Roy Cloud runs Vintage ’59, a boutique importer specializing in French wines based in Washington, D.C. In his debut book, To Burgundy and Back Again: A Tale of Wine, France, and Brotherhood, the oenophile chronicles an impromptu trip to France to persuade small-scale winemakers to do business with him. Just one minor problem though. Cloud had only the crumbled remains of his high school French under his belt, so he invited his brother Joe to tag along—and translate. What results is a tour through the terroirs of central France, as well as an exploration into the meaning of family and brotherhood.
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When did you first realize that you wanted to write this book? Did someone suggest the idea?
The idea for the book was mine, but when, where, how—I’m afraid I can’t remember other than I must have started it in 2005. But I do remember the why, which was that I thought it could be a fun story, a sort of Adventures on the Wine Route. But then, pretty quickly, the story became more serious. I could not ignore my father [who suffered a traumatic head injury that landed him in a coma during a cycling holiday in France right before Cloud set off on his own trip to Europe]. His accident [turned] what started out as a light-hearted tale into something else.
What was your writing process like? A book-length narrative is quite different from writing back labels for wine.
Yes, a book is different than writing a back label! But the back-label work was and is a great discipline. You have a defined space that normally gives you roughly 500 characters (spaces included) to tell the story of the domaine (farm), its wine and approach, and the region. The aim is to be precise and educational without pandering.
Originally, back in the day the memoir is set in, I worked with this old Beatnik, one Jim Robertson, who had a letterpress shop way out in the middle of nowhere in northern California. His passion was the books he printed, but he made his living doing graphic arts and odd printing jobs with wineries. He played editor to my back labels, and he really cared. He carefully considered each word and sentence, and we had a terrific back and forth. Except, he had this explosive temper and he swore like crazy. If I made a change without consulting him, sometimes he’d get on the horn and scream, “What the ____ is X doing in this copy?!” And it wouldn’t stop there. Sometimes he’d hang up in disgust. He’d calm down in a few minutes and call me to apologize with all manner of guilt then bark at me to stop pissing him off.
Writing about wine has gotten a bad reputation, but you do it well. What do you see as the major pitfalls in bad writing about wine? And what is it you set out to do differently?
So much about wine is bogus because it has become about “lifestyle,” and that is a real pitfall. The entire premise of The Wine Spectator magazine is based on the notion of lifestyle and it’s the leading wine magazine in the U.S.—at least based on advertising dollars.
Wine is something that can express its origin of place better than any other food or drink. Coupled with that is the tradition of wine being made by small farmers. So it’s ready-made for romance. This romance gets abused pretty badly, but the fundamentals are there. In the book, I tried to stick to the fundamentals. I like the farmers I work with a lot, and they have wonderful stories that do not need sugarcoating.
What’s the state of your French these days?
My French certainly has improved. I can have a conversation, and I can easily speak about wine in a cellar with a French grower. Beyond that, however, I’m still not fluent. But I’m still working on it. I have two young people in my office and both speak fluently. One of these days, I will get there.