The Rules of the Game: Ray Walker, Hong Kong, and the World of Wine

One can be forgiven for missing the rise of Ray Walker in all its glory. At the end of 2010, his company, Maison Ilan, had an internet presence that was nothing more than a small blog, a couple of comments on wine forums, and a throwaway aside in the San Marin County Probations Office newsletter.[1] By the end of July 2011, there was a feature on Walker in The New York Times. The buzz around this American winemaker with his devotion to monk-invented ways of making Burgundy was seeping out of wine circles and into the mainstream. He didn’t overheat the wines or use fancy electronic machines. Instead, he did as much by hand as possible and let the soil the grapes grew in speak. As he would explain to prospective clients, “I treat my wine like I treat my tea: at a lower temperature for longer.” It was a blast to the past, each $150 bottle transporting the drinker across time and space until they landed in pre-Enlightenment Beaune. And why wouldn’t there be buzz? A beautiful interracial man with a strong jaw and chiseled abs, married to a lovely wife to whom he was utterly devoted, he sold a myth that liberal American wine buyers would love: the idea that systematic injustice can be overcome through passion, hard work, and a willingness to move to France. He seemed to follow the rules of the game they created, never complaining about the structural issues that might hold him back. It was around this time that my father Chuck first reached out to Ray, and the two became close through constant commerce. Ray’s fame outside of wine circles peaked the same week his book did: in the week of August 18, 2013, when his book, The Road to Burgundy, was 15th on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. Demand massively outstripped his supply. A few buyers were allowed a couple of cases—there are 12 bottles in a case—each year. Everyone else was out of luck. Two years later, Ray’s wife left him as rumors swirled about the timeliness of his shipping. A year after that, I spent three weeks working for him. And now, just four years after climbing to the pinnacle of the wine world, what remains of his wine is awaiting its court-ordered destruction. Wine buyers from Atlanta to Hong Kong are poised to lose vast sums ranging from $20,000 to $2.5 million.

*****

Though we had talked before, I first met Ray in person at Hong Kong International Airport in June 2016. We were both staying in a Best Western in Causeway Bay; I had booked my room at 3 a.m. from the Dubai airport as I shook off the lasting lethargy of two sleeping pills that hadn’t fully worked. Once I had, I boarded my next flight, praying that the confirmation email wasn’t a hallucination. Ray was going to teach me about the wine industry. The original plan was for me to live with him in rural France, spending the mornings helping him ship out his backlog of wines and the evenings writing. He had also hinted that he wanted me to help him film an Anthony Bourdain-style TV pilot he wanted to pitch. A week before I was to arrive in Burgundy, I’d called him to see if he had found a place for me stay. We’d both been surprised to learn that he was flying to Hong Kong on the day of my planned arrival. This was odd, considering that both Chuck and I had told him my arrival date several times. And so, after 36 hours circumnavigating the globe, flying from Atlanta to Madrid to Dubai to Hong Kong, Ray and I were now riding the train into downtown Hong Kong together. Boisterous and unabashed, he explained that a recent misunderstanding involving Viagra—after his divorce, he took it every day to “be ready”—had reshaped his body, the boost in testosterone replacing sinew with muscle, an accident he relished at every moment. He finally had a body that reflected how he saw himself, I discovered, swollen muscles becoming a manifestation of his ego.

This train ride into town, where we were to meet a client turned friend—Marv—was the only time I ever saw Ray take public transportation. Ray’s hulking frame didn’t fit into the tiny seats on the train, so he stuck his jean-clad right leg into the middle of the aisle. The rest of the trip, he took taxis, having deemed public transportation “crowded and dirty.”

While the train moved effortlessly between the lit points on the wall-mounted map, Ray worked to get to know me. The questions varied from general to purposefully personal, filled with seemingly innocuous quips that were portents of the weeks to come.

“What music do you like?”

“Is there food you don’t eat?”

“Seriously, you have to eat the seafood here. It’s different.”

“Even fresh-caught seafood?”

“You’ve got to try it. I’m going to force you, bro.”

One moment in particular should have been a warning. After asking if I was ready to party with him, he commented that Asian women were the main reason he had stayed in Hong Kong for so long after his divorce, and he asked me how I felt about them. I responded that I had no special feelings one way or the other.

“You like Asian women! Everyone does! They’re so beautiful, and they’ll do anything for Americans. They flock to you.”

He seemed uninterested in the power dynamics within the statement, and I was uninterested in explaining them to my boss of one hour. Instead I grimaced and shrugged my shoulders. Weeks later, as I struggled to explain to him why his catcalling was inappropriate, I would come to regret this decision.

According to Ray, he had wanted his second book to be about him learning to cook and make liquor in locations across the world. When he pitched it to his agent, the man responded that it sounded like a TV show. Ray took this not as the gentle rejection it almost certainly was, but as a suggestion—if he could find someone willing to film him for free, his natural charisma would ostensibly entice the networks.[3] I was the answer, a one-man director, cameraman, boom operator, and jousting partner. Ray, admittedly unused to the rigors of filming, saw it differently. I was to copy the aesthetic he saw on Instagram, and nothing more. At one point, as I protested a shot of green tea ice cream, he became particularly heated.

