Jean León: The Spanish Emigré Turned Hollywood A-Lister Turned Winemaker

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The boom in craft drinks in the last couple of years is undeniably welcomed, but the explosion in new entrants to the market has made it more and more difficult to stand out, leading to some dubious claims and “alternative facts”.

Some new distilling brands, for example, now routinely buy up old trademarks and sell a drink with a history that supposedly goes back decades, if not centuries, despite said liquid most likely originating from standard surplus stock produced by one of the big distillers a county or two away.

Wine brands in the whole might not be quite as complicit, but they are by no means exempt, instead often preferring selective omission to blatantly bending the truth.

There are plenty of international wine brands owned by ginormous conglomerates that feature homely packaging and sepia-tinted backstories about how their determined immigrant founders established a pioneering winery that still stands to this day. What they don’t mention is the large scale commercial production, the bland standardisation, the corporate shareholders, quarterly reports and margin targets.

jean leon featured

This is not to say that said brands are necessarily bad or evil – just that the “storytelling” narrative adopted by marketers today has seen the truth, well, stretched somewhat.

There is, however, one brand whose backstory has never ceased to amaze me – and what’s more, it’s all true.

The story is that of Jean León, a mid-20th century Spanish emigré who escaped poverty and tragedy to live out the American Dream in full: including fame, wealth, and celebrity. It could easily form the basis of a novel or Hollywood movie, and, incredibly it all actually happened.

Rags to … Well … Slightly Better Rags

Jean León was born as Ceferino Carrión in 1929 in Santander on Spain’s northern coast, but in 1941 a terrible fire in his native city destroyed his family’s home and possessions, forcing them to move to Barcelona.

If that wasn’t enought hardship, his father and older brother died tragically that same year when a torpedo hit the boat they were travelling on. Many might have accepted their fate at this point and went to ground, but not young Ceferino.

In 1948, at the plucky age of 19, he went in the search of glory, by hook or crook. After making a first stop in Paris, he tried to cross the Atlantic as a stowaway an incredible seven times; on the eighth attempt he succeeded and finally reached the promised land of New York City.

Interestingly, one of the first things he did upon reaching America was to enlist in the US Army and serve during the Korean War, a move which entitled him to apply for a US passport and, concurrently, change his name to Jean León.

After returning to civilian life he worked any odd job he could find in order to make ends meet. He drove a cab, something that always filled him with pride, and he doubled up as a busboy and waiter. It was in the latter job, at the restaurant in the Rockefeller Center, that he began to absorb and admire the atmosphere around the actors who dined there.

This exposure to fame and fortune spurred León to cross the country to Hollywood, where he tried to make it as an actor. Alas, his acting was by all accounts terrible, and so back to taxi driving and waitering he went.

However luck did finally come his way when he landed a job at Villa Capri, the restaurant owned by Frank Sinatra and the legendary baseball player Joe DiMaggio, where he got to know the legends personally and from there built up his relationship with Hollywood’s greatest.

And so it came to be that Jean León forged a strong and lasting friendship with a certain young actor named James Dean, and together they realised a shared dream: to open the most prestigious restaurant in Hollywood, which they called “La Scala”.

Stars in His Eyes

La Scala opened on April 1, 1956, and epitomised the 1950s and 1960s like no other place on earth: think red velvet, plush banquettes, chandeliers and cigar smoke.

The clientele included the era’s most influential names in Hollywood, the music industry, politics and high society: people like Marilyn Monroe, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Marlon Brando and Robert Wagner were known to frequent regularly.

Even president John F. Kennedy was known to be a customer: though he didn’t visit in person, he often sent his driver to collect his dinner from La Scala whenever he was in Los Angeles.

The era marked the height of the American Way of Life, a time when everything was possible: rock’n’roll was born, the jazz aesthetic was everywhere, and man landed on the moon. Without a doubt, the perfect circumstances for the young, idealistic Jean Léon to make his first dream come true.

Jean León: A Man, A Time, A Wine

As well as being the perfect host and restaurateur, León was meticulous in selecting the wine for his dinners, lunches and banquets; the restaurant had an underground cellar where he stored close to 25,000 bottles, with some of the best wines in the world on the list.

It was only time, then, that Jean began pursuing his second, great aspiration: to create a wine bearing his name with which to delight his customers (and his ego, no doubt).

