Ángel Ceferino Carrión Madrazo (his real name) was born in Santander on April 28th, 1928. His parents, Antonio Carrión and Ángeles Madrazo, had nine children: Consuelo, José, Conchita, Ceferino, Angelines, Francisco, Juan Bautista, María del Carmen and Ana María.
MANY WINES HAVE A STORY TO TELL,
BUT VERY FEW TELL ONE AS INCREDIBLE AS THE STORY OF JEAN LEON
- During the night of February 15th to 16th, a devastating fire destroyed much of Santander. The Carrión-Madrazo family, with all nine children, moved to Barcelona in search of a better life.
Ceferino’s father and older brother José, both merchant marines, were killed on July 1st when the British navy sank the ship they worked on. The Allies suspected that the vessel was secretly transporting war supplies for the Nazi army.
- Spain’s supposed neutrality during World War II meant that the press did not report on the incident at the time, which made it hard for Ceferino’s mother to collect her widow’s pension. This, along with the fact that the two men had been the main breadwinners, left the family in an economically difficult situation.
On July 16th, the day of Saint Carmen, Ceferino came home from his job at the Pegaso auto plant in Barcelona, like he did every evening. He took a shower, dressed smartly, and told his mother that he was taking his girlfriend out to dinner to celebrate her name day. What he really did was head to France with three friends, crossing the Pyrenees on foot, without saying a word to his family.
In Bayonne, Bordeaux and Paris, he worked as a waiter, interpreter and whatever else came his way. During this time, he was conscripted into the Spanish military, but refused to enlist. In doing so, he kept a promise he had made at age 12, after the death of his father and brother, to never serve General Franco, whom he blamed for his loss. Draft evasion was a criminal offense, which meant he could not go home to his family.
He tried to make the trip at least seven times, but always got caught (luckily he was deported to France and not Spain). He finally succeeded on the eighth attempt, managing to stow away on a ship in the port of Le Havre. The ship, unbeknownst to him, was headed to the US, not Guatemala as he had initially thought.
During the transatlantic trip, an African American sailor discovered Ceferino hiding in the hold. Rather than reporting him, the sailor brought him food and taught him English. They forged a genuine friendship, so much so that Jean Leon would search for him repeatedly over the years to thank him. He never found him again. He always felt indebted to him: “I have never forgotten that man. I would have recognized his face among a million black men. He was like a guardian angel to me. I would have never made it to America without him.” (Quote taken from Sebastián Moreno’s book Jean Leon, El Rey de Beverly Hills.) The beginning of his own American dream.
- When he arrived in NYC, Ceferino got in touch with one of his father’s distant cousins and began working as a dishwasher in the small bar he managed. On his second night in the city, he fell asleep on a park bench, and someone stole his identity documents. When he became an American citizen, he had to do so under the name Justo Ramón León. During this time he also worked as a cab driver in the city of skyscrapers. His taxi license number was 3055.
- A week later, he got a job as a busboy in the executive cafeteria at the Rockefeller Center. This was the first time he came into contact with executives, politicians and famous artists of the era. He loved his job. However, half a year later, the “friends” with whom he’d shared his French adventure, by now deported back to Barcelona, reported him to the authorities of the Franco regime. He was now wanted for draft evasion. Around that time, he also received a letter from the US Army, telling him that, as a new American citizen, he needed to enlist. He did, but when another letter arrived, informing him that he was headed to the Korean War, he did not report for duty.
- Ceferino sent his family a letter, explaining that he and his friends were going to Guatemala. Right when they were about to leave, Ceferino was told he needed an additional document to travel. He went to Paris to get it and returned that same afternoon, but by then the ship, and his friends, had sailed. (A few months later, his friends were discovered and deported to Spain.)
- Instead, he moved to Los Angeles, California, at the end of the year. He found a room at a small hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and began working at a simple restaurant called Maxwell Coffee House. This is when Ceferino aka Justo Ramón León met another Spanish man who had changed his name (and went by Durán). Durán asked him if he wanted to work on a movie. He put him in touch with Antonio and Rosario, the most popular pair of Spanish dancers at the time, who were supposed to star in the film. Justo Ramón León went to the Immigration Office in L.A. to ask for a passport (his first) to go to Spain and meet the dancers.
- By then he was already using the name Jean Leon, although according to his papers he was still Justo Ramón. He officially changed his name to improve his chances of succeeding in the US. Jean Leon was the name of a well-known contemporary French painter and sculptor whom he liked. That same year, he became friends with José Cansino, Rita Hayworth’s uncle, who owned a flamenco dance studio.
