Chow Town

From Kansas City to Burgundy region of France: One man’s journey

Updated: 2013-11-20T13:42:55Z

By DAVE ECKERT

When last I left you, Kansas City native Mark O’Connell was hatching a plan to learn how the great wines of Burgundy are made.

As a matter of recap, O’Connell, a Shawnee Mission East graduate, has had a long and successful career running a credit card processing company.

He’s also had a much shorter but perhaps even more impressive career as a vineyard owner in Burgundy. O’Connell purchased his first Burgundy vineyard — I say first because there have been other purchases since and there are more in the offing — three years ago.

This wasn’t just any vineyard, mind you, but a premier cru vineyard with a 1,000 year history, Clos de la Chapelle, in the prized Burgundy appellation of Volnay. O’Connell is just the fourth owner of Clos de la Chapelle.

So, how exactly did this happen? Well, that’s what I’m here to tell you. This all began with a burning desire by O’Connell to see first-hand how great wine is made in Burgundy. That led him to the famed wine auction, the Hospices de Beaune, held every November in Burgundy.

Up until 2005, the Hospices de Beaune auction only sold barrels to négociants. But in 2005, Christies, the world-famous auction house, was awarded the rights to conduct the auction.

Christie’s convinced the Hospices that they could raise more money for the hospital — the charity that the auction benefits — if they opened up the rights to buy a barrel to their large and affluent customer base. They agreed, because even if a private person bought the barrels, the wine still has to made by a negociant.

“I saw this as an opportunity for me to learn more about the winemaking process. I sought to buy a barrel, and was connected with Domaine Champy,” one of the oldest negociant houses in Burgundy, O’Connell told me as we noshed at Story in Prairie Village, a bottle of his 2011 Premier Cru split between us. “We made one barrel of Corton Grand Cru in 2005, and six more barrels of great red and white Burgundies from 2006 to 2009.”

O’Connell was spending more and more time in Burgundy during the harvests, learning about the entire winemaking process, from the harvesting, to the fermentation, to the devatting and pressing. In 2011, O’Connell spent 10 days working the harvest with Champy.

“During that time, they were finalizing their purchase of Domaine Laleure-Piot, which was approximately eight hectares,” O’Connell said.

“At the same time, Champy had negotiated the rights to buy the 1.15 hectare domaine of Louis Boillot. Champy intended to ‘fold in’ this purchase with the much larger purchase of Domaine Laleure-Piot with the same investor group. But, they discovered that the Boillot vineyard was held in a ‘special purpose corporation,’ meaning it could only be purchased by a private individual,” O’Connell continued.

Well, well, well. Guess who that private individual turned out to be?

Yep, during O’Connell’s final day working the harvest, Pierre Meurgey, Champy’s Managing Director, came to O’Connell and said, “Mark, I know you are leaving today and don’t have much time, but we have known each other for several years and I think I can be direct with you. Would you like to buy a vineyard?”

O’Connell told me there were only three responses to that question — no; maybe, which usually means no, and, yes. O’Connell realized there was a sense of urgency, if not downright desperation, on Champy’s part. Why else would they come to an American they see only a handful of days each year. So, O’Connell said yes, and the rest, as they say, is history.

O’Connell’s not finished, either. During brunch, he told me he’s getting ready to close on a deal that will more than double his vineyard holdings and give him the opportunity to produce Premier and Grand Cru White Burgundies to go along with the four Premier Cru Red Burgundies his company currently makes.

I’ve only had the chance to taste one Cloe de la Chapelle wine, the Premier Cru Volnay we shared over our brunch at Story. O’Connell did give me a bottle of his single vineyard Clos de la Chapelle to take home on that day. It’s in my cellar right now.

Maybe I’ll pop it open over another meal with O’Connell in five or ten years when he’s even more famous and the wine’s ready to drink. Who knows what the future holds? O’Connell never could have guessed his.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.

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