He initially wanted to buy a French Champagne house, but this proved to be a stretch so he turned to the country of his birth, Spain, and to Catalonia in particular, his second home following the fateful fire in Santander.

So 1962 he bought a 150 hectare property in central Penedès, at an altitude of 300-400m, tucked behind the mountains, some 20 kms from the sea, and a year later completed the winery. So far, so standard.

What Jean León did drastically differently, however, was his adoption of the Pago approach, or single vineyard property, a relatively unknown (or at least extremely rare) practice in Spain at the time.

He then pulled up all the original local varieties and planted the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, new varieties for the region and something which shocked the locals. People thought he was crazy, but he was in fact decades ahead of his time.

Jean León: A Man, A Time, A Wine

The Next Generation

Alas, all good things must come to an end. In 1994 – shortly before he died of cancer – Jean León sold the property to the world-famous Torres family, whose own homestead is a few kilometres down the road. León’s daughter and son remain in the USA: she manages La Scala, while he works for the government.

In the following couple of decades the Jean León property was a boutique curiosity for the Torres family, run deferentially by Mireia Torres Maczassek. But it was really only in the last five years or so that Torres really started ramping up investment in the winery. They brought it up to fully certifiable organic status, re-labelled all the wines, launched a new website, and more.

The result is the epic old story renewed afresh for a new generation. And what a story that is.

Jean León: A Man, A Time, A Wine

Postscript

The story of Jean León could easily fill a book, let alone one article. Here are a few more tidbits about this amazing man’s incredible life:

Jean León was reportedly one of the last people to see Marilyn Monroe alive and served her the last dinner she ever ate (which was fettuccini).
 James Dean was going to be godfather to Jean León’s first child before Dean died suddenly in a car accident.
– There is now a street named after him in Santander, the city of his birth.
 Ronald Regan celebrated his presidential inauguration with Jean León wine in 1975.
 Jean León based his new name on French neo-classical painter Jean-Léon Gérôme.
 The Italian government called Jean León and La Scala the best “ambassador” of Italian cuisine in the US.

THREE TO TRY

Jean León: A Man, A Time, A WineJean Leon “3055” Merlot / Petit Verdot

€19.99 – Available at Redmond’s of Ranelagh, Dublin; O’Driscoll’s of Ballinlough, Cork; and Bradley’s of North Main Street, Cork

Jean León’s first taxi number was 3055, so this entry-level range calls to mind his humble roots and the importance of hard work and graft. The packaging of the wine is fantastic I think, calling to mind the jazzy, alternative times in which he lived.

The juice ain’t half bad either: soft and approachable blue and black fruits with a nice amount of grip at the end make it a very drinkable and enjoyable wine.

Jean León: A Man, A Time, A WineJean Leon “3055” Chardonnay

€19.99 – Available at Redmond’s of Ranelagh, Dublin; O’Driscoll’s of Ballinlough, Cork; and Bradley’s of North Main Street, Cork

The white sister to the above red, this is very much in the fruity and tropical end of the Chardonnay spectrum.

Thanks to the Mediterranean influence, though some oak treatment gives it a sub-layer of complexity and depth.

Jean León: A Man, A Time, A WineJean Leon Gigi Chardonnay

€24.99 – Available at Mitchell & Son

Unfortunately Jean León’s flagship red, the La Scala Reserva range, can only be found on the on-trade here in Ireland, but this single-vineyard Chardonnay is a worthy nod to achievements of the man himself.

Different somewhat to the 3055 Chardonnay in that’s it’s a more concentrated and creamy, deep style, thanks to being fermented in and aged on its lees in French oak for 6 months – expect robust, toasty flavours and a savoury edge.

ARTICLE BY RICHIE MAGNIER

Richie MagnierWhen not writing for TheTaste.ie, Richie Magnier blogs at themotleycru.com and shares his thoughts via @RichieMagnier on Twitter. Don’t ask him what his favourite wine is though – that’s like asking what his favourite song is (although the latter would most likely involve U2).

Richie is also an avid food lover willing to give an opportunity to all cuisines: instead of getting carried away by trends or gimmicks, he cares about real food, that’s tasty and made with pride. Richie has been involved in the wine industry since 2008 and is currently studying the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines & Spirits.

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