He took advantage of his trip to Spain (his itinerary: NYC > Gibraltar > Malaga > Madrid > Barcelona) to go to his sister’s wedding. She had to get married outside of her neighborhood so that Cefe – the nickname his siblings gave him – could attend without being spotted by his “snitching friends.”
Jean Leon spent New Year’s Eve in Madrid that year and then returned to the US. His family would not hear from him for 12 years. They wrote repeatedly to the US Consulate, but because Jean Leon was not registered under his given name, they could not find him. His family eventually gave him up for dead.
Jean Leon was recruited by the Army Corps of Engineers (L.A.) When he learned that after seven weeks of training, he would be sent to Korea, he escaped to Mexico. After passing through Ciudad Juarez and Texas, he went back to report for duty rather than risk arrest. While others went off to war, he was sent to basic training, first in San Francisco (the port of departure for troops going to Korea), then at a military camp on the Sacramento river from where he escaped. Luck was on his side once again, because in the summer of 1951 the war came to a halt and the UN proposed an armistice.
Jean Leon returned to Hollywood and found work at two very fashionable spots: Villa Nova and Villa Capri. The latter was owned by Frank Sinatra and the legendary baseball player Joe DiMaggio. Jean Leon waited tables at night and drove a cab during the day. Impressive for someone who barely spoke any English at the time. Jean Leon’s discretion and professionalism paid off. He quickly became one of Sinatra’s most trusted assistants. Sinatra taught him how to move in a world where he would meet many of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, including Natalie Wood, Grace Kelly, James Dean, and many others.
- When Jean Leon asked James Dean, his future partner and close friend, to be his child’s godfather, the latter happily accepted. On September 30th, 1955, James Dean died in a tragic car accident on his way from Los Angeles to Salinas, where he was going to drive in a race. A Ford heading in the opposite direction on the highway crashed into Dean’s car. The death of his friend affected Jean Leon deeply. They had gotten along well, among other things because they were both young, restless men with big dreams.
Jean Leon and James Dean became close friends, so much so that they decided to team up and realize a dream they both shared: to open the most prestigious restaurant in Hollywood. Dean, who was signed with Warner Bros. at the time and had already starred in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, was well off financially. He was going to invest the money needed to open the restaurant (around 10,000 to 20,000 dollars), and Jean Leon would manage it. Jean Leon had already found the perfect location for their new venture, right across the street from Villa Capri.
Hollywood was home to many excellent restaurants at the time, but La Scala was special. The space was welcoming, furnished with inviting round tables and elegant décor that exuded sophistication at every turn. In terms of cuisine, Jean Leon went the Mediterranean route with an emphasis on Italian. During his years waiting tables at Villa Capri, he had realized that Italian food did very well in America. The restaurant had an underground wine cellar that housed about 25,000 bottles, including many of the world’s finest wines.
- He was a self-professed pioneer of the nouvelle cuisine that was all the rage in gastronomic circles in the 1980s. The quality of the food was so high that the Italian government named Jean Leon Italy’s top food ambassador to America. La Scala quickly became a gathering spot for the era’s most influential names in Hollywood, the music industry, politics and high society, including Marilyn Monroe, Zsa Zsa Gabor, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Robert Wagner, and many others. Jean Leon and La Scala became so famous that bestselling romance novels written by the likes of Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz featured him as a character, and the restaurant as a setting, in their books.
- Their joint restaurant venture was on hold for several months, but finally Jean Leon decided to pursue their shared dream alone. On April 1st, 1956, La Scala opened its doors at 9455 Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills in what used to be a bar on the ground floor of the First National Bank building. The property belonged to the uncle of Emilio Nuñez, head chef at Jean Leon’s restaurant for over 30 years.
One afternoon while in Italy, Jean Leon decided to look up his family -Carrión- in the phone book. He got a hold of one of his sisters. After Jean Leon vanished without a trace for 12 years, his family thought he was dead. Now, his sister got a call from a man with a foreign accent who told her he was “Cefe,” her brother, who was alive, lived in America and went by the name of Jean Leon. He explained that not only was he married and the father of two children, but also owned one of the most luxurious restaurants in Hollywood. The Carrión family – stunned, but excited to learn that their “dead” relative was alive – didn’t quite believe his story.
