut up, put their head down to work and make it happen?

What is your greatest achievement and why?

I am always trying to find ways to be a better father. Nothing else in this world has given me as much satisfaction than knowing my girls are happy, healthy and well taken care of. It isn’t always easy, but having this unflinching goal to be the best for them has shown me how to be a better person, a better man.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

For speed, I’d say digital. you have so much more potential in terms of media sharing and exploring in this medium. However, there is something real, respectful, tangible and of sufficient weight when it is read on a dead tree. If I am reading for pleasure, for knowledge, it Has to be on a dead tree. Digital seems more like a throw away type of thing. Funny how it actually is the opposite. But, this doesn’t diminish my preference and the reasons that I have them.

It is clear that you have a deep and profound appreciation for the history of wine. This is very evident in the winemaking processes that you employ. Have you always had such a great appreciation for history and did you ever think that you would choose to utilize minimal technology to create your wines?

I’ve always been a history geek. I just respect what has passed and can also relate to people that have lived before. At least I would like to because I believe that they often lived more meaningful lives than we do today. The pursuit of knowledge is one thing that has impressive leaps and bounds today but the general thirst to know more is something I believe we lack in today’s global reality. I never knew I’d get a chance at having my own wine. This is all still too new for me to make sense of. But, when I had the first bit of grapes in my hand I felt like I was holding the bounty from a sacred place, I was, really. And so what I felt was a sense of responsibility and yearning for being a part of the region’s history, not of some passing trend.

On your blog you write “Every email is personal and I believe it best to treat it with the respect that they deserve.” Impressive. Have you always had such a great appreciation for customer service and where does it stem from?

I always have. I think it is important to think as a consumer first. If you wouldn’t spend money on it yourself how can you ask someone else to do it? When you have a great exchange, it strengthens the entire relationship and experience. I wanted to provide that to people since I think of them as friends instead of clients. Why not, we drink together, have the same taste in wines usually and they are supportive of my endeavors. On top of all of this, I am trying to be connected with those that have an interest in doing the same with me. This is one of the most basic aspects of society but it is something that gets forgotten all too often.

In 2009 how did you go about becoming the first non-French winemaker to purchase grapes and produce a wine from Le Chambertin?

First of all, when anything happens it is the opportunity first that has provided the situation. So, I was lucky in that people were supportive of me. On top of this, I set my sights high and was rewarded with even more luck in finding grapes from a historically cherished vineyard instead of something more common. I would have been proud with finding less hallowed grapes but timing, support and luck made it all happen. There is a lot to it, but this is all in the book.

What new innovations do you feel, for better or worse, will have the greatest impact on the winemaking business in the future?

Personal contact and information sharing. When producers will pay more attention to this, especially in the old world wine growing regions, there will undoubtedly be an explosion in wine appreciation and therefore consumption throughout the world. Educating your potential clients is the best way to create a lasting relationship.

What does Burgundy mean to you?

Burgundy isn’t just a place, a wine, or destination for those on vacation. It is a physical representation of the beauty of diversity in all walks of life. There isn’t really a best or worse, one red, blue or green. Everyone sees things differently, experiences them at their own pace, and through their own unique lens. But there is beauty to be seen everywhere, all that needs to be done is to simply take the time to see what is right in front of you. It means that the land beneath your own two feet can bring something special into your life. The plot of land just next to you will be interesting as well, but to appreciate the next step, you must first understand your current location.