“It’s my show, and I’m the director. Not you!”

My response was just as asinine. “And it’s my camera, and my name listed as Director of Photography.”

This usurpation angered him even more. “There are thousands of people with a camera willing to do this just for the exposure.”

“I don’t fucking care about exposure if I’m ashamed of the shit people are seeing.”

But those fights would come later. For now, it seemed as if I was just to be his partner in crime, drinking wine and tearing up Honk Kong. Eventually, we arrived at the station, where Marv was waiting in his Tesla. From there, he drove us across Central and Causeway Bay to our hotel.

The lobby of the Best Western, located in the Causeway Bay neighborhood, was midway up the 40-story building, while the concierge sat just outside the elevator on the third floor, across from a large garage door that opened onto a neon-lit side street. From a distance, this part of Hong Kong was beautiful, skyscrapers sidling up to Victoria Peak, creating elaborate patterns interspersed with neon, each one attempting to dominate the one next to it. Up close, you were permanently in the shadows of the buildings above, those who built them, and those silently moving money within. The high-rises asserted their primacy over the sun; the neon tubes were strangled with dust. It was the type of atmosphere that perpetually overwhelms you, a million little details asking to be remembered, forcing you to create your own understanding. The average rent in the district is the highest in the world, surpassing $3,000 per square foot. Unlike much of Hong Kong, it has little history from before the British arrival in 1841. As the name Causeway Bay suggests, much of the district was originally a silted bay with a small fishing village on its banks. Shortly after they gained control of Hong Kong, the British government sold 57,000 square feet of the neighborhood to Jardine, Matheson, & Company—a company with current revenues of $42 billion—for 565 pounds, which is equivalent to 55,000 pounds in today’s currency. After this steal of a real estate transaction, the company began to fill in the watery mud, literally changing the shape of the island as they did so. By the 1880’s, the district had a sugar refinery, an ice factory, and possibly a distillery. In the early 1920’s, an opium trader named Lee Hysan bought much of the neighborhood, turning it into an amusement park-cum-circus. Hysan was born in Hawaii to a father also in the opium trade, and grew up in San Francisco. He originally bought the land for an opium refinery, until a global backlash against the drug convinced him to diversify. This backlash culminated in Hysan’s assassination in 1928, when he was shot on a street in Central. It was his family who filled in the land for Victoria Park, in the east of the neighborhood, and began building the high-rises that now block the sky and the roads that seal off the sea. After Hysan’s assassination, his opium empire transformed into a real estate conglomerate—Hysan Development Company—whose current revenues equal more than $300 million dollars and have real estate holdings across Hong Kong. Hysan and his heirs let Hong Kong clean his money, each parcel of bought land combining with time and interest to scrub away the stench of narcotics.

I grew restless as we sat in the traffic of Causeway Bay. My attention turned across the water, to Kowloon. Now the densest part of Hong Kong, Kowloon started life as a British tiger hunting reserve. The British began developing it in the 1950’s, though until recently it was mostly slums. The result is that it was seen as the poorest and most crime-ridden part of the city; if one wanted prostitutes or drugs, this was the area. To this day, despite the presence of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and several high-end shopping malls in the district, the wealthy and white of Hong Kong tend to avoid the district. In my head, the lasting image of Kowloon is watching a homeless woman’s dog wander into the middle of the street, forcing the taxis pulling out of the Ritz-Carlton to swerve out of the way. It was also Ray’s favorite district, for reasons I could never figure out. We stayed in Kowloon the second night of our trip—a brief interlude between stints at two separate Causeway Bay hotels. Even once we settled on a hotel, however, we still only booked the room for one night at time. The result was that, though Ray was supposed to pay for my hotel rooms, he stayed out too late each morning to rebook our room, forcing me to give the concierge my card to pay. She was a local woman with limited English skills. The lack of English struck me. It was the Lengua Franca of the rich in Hong Kong; in fact, it was the only language in the upscale wine stores, private clubs, and restaurant backrooms where the powerful hung out. Even the Portuguese Club hummed with what Aldous Huxley called that “beautifully compounded mixture of French and Saxon,” the mongrel language of Brits and Americans. Yet on the street, in cabs, in cheap hotels, this was not the case. Everyone on the street level spoke Cantonese, the other official language, and most had no understanding of English. The Chinese rulers of Hong Kong do not talk in the language of the populace, instead luxuriating in English, the language of the colonizer.

 

By the time we arrived at our first hotel, the Best Western in Causeway Bay, the afternoon rain had stopped, but the remaining humidity filled the air, leaving it thick and still. Ray had booked a room several floors below mine, in order to have a better view. His room faced Hong Kong Harbor. My window, on the other hand, opened up directly onto another high-rise, where I could examine the chipped cement and other symbols of decrepitude not visible from the gilding of the street view.

