I swore to myself in preparing to write this article that I wasn’t going to make any references to “not being in Kansas anymore.”
And, so, I won’t. Instead, let me start with this: I’m not going to say that native Kansan and Shawnee Mission East graduate Mark O’Connell has led a charmed life. I’m sure he’s worked very hard to get where he is, but there can be no doubt there was a certain amount of luck, and plenty of good timing involved in the bounty that’s befallen him.
O’Connell even admitted as much at a recent lunch we shared at the always wonderful Story restaurant in Prairie Village.
“It’s beyond a dream,” O’Connell said. “There’s no way, even in my wildest dreams, that I could have imagined something like this happening.”
So, what happened? Well, the short story is through a series of consequences, combined with a personal passion and the financial ability few of us have, O’Connell was able to purchase a vineyard in the most hallowed of all wine regions, Burgundy, France.
And, not just any vineyard, but a premier cru vineyard with a thousand 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. That’s right, 1,000 years, four owners.
“There’s not just a sense of history when you think about that,” O’Connell said between bites of his “starter”salad. “There’s also a sense of stewardship. We have to make sure to do everything we can to ensure Clos de la Chapelle is here now and for another thousand years.”
O’Connell and I are kindred spirits when it comes to the wines of Burgundy, the birthplace of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. By that I mean that he owns vineyards and makes wines worth hundreds of dollars a bottle, and I drink much less expensive red and white Burgundies when I can afford them, which isn’t too often.
On this day, at Story’s Sunday brunch, Chef Carl Thorne Thomsen whipped up a wild mushroom risotto off the menu to pair with a 2011 Clos de la Chapelle Premier Cur Volnay. O’Connell ordered it off the wine list, likely the first customer to buy a bottle of his wine at Story. He definitely won’t be the last.
The wine, from a difficult vintage, was a beauty — silky smooth and loaded with rich, ripe fruit, braced by mineral notes and a brilliant acidity. The wine matched perfectly with the risotto, and while very good at the beginning of the meal, the wine continued to open up over the next hour and a half until the last magnificent sip delightfully disappeared down my throat with the last bite of risotto. During the brunch, I talked a little, listened a lot and enjoyed it all immensely.
O’Connell and his wife are both Kansas Citians from the Kansas side. He ran a credit card processing company, which he recently sold and she was an upscale retailer. They were introduced to Burgundies as college students when they attended a wine seminar featuring the wines of the world-famous Domaine Romanee Conti at the old Monestery Wine Bar in Brookside. The Monestery would go one to become the legendary Joe D.’s and is currently housing the lovely Julian restaurant.
For those who aren’t familiar, Domaine Romanee Conti produces what most consider the finest red and white Burgundies, and arguably some of the greatest wines in the world. The O’Connell’s started at the top.
“It was just dumb luck. Friends of ours called and said we had to come to this Monestery Wine Bar and come to a tasting of Burgundies,” O’Connell remembered. “I liked Rieslings, but I thought, ‘What the heck, I’ll give it a shot.’ We’ve never looked back.”
So, the O’Connells began touring, and collecting, and consuming. They traveled to all the great wine regions of the world, but the allure of Burgundy put the hook in them like no other place and no other wines. Most of us would have left it at that, buying, and drinking and traveling, but not Mark O’Connell. O’Connell had a plan, a plan that would put him in the vineyards and would lead to him owning some of the finest vineyards in the world. I’ll share that part of the story in my next column right here.
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.