Fine Wine

Alex Gambal’s Climbing the Vines in Burgundy

Have you ever thought about packing in your day job and heading to a storied wine region to pursue your dream of making wine? That’s exactly what Alex Gambal did in 1993, moving his wife and two kids in school from Washington, D.C., to Beaune, in the heart of sleepy Burgundy, to explore the wine business. Now, after nearly 30 years of making wine in the region, he has written a book about his experience.

Climbing the Vines in Burgundy (Hamilton Books, 272 pages, $25) is both a personal journey and a rare insight into the inner workings of growing grapes and making wine in Burgundy. In it, Gambal provides detailed insight into building a fine wine business, purchasing vineyards in a foreign country, the difficult task of making and selling wine, the dissolution of his marriage and the heart-wrenching loss of his second wife. Gambal approaches his professional career as a négociant and domaine owner with wry humor and pragmatism.

As Wine Spectator‘s lead taster for Burgundy, I’ve reviewed Gambal’s red and white Burgundies, beginning with the 2002 vintage through the 2016 vintage, released in 2019, the year Maison Gambal was sold to Burgundy giant Boisset for an undisclosed sum. During that time, more than 150 of his Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays earned outstanding scores of 90 points or higher, with seven earning classic ratings of 95 points or more.

Gambal fell in love with wine through a local retailer in D.C. Though he had never been to France, his first visit in 1992 took him to Burgundy, where said retailer connected him with the late Becky Wasserman, a wine broker whose company represented a group of small growers.

After three years working as an apprentice with Wasserman and gaining a great introduction to the wines of Burgundy through her company, plus developing connections within the local wine community through his kids’ schools, Gambal decided to study winemaking in Beaune.

 Author Alex Gambal is pictured on the cover of <em>Climbing the Vines in Burgundy</em>.

Winemaker Alex Gambal’s new memoir, Climbing the Vines in Burgundy, published by Hamilton Books

He details navigating the French bureaucracy and the challenge of buying grapes, must, wine and eventually vineyards, all the while attempting to stick to a business plan and living on two continents. His first winemaking facility had no heat, fickle electricity and an outdoor toilet.

If it was difficult enough to vinify, age and bottle fine red and white Burgundy, it was even more difficult to sell it, especially within the context of fluctuating crop sizes, grape prices, economic cycles and regulations imposed by export markets.

Though he claims to have gone into the project with eyes wide open, his mantra became “anything is possible so don’t slow down.” Gambal’s candidness and humor explaining and describing the pitfalls and surprises around every corner (some of which he recounted in a 2004 guest blog on our site) make this book such a great read, with plenty of characters and anecdotes.

I always believed that at heart, Gambal is an entrepreneur. He loved making the deals, even as they became more expensive and more complex and difficult. His crowning achievement was acquiring 0.93 acres in Bâtard-Montrachet in 2011. By the end of 2015, Gambal controlled 30 acres of vineyards, farmed organically or biodynamically, accounting for two-thirds of his winery’s 6,000-case production.

For anyone that thinks the wine business is “living the dream”—all glamor and Michelin-starred dinners—this is a reality check: an insider’s 25 years of experience making fine wine. For Burgundy lovers looking for a different take on the region, this is a must-read.

Gambal reports that a second printing with corrected typos will be issued in the next few weeks (so act fast if you’d rather grab one of those “unique” first editions).

Climbing the Vines in Burgundy ($25, 272 pages)

By Alex Gambal, published by Hamilton Books

Available at

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