Discovering Jean Leon

Discovering Jean Leon

10/02/2017

Few people knew Jean Leon as well as Jaume Rovira and Ana Carrión. The former is the enologist who worked alongside Jean Leon from the beginning to the end, and the latter is Jean Leon's younger sister. They hadn't seen each other for a long time. They ran into each other at the most recent Vendimia de Cine, our cinematic harvest event, but didn't find the time to talk at length. They decided to catch up another day. And that day has come.

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They're sitting at a table in a wine bar in Barcelona's city center. Over a glass of Vinya La Scala 2009, the vintage featuring a label illustrated by Modest Cuixart, they begin to talk about Jean Leon. His life, his fears, his obsessions. An open conversation—sincere, emotional, filled with anecdotes and personal details. Jean Leon's life was truly exceptional; the kind of life that people remember.

Ana admits that her brother never liked his name. Neither Ceferino, a whim of his godfather's, nor Ángel (his second name), picked out by his mother. It is therefore unsurprising that he ended up changing his name to Jean Leon. The decision to do so also happened to coincide with a big change in his life. “Anyways, we always called him Cefe, and if we wanted to needle him, we called him Cefe cebolleta,” remarks Ana with a mischievous smile. Jaume admits that he “always thought they were calling him jefe (boss), but no, it was just an affectionate short form of Ceferino.” In the end, he was neither Cefe nor Ángel nor Ceferino. He was Jean Leon.

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From France to New York

The true adventure, the first chapter in what would be a life of exciting chapters, began in 1947, one day that he, along with three friends, left for France. “He was 18 years old, and they crossed the mountains to France. He talked his friends into it, and they took off. No one in the family had any idea where he was. He told our mother that he was going to a party with his girlfriend Carmen, to celebrate her name day. We didn't hear anything from him for 10 days,” Ana explains. What began as a boyish prank turned serious a few months later.

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In 1949, at the age of 20, Jean Leon stowed away on a US-bound ship leaving from the French port of Le Havre. “One year later, in 1950, he came back to Madrid. He stayed a little while and then took off again. He was drafted by the Americans to serve in the Korean War. He left, and we didn't hear from him again until 1962. We thought he was dead until one day he called and told us he was coming to Spain.” Jean Leon arrived with his wife and two children. “They had no idea that he had family, especially such a big one and in Spain no less. They thought he was French,” Ana remarks. She says it was one of the happiest days in the Carrión household. Especially for their mother.

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A wine that was anything but ordinary

During the early 1960s, Jean Leon had decided he wanted to make a great wine to serve his select clientele at his Los Angeles restaurant. He searched tirelessly to find the best spot of land. This brought him to Penedès where, Jaume recalls, he “bought the land for about 6 million pesetas. He made a down payment of 100,000 pesetas, and a year later he signed the paperwork. Some people claimed that the land he bought was cursed. In seven years, it hailed five times. No one had any faith in the project.”

At the time, Jaume was 21 years old. He had everything ahead of him, including his military service. He was studying enology, but was short a course or two. “I remember the day I met Jean Leon, he told me not to worry. That I should do everything I needed to do. That there was plenty of time. They would plant in 1963 and gather the first harvest in 1969.” And that's exactly what happened. While Jaume finished his studies, he stayed in touch with Jean Leon, and in 1969 he joined the winery, managed at the time by Jean Leon and two of his brothers.

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Jaume acknowledges that “the early days were tough, but it was still a lovely time in my life.” He recalls the time they decided to uproot the local vines to replace them with French varieties. “We drove up to Bordeaux and Burgundy to fetch the cuttings. Turns out they conned us. The cuttings were dry and in bad shape. When they refused to replace them, we decided to get our cuttings the unorthodox way.” He recalls one night in particular. They saw a car approach. Jaume was deep inside the vineyard, and Jean Leon, alarmed, drove off and left him behind. Although he eventually did come back for him, Jaume says, “I was angry for a few days, but in the end Jean apologized.”

In addition to being his enologist, Jaume was someone Jean Leon trusted and who looked after the money that he earned in the US to invest in the winery. “We'd meet in France. I'd drive up and wait for him at the airport in Orly. He'd hand over the suitcase, and I'd hold on to it for dear life. I even slept with it!” he recalls, laughing.

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Demanding, but fair

“He was the boss, and whoever writes the check gets to run the show," Jaume replies when asked about Jean Leon’s personality, “He was very demanding. Very strict. But if you did your job well, you never ran into trouble. Besides, if you made a mistake, but explained it, he'd understand. I never had any problems with him. He was a bit of a rascal.” Ana agrees. “My brother was very bright. He didn't have a formal education, but he had a sixth sense that got him very far.” She also notes that her brother Jean taught her to be tough. “Life didn't give us much of an alternative.”

The legacy

Jean Leon died in 1996 after living life to the fullest, but still quite young and with many plans for the future. In 1994, after receiving his diagnosis, he entrusted his legacy to the Torres family, who promised to carry on what Jean had started. “Thanks to them, my brother's legacy is alive and well, and this is really what he wanted: to have the name Jean Leon live on,” his sister Ana remarks. He made that happen, no doubt about it. Another dream come true.

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