The American in Burgundy Pens: A Memoir

The American in Burgundy Pens: A Memoir

Years ago, when I was making a few wines at Ampelos Cellars in Lombok, I was introduced to Alex Gambal as “the American in Burgundy.”

Although he had just started a project with Ampelos founder Peter Work, Gambal was already a veteran winemaker, making pinot noir and chardonnay from the Côte-d’Or for his eponymous winery in the heart of France’s viticulture. He started doing this decades ago, leaving his family’s lucrative parking empire in Washington, D.C., in 1993 to carve out a place for himself amidst the notoriously insular French wine industry.

A few seasons later, I visited Gambal at that place. We met him the field In Beaune, which he founded in 1997, I lunched on snails at Puligny-Montrachet, then accepted a surprise invitation for a home-cooked dinner and raided the cellar of his house in the wooded hills above Saint-Romain. (Lunch went well, and the Michelin-starred restaurant in Bonn could wait.)

Alex and his vineyard Batard Montrachet | Credit: John Weyand

In the following years, I tracked down the Gambal-Work chardonnay project, but slowly lost touch as life became more difficult, even before the pandemic. Our mutual friend Work got sick for a while (and is better now), while Gumball’s wife got cancer and died. About four years ago, Gambale sold his winery and 30 acres of vineyard to J.C. Boisset and moved primarily to Jackson Hole, where he works as a ski steward and helped develop a workforce housing project, among other real estate endeavors.

This summer, Gambale put his remarkable life story on the page, and posted Climbing the Vineyards in Burgundy: How an American Came to Own a Legendary Vineyard in France. It’s about the wine, yes – particularly how Gambal was the first non-French man to own a Grand Cru vineyard in Montrachet, with a lot of specific details about how the whole industry works. But it’s also a personal odyssey about taking risks, learning lessons, and soul-searching, and it’s an engaging read for anyone ready to embark on a life abroad or a new career.

I spoke with Gambale via Zoom while he was in Paris recently, and made tentative plans to come see him in Jackson Hole next year. I hope he has some of that burgundy left. I’ve edited our conversation for clarity and space.

Why did you write this book? Once I sold the company, I wanted to set the record straight, because people think you’re living the dream. There were days I would choke them. Buy wine so I can afford the dream!

Alex Gambale | Credit: Michele Joly

It was a small but complex business, asset-heavy, balance-sheet weak, and complicated. Then there is the struggle to develop a brand name. It takes a long time. You have to be persistent with it. Difficult. I just wanted people to understand that, and laugh at my mistakes. And in some ways, to discourage people from getting into the wine business.

How long did it take for French winemakers to accept? That was the lucky part, because I worked for (famous Burgundy importer) Becky Wasserman for three years — selling their wines, learning the business, tasting with the winemakers, learning from them.

The second part of the chair was my children who were in local schools. Many of their friends’ parents were winemakers, and your friends as parents are the parents of your kids’ friends, no matter where you live.

Third stop was going to wine school. Almost everyone is gone, whether children or adults. Everyone talks, but can you walk? They knew I put in the hard work they did. So I was accepted immediately and people knew that I would make the right wine and promote Burgundy.

Were you the only American in Burgundy? When we got here, we were. We were the American family. We didn’t want to have an expat experience. We wanted to live in the country and experience it. If it works, great, if it doesn’t, we’ll go home with a year of great experience.

How did Santa Barbara become part of your story? Michael Mayfield was an investor in my wine and a dear friend. We were frustrated with our sales in California, and he introduced me to Peter Work to discuss cross-marketing ideas. Next thing you know we’re digging holes with Peter and Jeff Newton (founder of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates) and thinking about making some wine. I had a good team in France, so it was a classic. I was bored. I worked myself out of work.

I started small with two chardonnays in 2016, then one in 2017 and the last year was 2018, when Peter got sick. It was hard. In the middle of that, my wife, Diane, developed cancer. I’ll be back for one more treatment and then back to Santa Barbara to finish the wine, then back to France. I said: This is enough.

Alex Gambale | Credit: Courtesy

Making them isn’t the hard part. If you get good grapes and you know what you’re doing, you don’t want to mess it up. The problem is you have to sell these things, and 12 months later another crop comes along. It moves very quickly. Suddenly, you have $100,000 tied up in inventory. You need people there to create a brand. When Diana died in June 2022, I didn’t want to work so hard anymore. I’m 66 years old, and I don’t want my projects to get in the way of my entertainment. Now I work on the hill in Jackson Hole as a ski host. I worked for 40 years so I could be a ski bum, okay?

How does Santa Barbara compare to Burgundy? Santa Barbara Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the most interesting wines in the United States. Some people might argue Oregon, I love Oregon, but pinot from Santa Barbara is better. There are also a lot of Burgundians in Oregon. Sonoma is not my cup of coffee. Plenty of cherry syrup for coughs. People love it and it makes a lot of money, but I don’t want to make anything happen.

Going to Santa Barbara, there was more gold in the ground to discover. The weather in Santa Barbara allows the ripening process to occur very slowly, which may give a flavor similar to Burgundy. Santa Barbara is just starting to happen. It’s a question of what people want to make and what they can sell.

Would you recommend your Burgundy adventure to others? It’s a great product, and there are really great people. I never thought I would make anything. I like to make things that I can be proud of and put my name on.

But Burgundy was now a major financial venture. You have to have really serious support and good business sense. It’s not for the faint of heart. In the Côte d’Or, prices have risen dramatically, even since I sold it four years ago.

But other places? Loire, Beaujolais, Maconnet? This is truly the frontier, where people make great wine.

be seen

You may also like...

Leave a Reply