The Story of Jean Leon by Sarah Andrews (www.sarahandrews.com)
 

What do Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, James Dean and Ronald Regan have in common? Hollywood, of course, but they were also all good friends of a man named Jean Leon, a Spaniard who immigrated to the United States and became, as he was dubbed in a recent book about his life, the “king” of Beverly Hills.
The “king” began his adventure as a poor immigrant, but thanks to his endless energy and eye for business he became a classic American success story, mingling with the crém de la crém of Hollywood society and eventually returning to Spain to found the Penedès winery that today bears his name.

Jean Leon, whose real name was Ceferino Carrión, left his native Santander in 1947, when he was just a teenager, to seek his fortune abroad. He landed first in Paris, but soon made his way to New York City by stowing away on a merchant ship. Unable to speak English, he got a job at the Rockefeller Center earning just $4 a day. But before long he set off again, this time for California, where his luck would change.

Ceferino got a job in the Hollywood restaurant Villa Capri, owned by Joe Dimaggio and Frank Sinatra, and was quickly enamoured by the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown. Like many young stars of the day, he changed his name to the French-sounding (and thus elegant) “Jean Leon.” As Jean Leon, he quickly rose through the ranks at the restaurant, learning all he could along the way. In three years, he was Sinatra’s right-hand man and confidant, managing nearly all his social and many of his business affairs. Thanks to Sinatra, Leon met many in the upper echelons of the Hollywood scene, including Humphry Bogart, Rita Hayworth and many still-undiscovered stars, like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. As they rose into fame, they brought Jean Leon with them.
In 1955, now a confirmed star, James Dean agreed to go into business with Leon. They made plans to open the most luxurious restaurant in Hollywood; Jean Leon would run the place, and James Dean would put up the money. Sadly, soon before its inauguration, James Dean crashed his sports car in the accident which ended his life. Despite the tragedy, the restaurant, called La Scala, opened not long after, and it quickly became one of the most popular restaurants in town, a favourite with the Hollywood crowd Jean Leon met through Sinatra.

Marilyn Monroe was a regular customer, and she often ordered food to eat at home when she didn’t feel like going out and sitting at her regular spot at table 14. Usually Jean Leon delivered her dinners personally to her home in Brentwood (she really liked steak and fries, he said). On one of the nights he brought her dinner he saw that she wasn’t alone. The next day Marilyn was found dead, but Jean Leon never revealed who he’d seen with her.

La Scala went from success to success, and the anecdotes about Hollywood stars explained in Moreno’s book about Jean Leon’s life reveal the restaurant’s privileged position in the society of the day. Liz Taylor, Grace Kelly and Clark Gable were just a few of the regular clientele. Just one thing was missing from the restaurant’s carefully selected menu, which included dishes like Veal and Peppers a la Zsa Zsa and Grenadine of Beef a la Paul Newman. That one thing was a signature wine.

Twenty years after immigrating to the United States, Jean Leon called his family in Spain for the first time since leaving home as a teenager. The message he had for his shocked family was brief: “I’m an American and I’m rich. I’m coming back to Spain to start a winery.”

In the early 1960s, Leon bought land in the Penedès region just outside Barcelona to establish his new bodega. He was determined to make it one of the most prestigious wineries in Spain, and for that he imported French vines from the top chateaus in Bordeaux and Burgundy, rejecting the rustic styles of Spanish wines at the time. The Jean Leon winery became the first ever to make Spanish Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons and in the process revolutionized the wine industry here. The wines from the Penedès bodega quickly became popular among the clients at La Scala, but the real proof of its success came in 1980, when U.S. president Ronald Regan served a Jean Leon Cabernet Sauvignon at his inaugural dinner.

Jean Leon died of cancer in 1996, but today the winery is still based on those original Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons, and it’s still under the direction of enologist Jaume Rovira, hired in 1962 by Jean Leon himself. A few new wines have been released onto the market, but the Jean Leon winery says its main focus is honouring the vision of its founder—aiming to be the most prestigious and innovative winery in Spain.

The winery has a visitor centre beside its vineyards in Torrelavit, Penedès, where a museum dedicated to the founder’s life shows photos and momentos of the golden years of Hollywood. For information about visits and details about both the wines and winery of Jean Leon, call 93 899 5512 or check out www.jeanleon.com.

 
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