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*****

 

A business owner never tires of telling his origin story. Those around him, however, do tire of hearing it. To feign interest, they start to look for the minute variations from telling to telling, how the owner’s diction changes as the prospective clients do. With Ray, these variations were myriad; he never told the same story twice. His story was modular, each part a block that could be included or not, the details themselves shifting and changing, middle-class becoming poor then rich, the role of his wife growing and shrinking, the story mutating itself to the moment. Even so, however, his start has been covered extensively, from wine blogs to The New York Times to an Anthony Bourdain episode to Ray’s own book. To briefly rehash: Ray grew up in California, bouncing around various cities in the Bay Area, mostly within the East Bay. His parents owned a real estate company caught in a constant boom or bust cycle, and he never drank wine. In fact, until the trip to Italy where he proposed to his wife—whom he met shortly before he dropped out of San Francisco State—he hated the drink. But then in Florence he fell head over heels for wine, coming back to the U.S. and becoming obsessed with Burgundy. Shortly before the Great Recession of 2008, he took a job at Merrill Lynch, only to realize that he hated it and quit. Instead, he interned at a vineyard in Sonoma. He then dropped everything and moved to France, where he charmed the locals, who in turn offered him grand cru grapes that had gone unbought due to the economic downturn. Suddenly, he was the first American to ever produce Chambertin wine.[4][5] At least, this was the tale found in The New York Times and his book. But the details constantly shifted. Sometimes he studied film at SFSU, sometimes it was business, sometimes English. Sometimes he left the Bay for college, moving to New Orleans. But one thing was certain: for a period of time, Ray was wildly successful, at least for a negociant.[6] People who were not on his selling list—which was permanently at capacity—asked their friends to buy for them. Other wine-makers looked jealously at this savant, the American with no experience somehow competing with Burgonians who had spent their life learning the trade.

The first grumblings of discontent began in a May 2014 thread from the Wine Berserkers forum. It started innocuously enough, with someone from Shanghai asking if Europeans had received their wine yet. A few had, as had some in America. Many had not, but there was no worry; shipping wine is a finicky business, dependent on the weather and middlemen. There were nearly 5,000 posts on the thread; few went beyond mild concern. It is not out of the ordinary for winemakers to not ship during the summer, waiting until the temperature has fallen and the wines won’t roast. A few took badly to the delays; a “buyer beware” thread on the Cellar Tracker forum in January 2015 made the rounds through the community. Most comments on it were rueful; many wished Ray well even as they admitted that he had lied and deceived about his shipping practices—who was doing the shipping, when it would ship, the cost, and more. Wherever we went, people mentioned the thread; Ray often brought it up himself to warn clients in advance. He would froth with anger as he explained it. He had clarified everything with the creator of the thread, offering a full refund and extra wine, yet the man had still refused to take it down. To Ray the reason was simple: wine buyers expected a level of punctuality from Americans that they would never impose on a French Burgundy maker, and also the original poster wanted him to fail.

****

 

 

After we made a brief stop at the hotel to shower and change, Marv drove us to a private club on the water. A successful architect, Marv was native Chinese, even staying in Hong Kong to attend college—though his son attended UC Irvine before returning to the city. Constantly upbeat, he was Ray’s number one client and best friend. The two got along like peas in a pod, each encouraging the other’s boisterous attitudes like teenage boys peer-pressuring each other into poor decisions. He was wealthy, but not obscenely so, like some of the others we would meet on the trip. Our tables sat on the edge of the land, separated from the main building and restaurant by a perfectly manicured lawn. The only skyscrapers in view were miles to our left, almost on the other side of the bay. The lights from skyscrapers stretched themselves out as they reflected off the water, each lit window becoming a blurry sun strung out along the dark bay. As we drank a bottle of Ray’s wine—a 2011 that cost around $100 a bottle—and a buttery white, Marv described Hong Kong and his business to me and told Ray with whom he had set up meetings in the coming days. It was never quite clear what we were doing in Hong Kong—one day we would meet with members of the wine community, and then do nothing for the next two, then film all day the next day. Even the business meetings felt like an excuse to drink at lunch more than an attempt to increase sales. Mostly, it seemed we were there because Ray liked the city and because the wine buyers and women treated him like a king.

Next to us at a neighboring table sat another man, the platonic ideal of a French colonialist. He had ears that stuck out a deviation past the norm, plus a strong jaw that emphasized his widow’s peak and intense eyes. His light blue dress shirt was opened to the third button, allowing the breeze to flutter his collar, and a half-smoked cigarette was perpetually burning in his right hand. He was at the table with his wife, the two splitting a bottle of Bordeaux. It was to become a theme of the trip: in every enclave of power and prestige, in every wealth-filled nook and cranny, European ex-pats hovered. In day to day life I never saw them, but they were a constant presence at power lunches and dinner, silently observing the city, their Geist silently sending a message to locals. Ray struck up a conversation with the ex-pats next to us in French, explaining that he was a winemaker before pouring them a glass of his wine. It was one of his more glorious bottles. The pinot noir was so light that the brownish red of Burgundy became a rusted velvet; bouquets of fruit jumped onto your tongue, mingling with the minerals the vines had absorbed from the rocky French soil. Unlike some of his older wines, which followed such intense fronts with backs that fell flat, this one remained full throughout, allowing you to continue to savor each sip as the alcohol filtered into your system.

