By Andrew J Linn
There is an excellent wine made with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Catalonia’s Penedés region called Jean Leon. However, it is not made by some French visionary who may have taken his wine-producing experience to Catalonia to produce Bordeaux-style wines in Spain.
Jean Leon’s real name was Ceferino Carrión, and he was born in Santander in 1928. As the result of a huge fire that destroyed the town centre in 1941 his family moved to Barcelona, where a few months later Ceferino’s father and brother died at sea when the fishing boat they were working on was torpedoed by an unidentified submarine.
Ceferino decided to leave Spain and crossed illegally into France via the Pyrenees, but in a post-world-war-Paris there was no work for immigrants. He made his way to Le Havre and stowed away on a boat to New York. Within a day of arriving he was washing dishes in a club in the Rockefeller Centre for $4 a day.
Jean Leon – which was the name he had taken – would later enlist in the US army during the Korean War, and on demob settle in Hollywood. His first job in the town was waiting at Villa Capri, a society restaurant owned by Frank Sinatra and Joe di Maggio. There he became friends with actors and actresses such as Natalie Wood, Grace Kelly, Lana Turner, Judy Garland and James Dean. It was James Dean who proposed to Jean they become partners in establishing Hollywood’s most luxurious restaurant, but Dean was killed in a car crash the day before he was due to sign the agreement. Undeterred Jean borrowed $3,500 from a friend and opened La Scala.
Marilyn Monroe always dined early and insisted on having table 14; Paul Newman would arrive about 7.30 pm, followed by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Warren Beatty (who always ate in the kitchen if he was on his own), Zsa Zsa Gabor, Fred Astaire, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Garry Cooper, David Jansen and Robert Wagner. On the night of 4 August 1962 Marilyn Monroe called Jean at the restaurant to say that she did not feel well enough to go out, and would he send some food round to her apartment. Jean took it himself, but when he arrived he realised she was not alone. He left the tray at the door and headed home. The next day Marilyn was found dead.
Jean Leon knew five US presidents, and was with Nixon the night he lost the election. With Kennedy he would chat about Spain, although he would always say that Ford was the most affable of all the presidents he knew. The intrepid ex-waiter returned to Spain in 1962 to realise his lifelong ambition of making wine.
He found a vineyard in Catalonia’s Penedés region and paid a small fortune for cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay vines from Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild and Corton Charlemagne. When he planted the new varieties, which were unknown in Spain, the local bodega owners thought he was mad, but in 1964 he hired oenologist Jaume Rovira, with a simple instruction: make the best wine that can be produced in Spain.
Jean Leon is no longer with us, but under the ever-careful tutelage of the Torres family, which is now responsible for the brand, the production process initiated 50 years ago has changed little. Pesticides and herbicides are never employed, and the grapes are harvested bunch by bunch when they are ready, rather than all at once. The pressing of the grapes is slow and delicate and only the first pressing is used.
Unquestionably the flagship of the bodega is the Jean Leon Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, which always has two years in oak and two to three years in the bottle. In exceptional years a Gran Reserva is made, and this was the wine served at Ronald Reagan’s investiture in 1980. In 1993 Wine Magazine voted the 1983 vintage among the world’s best eight wines, and many other awards have been scored over the years.
If you like claret, you have been doing yourself an injustice by not trying Jean Leon’s Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva. And if you thought the best Spanish red wines only come from Rioja and Ribera del Duero, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Prices for the middle-of-the-range are around €20. There is a Reserva and Gran Reserva, a Merlot, Chardonnay and Xarel.lo, and the 3055 range (Leon’s New York cab licence number) offers a Merlot-Petit Verdot, Chardonnay and Rosado.