Jean León – wine & stardust

Even if you have never heard of him, Jean León is one of those people who enjoyed an infectiously interesting life. He was a Spaniard, from Cantabria, but by way of Barcelona, then France and stowing away on a ship to the United States he lived the American dream and created a legend.

Frankly he was also one of those people who seemed to either have good luck or knew how to make it. He survived with a series of menial jobs before joining the US Army to serve in the Korean War, and it was this service that entitled him to US nationality.

After finishing his stint in the army León got a job as a waiter at Hollywood’s trendy Villa Capri restaurant that was part owned by Frank Sinatra and Joe di Maggio. He must have been an affable and outgoing soul who made friends easily, as he developed a close friendship with James Dean and together they agreed to create a new luxury restaurant in Beverley Hills – La Scala. Dean died before it opened, but León went ahead and the new restaurant quickly became the Hollywood place for celebrity diners.

Jean León later created a boutique winery in Spain’s Penedès region and was the first to use Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay vines there in the early 1960s. This bodega is now part of the Torres group as León and Miguel Torres were such great friends and admirers of each others work that when Jean León became ill in the 1990s Torres bought the winery. His daughter Gigi meanwhile took over the restaurant and runs it to this day.

The view from the Jean León winery

It is a terrific winery and I was very taken with some of the wines I tasted there while attending the Miguel Torres Wine Course, it is that rarity in Spain, a true estate – or pago and the attention to detail shows. They produce some very good Chardonnays indeed, both the top end barrel fermented Jean León Viña Gigi (vineyard named for his daughter) Chardonnay and the fresher Jean León Petit Chardonnay were excellent quality.

However, the Cabernet Sauvignon was quite magnificent, with one of them being a contender for the best wine of the trip:

2000 Jean Leon Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva

D.O. Penedès, Viña La Scala (vineyard named for his restaurant), 100% Cabernet sauvignon

Rich nose of cassis and lighter notes of raspberries with smoky oak, leather, cedar and mocha showing the complexity and development.
Lovely texture of rich fruit, silky tannins and tingly oak spice giving coffee spice  complexity. Lovely intensity, silky texture, lots of fruit, but red and delicate rather than black and powerful. This is very long with a lovely smoky quality to the finish and great integration of oak, fruit and tannin. 93/100 points

Viña La Scala vineyard

There was also a terrific exhibition about Jean León’s life and memorabilia from his restaurant, including this amazing collage:

At the top it says, ‘La Scala was honoured to prepare these special menus for the late President John F Kennedy and his party on the dates shown, (signed) Jean Leon’.

They are all fascinating, click on the photo for a better view, one is just a few short weeks before JFK’s death and one is especially interesting for me as I do some work for Champagne Taittinger and Maison Louis Jadot in Burgundy. It is dated December 8 1962 and includes Taittinger’s wonderful Cuvée de Prestige Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs from the 1953 vintage – only the second release ever and already in such exalted company.

The President also enjoyed a fine Burgundy from Louis Jadot – 1959 Corton-Charlemagne, presumably with the lobster, but it would also go well with the veal.

It was a wonderful insight into a full and extraordinary life – perhaps I should stow away to somewhere?

4 thoughts on “Jean León – wine & stardust

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