Eventually, the bottle was empty, the plates were gone, and the Frenchman had returned to Vietnam circa 1952. Ray, Marv, and I stood and began walking across the lawn. The subject of New Orleans came up.

“I went to college there!” boasted Ray. I was surprised; I thought he had spent his entire life in California and France.

“Tulane?” I asked.

“No. Not all of us went to Ivies,” he said, his tone one of pure bitterness, though he was ostensibly being sarcastic. Again and again over the course of the trip, Ray would boast about his intelligence, that he was a true polyglot.

We were walking toward the club’s whiskey cellar. The interior of it was light brown brick, covered in memorabilia celebrating those who had drunk there and what they had drunk. One of the tables in the room was taken up by a group of Brits, men and women stammering and stumbling, yelling about soccer and life in Hong Kong. The statements were aggressive, often bordering on offensive without ever crossing the line. Marv ordered us whiskey and more wine, and we drank until the liquids became jet-lag, each sip driving us further into an exhaustion that consumed our bodies, each scotch adding a pound of dead weight to be carried. At some point, I returned to the hotel. Ray didn’t; he was going to Kowloon in search of late night noodles and a massage. I was never able to confirm if the best massage parlors were in Kowloon, or if there was something weirder and darker going on. Ray said he never paid for sex, insisting without accusation or provocation, bringing it up whenever he said he was going out.

*****

 

 

I learned about wine and Ray as a way to stop daydreaming about death. A melodramatic summary, though not wholly inaccurate. It was the summer of 2015, and I was interning at a small investment bank in Atlanta. I was miserable, sitting in a windowless room for nine hours a day, designing PowerPoints, crafting spreadsheets, or most often, doing nothing. So each Sunday I met with the owner of a local wine store to learn about French wine. She would assign me a region, and I would spend the week reading up on it. Now, instead of watching grown men make six figures because they knew arithmetic, I would read about soil types and altitude’s effects on grapes. I began to wonder if winemaking was the path for me. The cyclical work schedule and propinquity to nature enticed me. The prospect of not having to hear co-workers brag about the expected size of their bonuses, multiplying their wildest fantasies in their heads until all bearing to reality was lost, did as well.

By this point, Ray and Chuck had become close. A penchant for Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young means that Chuck leaves his hair—as thick as it ever was but now fully grey, long and shaggy—held above his forehead with a soft caress of pomade. He started collecting wine in college, eventually settling on Burgundy, a region where the property lines within most vineyards are best described as patchwork—making it the most complicated region in France—as what he wanted to focus on. Like his father Mark, Chuck is in commercial real estate, a business where connections are vital while you’re simultaneously rarely at the mercy of another. Chuck focused his portfolios on shopping centers in working-class neighborhoods, both urban and rural, buying up the land in which Atlanta’s old money had little interest. Beyond purchasing from Ray, he also introduced Maison Ilan to the rest of the wine community in Atlanta, where he lives, oftentimes ordering cases for friends and family who were not on Ray’s selling list. Just like Marv and Ray, Chuck harbors a desire to be the most interesting man at the dinner party, though to blame him is not completely fair. When he was growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s, Chuck’s father Mark sensed the changing attitudes that were allowing Jews to assimilate, somewhat, into the Atlanta elite. After every dinner party, he would call Chuck into his office and ask him leading questions about what he had done right and wrong, which jokes had worked and which hadn’t, forcing him to answer until Chuck was critiquing himself. In doing so, he would criticize Chuck without ever saying a harsh word, making his son feel guilty and ashamed without berating him. To Mark, to be accepted was to be perfect, whether that meant being the best shot when he took up hunting or having the best child at wine and cheese events. Chuck’s back-slapping and chuckling is a manifestation of the anxiety this instilled, that haunting thought that his position can always be revoked.

Chuck was still waiting on most of his wines to ship from Ray, and as a result, the two talked often, navigating byzantine email threads between the four different people involved in the shipping of the wine. Chuck and Ray would spend hours on the phone with each other, where Ray’s charm was strongest, and the delays brought the two closer. When Chuck brought up my interest in wine, Ray invited me to work with him the following summer, to learn the business and to spend some time in France. I enthusiastically agreed, and we made plans to talk in detail over the winter.