- While in Barcelona, Jean Leon seized the opportunity to visit Penedès, on a search for the perfect spot to realize his second big ambition: to make a wine on a par with his select clientele at La Scala. After traveling the world looking for an area with specific characteristics that would allow him to produce a signature wine with a unique personality and identity, he decided Penedès was the right place. He bought 150 hectares of the best land in the region that year and asked Jaume Rovira, then a 21 year old enology student, to join the team of his future winery. In 1969, Jaume Rovira went to work at the winery, which was managed by Jean Leon and two of his brothers.
- Jean Leon was close friends with Marilyn Monroe, whom he had met while working as a waiter at Villa Capri. She had been married to Joe DiMaggio, who owned the restaurant along with Frank Sinatra. Later she became a regular at La Scala, so much so that Jean Leon named a dish after her, “Fettuccini à la Marilyn,” because she loved it so much. On the night of August 4th, Marilyn asked Jean Leon, her favorite restaurateur, to personally deliver a plate of pasta to her house in Brentwood, Los Angeles. Marilyn Monroe died a few hours later. The official cause of death was an overdose of sleeping pills. Jean Leon was called in by police as a witness, because he had been one of the last people to see her alive. Years later, Jean Leon told Sebastián Moreno, a journalist and author of the book El Rey de Beverly Hills, that Marilyn wasn’t alone that night, but with Robert Kennedy. Unofficially it was known that the two were having an affair.
- Later that year, Jean Leon was back in Barcelona to reunite with his mother and sisters. He brought along his wife, Katty, and their two children. No one in either family knew of the other, with the exception of Jean Leon, of course. The Carrión household was overjoyed, especially Jean Leon’s mother.
Jean Leon planted the Vinya La Scala vineyard. The terroir has rocky calcareous clay soils.
- To the great surprise of local winegrowers, Jean Leon replaced local cultivars with scions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay from renowned French wineries. An unprecedented decision that brought about the first Cabernet Sauvignons in Spain.
- November 15th marked the inauguration of the Jean Leon winery in the Penedès wine region, built in the style of an authentic Bordeaux château.
Jean Leon planted the first Chardonnay vines in the Vinya Gigi vineyard. The terroir has compact calcareous clay soils.
Jean Leon planted the first vines in the Vinya Le Havre vineyard. The terroir has calcareous clay soils.
The Jean Leon winery harvested its first grapes, specifically the Cabernet Sauvignon variety, which went on to produce Vinya La Scala Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva, then known as Jean Leon Gran Reserva.
Jean Leon decided to serve the entire first vintage of Vinya La Scala Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva (1969) at his La Scala restaurant in Beverly Hills. It was the first Cabernet Sauvignon produced in Spain.
Jean Leon brought the first vintage of Vinya Gigi Chardonnay (1971) to market. It was the first barrel-fermented Chardonnay in Spain.
Jean Leon and Ronald Reagan met in Hollywood, back when the politician was starting out as an actor. Their friendship grew, and one day Reagan jokingly told Jean Leon (who was a Democrat) that if he voted for him in the upcoming election and he became president (as a Republican) he would serve Jean Leon’s wine at his inauguration. Jean Leon replied that friendship mattered more than politics, and he voted for Reagan. On January 20th, 1981, Ronald Reagan kept his promise. Vinya La Scala Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva 1975 and Vinya Gigi Chardonnay 1980 were chosen as the wines for Reagan’s official inaugural dinner at the White House.
Jean Leon planted the first Merlot vines in the Vinya Palau vineyard. The terroir has two types of soil: calcareous clay and arenaceous with gravel.
To Jean Leon’s great satisfaction, Wine magazine chose his 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon as one of the world’s eight best wines.
In 1994, Jean Leon was diagnosed with advanced laryngeal cancer. Several American businesspeople were interested in buying his winery, but he turned them down. Instead, he decided to entrust the Torres family with his legacy to ensure the continuity of his winery and maintain the unique personality and identity of the wines that bear his name.
He spent the last days of his life sailing – one of his great passions – on his yacht La Scala d’Amore. Jean Leon passed away on October 6th, leaving behind an immense legacy and having lived a life that saw his dreams come true, because he was a forward-looking and enthusiastic nonconformist.
- Since 1994, when Jean Leon entrusted his legacy to the Torres family, the winery has stayed true to the philosophy of its founder. In every wine, it seeks innovation and elegance to keep making history – and continue the story of a self-made man who fought tirelessly for his dreams.