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Burgundy Uncontrolled, Unplugged and Unleashed

L-R: A Joseph Drouhin jeroboam; Daniel Johnnes (C) with chefs Michel Troisgros and Tom Colicchio; the table awaits
© La Paulee de New York | L-R: A Joseph Drouhin jeroboam; Daniel Johnnes (C) with chefs Michel Troisgros and Tom Colicchio; the table awaits
Is it a crime to uncork so much fine wine at one time?

What do you call a $1,500 a head dinner for several hundred people that’s also BYOB? Why, La Paulée de New York.

The event has alternately been described as a “Burgundy bacchanal” and an “orgy.” Despite its stratospheric pricing, it is one of the most anticipated events on the wine calendar in New York, as collectors unearth rarely seen gems to enjoy, and top sommeliers aspire to work the dinner.

A series of other events now sprawls over several days, including a panel seminar on the “outer boroughs” of Burgundy for $75, a walk-around tasting with 35 domaines pouring their 2010s for $250, and two rare wine verticals dinners with wines from the properties costing $4,750 each.

Since there is an increasingly widespread belief among wine consumers that all roads of wine appreciation lead to Burgundy, it’s no surprise that the tickets sell out quickly. In fact, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then La Paulée de New York should be blushing. Large-scale BYO dinners for both riesling (Rieslingfeier) and Bordeaux (Burdigala) had their debuts in New York in recent weeks.

Of course, La Paulée de New York is itself riffing on La Paulée de Meursault, which was revived in 1923 and now is the main draw card of three events collectively known as the “Trois Glorieuses.” (The other two are the Hospices de Beaune charity wine auction and a dinner at the Clos de Vougeot.)

Even though La Paulée de Meursault has been hailed as the “Oktoberfest of oenophiles,” the one in New York – which costs more, has higher profile chefs and seems to lure better bottles out of cellars – dominates interest in the U.S.

La Paulée de New York is the brainchild of Daniel Johnnes, who, at 57, remains a major force among New York sommeliers. Johnnes trained as a chef and worked as a waiter, but rose to prominence presiding over the wine list at Drew Nieporent’s Montrachet – a downtown wine destination where many of today’s collectors cut their Burgundy teeth.

L-R: Sommeliers Paul Roberts, David Gordon and Michael Madrigale; rare wines brought by guests
© La Paulee de New York | L-R: Sommeliers Paul Roberts, David Gordon and Michael Madrigale; rare wines brought by guests

Johnnes had individual winemaker dinners at Montrachet, but it wasn’t until 1992 that he had his first dinner with multiple producers, including Christophe Roumier and Dominique Lafon. It was an exciting moment in Burgundy, Johnnes says, as a new generation of winemakers had just risen to prominence at their family domaines.

He wanted to do something bigger and in 2000 he organized the first Paulée de New York with about a dozen domaines. Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée Conti cautioned him after the event that in order to keep it special, he should not stage it every year. Johnnes did decide to hold the event again the following year, but – partially heeding de Villaine’s advice – in 2001 he held it in San Francisco.

After taking 2002 and 2004 off, the annual event now alternates between New York and San Francisco (with a “mini Paulée” in Aspen periodically, for good measure).

I met with Johnnes in his office recently (he’s also the wine director for Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group of restaurants and has his own wine-importing company). He told me he was spending a lot of time on the phone as a counselor, advising attendees on what to bring, comparing their mood to hundreds of thrilled, excited schoolchildren, eager with anticipation. Some of the attendees bring more than a dozen bottles each (or equivalent in large formats); the collective value of wine uncorked that evening could probably balance the budget of small nations.

But it’s not just the collectors who look forward to La Paulée every year or two; it’s also the sommeliers. Johnnes says that sommeliers from around the country contact him, starting months in advance, offering their services free of charge for the evening.

He points out that aside from sommeliers at top restaurants, the rising prices and highly allocated nature of Burgundy has made it hard for many sommeliers to taste the top wines. La Paulée functions as a sort of “Burgundy University” for sommeliers, and it’s an “honor and a duty of La Paulée to provide this opportunity.”

“Most sommeliers aspire to work at La Paulée,” says Dustin Wilson, a Master Sommelier and wine director at Eleven Madison Park who worked his first Paulée last year in San Francisco and will be working the floor again next week. He added that aside from the astounding wines available, it’s an opportunity to meet passionate collectors and reconnect with sommeliers from around the country.

L-R: Winemaker Veronique Drouhin; Les Chanteurs de Bourgogne serenade guests; winemaker David Duband
© La Paulee de New York | L-R: Winemaker Veronique Drouhin; Les Chanteurs de Bourgogne serenade guests; winemaker David Duband

Is it criminal to uncork so much fine wine all at one time? It is undoubtedly hedonistic to the extreme: it’s outrageous to even think that one might face the Solomonic decision of having ’85 DRC La Tâche in your glass only to have to dump it because someone is offering you the ’78 La Tâche (wines that you could savor at a meal for hours ) – let alone actually be confronted by this choice.

In defense of such activities, at least the attendees are almost all wine enthusiasts; this is no society function where fine wine gets poured only to wilt in the sun as the ticket holders opt for golf or manicures. The attendees come to taste: some spit but almost everyone swallows. Some wines, such as the 1978 Roumier Bonnes Mares that someone is bringing, are so exceedingly rare and in such large formats, that when they are brought out at the event, empty glasses dart toward them, like hummingbirds at a feeder.

“It’s an uncontrolled, unplugged, and unleashed expression of Burgundy,” Johnnes says. Someone made an analogy that hit home for him: you could put on the most perfect headset, turn on an album, light a joint and enjoy the experience all by yourself – or you could actually go to the concert.

Still, it rubs some people the wrong way. One Burgundy insider told me he thought it contributed to the escalation of Burgundy prices, a trend he lamented. Another consumer said he would be taking the money he spent on La Paulée in the past and will instead go to Burgundy this year to talk with producers and taste in the cellars.

Nonetheless, the event has become a fixture on collectors’ calendars like none other in the United States. Inside the hall, above the folk songs from the men’s chorus flown over from Burgundy, and the clinking of glasses, an ebullient joie de vivre remains the dominant tone. While there’s no lack of flashiness, Wilson, the sommelier, calls it a great celebration, where generosity among diners and pure pleasure are notably on display.

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