*****

Though we spent the second night of the trip in Kowloon, we were originally supposed to stay in the Central district to the west of Causeway Bay. The hotel in Central was on the seventh floor of a building; a governmental notice on the first floor warned that the bed and breakfast was operating illegally. Ray shrugged when I pointed it out while we were waiting for the elevator, only becoming concerned when I noticed the translation of the note next to it, printed in tiny font.

“The water is not safe to consume or bathe in.”

As the elevator screeched to a stop, we decided against entering and instead walked out of the claustrophobic lobby and into a crowded street. We were both staring at our phones, searching websites for affordable hotels anywhere in Hong Kong. To our right were upscale Western clothing stores—Ted Baker, Michael Kors, and Kate Spade. Directly across the street sat four police vans; a swarm of officers stood next to them. After a moment, Ray yelled “found one!” and hailed a taxi to Kowloon.

The new hotel had a single open room. As Ray unpacked, I stared out of the window; in the alley directly across from us, people had built tin shanties to protect themselves from the elements. The corrugated metal no longer gleamed on any of them. Many had collapsed, and dogs and children were visible in the open areas. Some of the temporary roofs had been spray-painted, though most were left as is. On either side sat high-rises.

The next morning, we returned to Causeway Bay, settling in a hotel farther east, near Victoria Park. Having finally found a place to stay, various lunches and dinners with Marv became how we differentiated our days. I was sucked into Ray’s world where linear time didn’t exist, where events ordered themselves in whatever way was easiest to remember. The fourth day was not the fourth day, nor was it a Sunday, but instead it was the day Marv took us to the Hong Kong Yacht Club. Like boats on a mooring, the events connected to and surrounding these concrete moments floated and revolved, refusing placement in any temporal schema, instead wandering toward the next stable event, only to hit the end of their ropes and change directions. It was 4:45 a.m., and a drunken Ray, a German college student still on his arm, was yelling at me for not doing the tracking shot he wanted, and it was simultaneously an afternoon where he sweet-talked his way into letting us film in a restaurant during their dinner rush. Our purpose in Hong Kong was nebulous; we would go days without shooting, only to then film nonstop for 12 hours, with no rhyme or reason beyond Ray’s whims. We had to be in Hong Kong right at this moment, but for no reason beyond it being the time that Ray had decided he would be in Hong Kong. That I was along to film was an added bonus.

For one of these meals that came to structure the trip, Marv took us to a prestigious wine club. It was located in a low-slung building, with the dinner and tasting room in the basement, surrounded by the members’ cellars. A flight of 19 of Ray’s wines sat in front of a wallpaper map of the burgundy region of France. Across from it sat a painting of a Chinese man wearing traditional garb, with the stereotypical facial expression of the blissful opium smoker. In his hand was a cigar. The membership of the group was split; half native Chinese, half ex-pats. The entire waitstaff were locals. The owner of the club was a British man in his late 40’s, who I’ll call Ewan. His black hair was swept across his head in a comb-over, and he wore a pink button-down under a loose navy blazer. He spoke with the accent of the British elite; it was so thick that his voice sat separate from the noise of the rest of the room. After some polite mingling, everyone entered the dining room and stood behind their chairs. The owner explained that this building was one of the last British holdouts in the fight against the Japanese in World War II, and before each dinner they stood for a moment of silence followed by a song serenading English bravery. Though British and Canadian forces made up about a third of the total forces in Hong Kong at the time, there was no mention of the Chinese and Indian soldiers killed in the Battle of Hong Kong, or the estimated 10,000 civilians executed during Japan’s three and a half year occupation. As the singing finished, the staff moved around the table; six numbered glasses sat at each plate, and they had to match the covered bottles (also numbered) to their partner for a blind taste test.

My notes and photos dry up during the dinner. An unspoken rule was that I was not to document dinner conversations or tasting notes. Despite this dearth of evidence and the dozens of bottles of wine we drank that night, several moments still resonate.

One of the first appetizers served was a steak tartare. As the plates were being cleared, Marv’s son, Jack,[7] noticed mine was mostly full. We had become fast friends, bonding over a shared love of golf and the fact that we considered ourselves babysitters to Ray and Marv, making sure the two didn’t egg each other on too far. Jack was in his early twenties, with long earlobes and a wry smile. His mostly black hair was interspersed with brown strands and parted from the left. Jack worked as a researcher for the Hong Kong branch of Daiwa Capital Markets, itself a subsidiary of the second largest brokerage firm in the world, Daiwa Securities Group. As he reached over to my plate, pointing at the bloody beef, he asked, “mind if I Jew that?” The tone he said it in was neither purposefully malicious nor ironic; it was the same tone my friend would use when he’d say “Kyke” in middle school, or when he and others organized “Jew Fights.” Like those middle schoolers, Jack had no intention to insult me, unaware of the history within the terms. Noticing my surprise, Jack asked, “you’re not Jewish, right?”

I started to respond, “Half, I mean yeah, but that really didn’t bother—”

“No way? You’re Jewish?”

His shock did not contain anger or shame. It consisted solely of amazement that he had befriended a Jew, who in Hong Kong exist mostly in the cultural imaginary that the British handed down. To this day, I find it difficult to denounce Jack as a purposeful anti-semite. In fact, I still consider him a friend. At this point, Ray noticed.

“I’m Jewish too!” he said. “My grandmother on my mom’s side was Jewish. That makes me more Jewish than Miles!”[8] He then returned to his previous conversation. At various other moments in the trip, this same grandmother was Irish or a Southern Protestant or whatever else included him in the conversation.

A few hours later, the plates had been cleared, and Ray’s wine had been drunk; the night was winding down. Jack, along with most of the non-expats, had gone home; he had work in the morning. Marv, Ray, Ewan, and a few others remained. They broke out personal bottles, each trying to find one more rare than the last. The owner lit a cigarette, and several others lit cigars. Indoor smoking is prohibited in Hong Kong, but the club had decided that in the unlikely scenario that they were caught, the individual members would take responsibility, and the club would claim that it did not know. That way, the punishment would be no more than a fine.

Ewan opened the next bottle of wine. As Ray tried to explain how strong the tannins, someone at the table came up with an analogy.

“How tough is it, based on how long ago a pussy was last shaved.”

Ewan and Ray loved it; they started comparing, getting increasingly precise. Six hours, three weeks but somewhat trimmed, on and on. There was one woman left at the table, and she participated at the beginning, but she fell silent as the night wore on and the group continued with the yardstick.

As they did so, I learned about Ewan over a pack of Camel cigarettes. He was progressive, at least more progressive than I expected, and I think he was relieved to find someone to the left of him. As he explained how he had married a local woman, how long he’d been there, and all those other little things you learn after too many bottles of wine, the pack emptied. He asked a waiter for his, but they were Marlboro and unacceptable, so he sent the man out to buy more. It was 1:30, and the staff seemed tired, standing around waiting for us to finish. When I commented on this, Ewan laughed and responded, “we stay until 4:00 sometimes.”

The new pack arrived, and Ewan started smoking again. I noticed none of the waitstaff smoked inside. “I’m more of a Hong Kong native than my wife,” he said.

I was unsure what to say, eventually settling on “How so?”

“I want Hong Kong’s independence,” he said. “She doesn’t care. I was the one who insisted our kids go to school here and not in Britain. I believe in Hong Kong much more than her.” It was the rhetoric of independence put in service of ideology, in the Marxist sense of the word. The paternal colonialism of a long-dead empire permeated his vague ideals, a séance with Ewan as the medium, his ancestor’s insistence that the Chinese could not rule themselves recombubulating in the personal sphere. But this was a séance with no end, at least none in sight. Like the other ex-pats at the table, when his mouth moved, it was the ghost of history who spoke. Perhaps his children will be different, but they’ll be outliers, their Chinese blood marking them as less important to the ex-pats, while their English heritage separates them from the Chinese..

*****

 

 

Throughout our travels, things were happening in the background, though my only access to them was filtered through Ray’s indomitable spin. He was so good at it because he did not believe he was lying, instead telling the form of truth that was best for everybody, that it would all be justified in the end. In this way, he tricked himself into believing his obfuscations. Even before I met him, he was lying. After the initial contact in July 2015, Ray and I emailed intermittently for the next 10 months. I was curious if I could stay with him. He always avoided the question. It was only in April, two months before I was to begin work, when he explained that he was moving from AirBnB to AirBnB, since his wife had the house. As a result, I was left to figure out my living situation up until he told me to meet him in Hong Kong. The reality, according to interviews Bill Nanson at Burgundy report did with the family that was renting to Ray, was that Ray’s wife did not have the house; the owners had changed the locks due to Ray’s failure to pay rent. It was around this time that Ray fired his operations manager, Zach Velchoff. Velchoff allegedly told Ray that Maison Ilan’s investor was his boss, not Ray. That investor eventually pressured Ray into rehiring Velchoff—perhaps proving his point—only for Ray to fire him again because he thought he was a spy. This dysfunction helped contribute to his already obsessive disorganization.

The issues only compounded once we started traveling. At one point in the middle of the trip, Ray fielded a call. He hung up and looked at me, ready to simultaneously vent and work damage control. He alleged that a group of growers who didn’t like him were petitioning his banker to lock Ray out from his wine, which would cause the grapes to rot before he could make them into wine. He was not concerned, however, since the person in charge of holding the wine was a friend, and wouldn’t do it.

The truth is somewhat more distressing. According to the interviews Nanson did, it was not bankers but the tax authorities who were seizing the wine; this was also likely the reason that Ray did not step foot in France while I was with him or for weeks after I quit. Nanson’s sources thought that the investigation had to do with the fact that Ray was making wine at a residential address. In reality, he had improperly filled out the receivership forms for his 2013, 2014, and 2015 wines. In Burgundy, this is a grave mistake. The forms are how French authorities limit the production of grand cru Burgundy, maintaining quality and increasing scarcity (and prices). The lack of accurate forms meant that there was a chance that illegal grand cru existed on the market, threatening the legitimacy of the entire region. Nonetheless, Ray was confident that he would get access to his juice; a few days later, he sold Henry Tang—among the most powerful men in Hong Kong before his political career was derailed by scandal[10]—more than 18,000 euros worth of 2014 vintages. None of the wine Ray sold Henry Tang—which totaled over 100,000 euros—was ever shipped.

Another day during this time, Ray received an email from his investor, detailing demands that he was making of Ray. The very act of making demands incensed Ray—if he was paying the man back, what right did he have to interfere in the business?—and some were a little absurd. Namely, the investor, who will here remain nameless, insisted Ray attempt to work something out with his wife, ostensibly since Ray had sold his business as a family affair in his best-selling book and elsewhere. Most were less personal. Ray was to accept the installation of a new CEO, and Ray had to work out a personal budget and have all additional expenses approved by the investor. Finally, the investor had a right to restructure his loan as equity in two years, turning his $2.5 million investment into 50% equity. I had never seen Ray so angry. He was paying the investor back, had always made it clear he wanted full ownership, and was sure this was a ploy to screw him.

“Fucking Silicon Valley billionaires,” he said.

I tried to comfort him, saying, “I told you to never trust tech billionaires.”

“I’m going to fucking sue him. This is illegal, right?”

Later conversations with the investor revealed that Ray had in fact never paid back any of the loan, or any of the interest, as he claimed.

 

We were meeting a couple of potential buyers there, including an Italian ex-pat that I’ll call Leonardo. Sharply dressed in a navy blazer and French Cuff shirt, with jet-black hair and tan skin, you could tell his nationality just from looking. Originally from Venice, he now lived in Hong Kong. As Ray told the server I was vegetarian (a lie he’d concocted after realizing most waiters didn’t understand that I ate some meat but not others), Jack began questioning me on my Judaism again. Unlike the night before, there was a hint of concern laced with shame in his voice. Again, Ray broke in.

“Miles isn’t Jewish. He liked the bagel at the place next to our hotel.”

“What?”

“The only good bagels are in New York. If you were really Jewish, you wouldn’t eat a bagel here.” His tone was ostensibly satirical, though his eyes were anything but. He had to assert his primacy, his claim to all identities, to being the most unique at the table. The ex-pat laughed, turned to me, and started asking about my interests. We talked film for a while, tolerating interjections by Ray—he claimed he’d studied film for two years at San Francisco State[11] and constantly and inaccurately corrected us—before switching to art. The ex-pat was impressed by my grasp of Italian towns. I apologetically explained that it was entirely due to an interest in Italian soccer, not any real knowledge of the country. He laughed.

“What team do you support?”

“Napoli,” I said with a wry smile, expecting him to ask why.

“Of course. I knew it. Napoli is boundless with boundaries; it is art; it is beauty for its own sake, at the cost of winning. That’s why we get along.” He laughed. “Me, I am a Juventus fan.” Juventus has won six straight titles since 2011, but through its history it’s been dogged by accusations that it pays referees and values winning over entertainment. Located in Turin, the heart of Italian manufacturing, and owned by the family that founded Fiat, Juventus is by far the wealthiest team in Italy. Their Neapolitan cousins to the south, whose fans are subjected to genocidal chants, cannot play defensive football without being labeled small-minded and provincial. But when the rich and powerful do it, it’s pragmatic.

*****

 

 

 

The last time I heard from Ray was in July 2017, a year after I quit working for him. Our relationship, already fraught in Hong Kong, quickly deteriorated once we left. In Dublin, we passive-aggressively sniped at each other and stayed on opposite sides of the city. From there, I flew to San Francisco for some advance shooting on our hopeful pilot, with Ray planning to arrive several days later. He assured me a place to stay in the Bay, only to tell me when I landed that he couldn’t reach my host. He told me to find a hotel—all of which were booked up—and then did not contact me for three days. It was only after I had flown down to Los Angeles to stay with my sister that he reached out to me, telling me he had finally arrived at SFO. I chose not to respond. Chuck was becoming overwhelmed with the hotel and airfare bills; although Ray had promised to pay for both, he was subsidizing neither, and in fact we were paying for his hotel stays. Were Ray to come to my hometown in Atlanta, I would continue to help him. Despite setting a date to visit Atlanta, though, Ray never arrived, instead recruiting a food photographer to act as his cameraman in New York.

Now, almost exactly a year after I quit, I was visiting a friend in Pacifica, California, outside of San Francisco. I had heard Ray was living in the Bay Area, so I texted him. He confirmed he was living in Oakland. When I asked if he wanted to meet up, he turned read receipts on—to make sure I knew he had seen my text, I assumed—and did not respond. A few weeks later, I googled Maison Ilan; it was apparently permanently closed.[12] I went to reach out to Ray. His Facebook account was deleted. Over the phone, he claimed to Chuck that the Facebook account was unrelated, but that he had recently lost all his wine, not just the cases with improper paperwork. Ray then insisted that his investor said he would get him a lawyer for the preliminary hearing, only to do no such thing, forcing Ray to represent himself. Ray claimed that this was a purposeful attempt to screw him over one final time. The truth was that the investor had hired Ray an attorney. But he and the attorney had a falling out, and Ray had fired him. He would rather let his wine be destroyed than cede control. Unless Ray finds a new lawyer and money, everyone with unfilled orders—so nearly everyone—will lose all of their wines, not just the 2014s and beyond. After several tries, Chuck was able to get in contact with Ray’s investor, who explained that he had no choice but to cut ties with Ray, writing off the $2.5 million loan and thousands more dollars in legal fees and ordered wine as a loss. He also explained that even if he was still willing to hire a lawyer, there is an issue: no one in Burgundy would represent Ray. As of publication, Ray is currently working full-time as a ride-share driver as he prepares for his appeal. The man who demanded to be ferried is now doing the ferrying.

*****

 

 

We spent my last night in Hong Kong at Marv’s house, where we ate dinner with his family. As I filmed Ray cooking in the kitchen, the 20-year-old German girl he was sleeping with texted me. She was curious if I would be joining her and Ray at a “super cool real Hong Kong event” at the Happy Valley Racecourse, which is part of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.[13] Nearby, Marv was opening a bottle of sparkling wine. He explained, “It’s not champagne. It’s from England. It’s what was served at the royal wedding.”

It was a fine bottle, no better or worse than a similarly priced bottle from Champagne, if slightly different in taste. Even here, in the choice of wine, history was inescapable. What mattered were not the grapes that went in but who else consumed it; the promise of buying Chapel Down is that then they’ll let you into the club. The Queen, of course, drinks only true champagne.

*****

 

 

By his own omission, Ray learns not through instruction or participation, but as a passive observer. It’s no surprise he always dreamed of being a writer, imagining himself as some kind of pure spectator. He learned French through watching Godard films, learned to make wine through watching California makers, learned the rules of the game by watching. He saw how illegal fortunes eventually gain a cloak of respectability, how what is said is different from what is done, how paperwork miscues can get swept under the rug, how the world of the elite works. But the problem was that, as an outsider, Ray didn’t see the double standard visible only from the inside. In his arrogant misunderstanding, he tricked the power brokers. They assumed he knew what they knew: that People of Color and women and Jews and the ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong and all the rest are conditional members of the elite, that they have to obey the same rules as the rest of us, that only those who are more from Hong Kong than the locals can smoke indoors. They know that what they say and do can differ, that their power protects them from the fallout of broken promises and purposeful deceit. They took Ray at his word, not realizing it was in fact their word reflected back at .

[1] It was where his wife worked.

[2] Not his real name.

[3] The irony, of course, is that none of Ray’s undeniable charm comes across on screen, where he appears stiff as a board.

[4] At times, he would claim he was the only American making Burgundy, a brazen lie.

[5] For those unversed in wine, Chambertin is among the rarest and most expensive Burgundies—the eponymous village only produces Grand Cru grapes.

[6] Those who buy grapes but do not own vineyards.

[7] Not his real name.

[8] Though Judaism traditionally traces lineage through the maternal side, it is my father who is Jewish. My sister and I were both converted to Judaism as newborns.

[9] Essentially the sandpaper quality that certain very young and old wines have.

[10] In particular, Tang had illegally built a large basement in his house and, when caught, blamed his wife for the idea.

[11] In his book, Ray claimed he was studying business there before dropping out, though he wanted to study liberal arts.

[12] According to Maison Ilan’s investor, the company has filed and gone through bankruptcy, a claim that Ray disputes.

[13] The club didn’t accept Chinese members until the 20th century, and still is mostly old British money.

2 thoughts on “The Rules of the Game: Ray Walker, Hong Kong, and the World of Wine

  1. Pingback: icymi…
  2. Dear Miles,

    Some story that was. It read like a “film noir” movie script. One of those old ones where seconds into the first rush, you already get a gut feeling that things are not going to end well.
    A friend alerted me to your essay, coincidentally the same friend with whom I went to visit Ray in his digs in early spring 2012 to taste his wines. As it turned out, they were light but quite good considering his lack of experience at one of the most difficult crafts imaginable. Making decent wines in 2009 and 2010 was of course a whole lot easier than in the following vintage, which -not surprisingly- was when things were to take a turn for the worse for him… or at least that is what I suspect.
    Our third companion on this trip, would come up a few years later with the theory that Ray might be a mythomaniac and it is as good an explanation as any. He was living the dream -to my standards anyway- and yet managed to somehow mess it up wholly and completely.

    It was saddening to read your essay and see the theory of my aforementioned friend gain probabilty. I wanted to see Ray succeed, if for no other reason that the direct sale of Burgundy wine is feasible and profitable, but I guess it wasn’t to be.

    Like

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