I think it is fair to say that the most passionate group of wine geeks are Burgundy Geeks. Given this enthusiasm, it is no surprise that the annual La Paulee celebration hosted and produced by Daniel Johnnes is one of the most anticipated wine events every year in this country. Even months before the event, I start getting emails from friends as excitement for the event builds and planning begins. I jokingly call it the Burgundy Olympics. To say the least I greatly look forward to it every other year when it comes back to San Francisco.
The original La Paulee celebration as we know it today was initiated by Jules Lafon in 1923. It was modeled upon the ancient French tradition of bringing together the producers, cellar hands and field workers to celebrate the harvest and was hosted in Meursault. Lafon’s La Paulee celebration was initially very much a neighborly and local affair but it quickly came to include trade members, collectors and straight up tourists from around the world. It is part of the annual Hospices de Beaune charity auction and is a daytime lunch affair.
Our American version of the celebration was created (with the approval of the Lafons) in 2000 by Daniel Johnnes. Daniel is the Wine Director for Daniel Boulud’s restaurant empire overseeing everything from the sommeliers to the wine buying to special events. He is a major figure in the US burgundy wine world and it is hard to envision anyone else who has the prerequisite connections and respect in Burgundy who could pull something like this off. I have never met Daniel but he is general well regarded in the industry.
I have been twice to Johnnes’s La Paulee and have had a great time each event. For those curious about the atmosphere of the weekend I would say that in general the event focuses on high end wines with an emphasis on luxury and decadence. The atmosphere at the events I have attended has been relaxed but attentive with many people taking notes and really focusing on what they are drinking. The night time events are by contrast a bit more party-oriented in nature. Regarding the wines presented, I would find it interesting if more producers were included from less heralded appellations like Mâconnais, Chalonaise , Hautes Cotes, Cremant de Bourgogne and even the Beaujolais but given that the crowd leans towards collector-types there probably wouldn’t be much interest in such things.
The weekend’s festivities start off on February 22nd in Napa with an expensive dinner featuring DRC. Needless to say if you have to ask how much the entrance fee is, you can’t afford it. Then on Thursday there is a Collectors lunch at Jardinière restaurant featuring Domaine Louis Michel et Fils and Domaine Michel Lafarge. A bit later in the day there is a very interesting looking seminar hosted by Mr. Johnnes himself and Rajat Par. Rajat is the wine director for Michael Mina’s restaurants and this event is hosted at Mina’s RN74 restaurant. This seminar is entitled “Navigating Burgundy” and seems to be a general guide to the region. If I can get into town early, I really hope to make this event.
The weekend itself kicks off with what may be my favorite formal event of the weekend which is the Vertical Tasting. This event takes place way up on the 33rd floor and all participating winemakers offer a three or more vintage vertical of a particular wine. Compared to the Grand Tasting, I have found that this event is a bit more relaxed and less crowded with more time to talk to the producers themselves. I also really liked the vertical focus. It’s a rare opportunity to taste so many verticals in one day. Later that day there is a Rare Wine Dinner focused on Ponsot.
On Saturday there a seminar led by the NYT’s Eric Asimov about generational change in Burgundy titled Continuity and Change in Burgundy. It features David Duband, Jean-Marie Fourrier and Etienne de Montille. Fourrier’s wines may be my favorite in Burgundy so this is one I am hoping to have time to make. Montille also makes great wines and is highly personable. David’s wines are perhaps not my favorite style (though they are very good) but he is a great guy and was the most generous and engaging of everyone we visited when we were in Burgundy. Given the topic and the personalities this promises to be a great seminar.
Next comes the main event for most of us which is the Grand Tasting. This tasting will focus on the 2009s of participating producers. Aside from an unparalleled opportunity to taste so many great wines from the same vintage, a big attraction of this event is the amazing food that is served. Many of the city’s best restaurants serve small bites of dishes that embody the style of the chef. These snack size morsels have generally ranged from very good to amazing. I typically try to visit the wine tables first and then try the food later. I do this so as to not recalibrate my palate half way through tasting the wine. One bit of advice I would give is to avoid the cult producers at first on then visit them later after the initial rush for those tables dies down. The wine doesn’t run out quickly so there is no hurry.
Also, try to avoid embarrassing yourself like I did at my first La Paulee 4 years ago when it was the 2005 vintages that were being poured. At that event Mugnier was in attendance and he was pouring the other-wordly 2005 Musigny (alongside the very meanie-greenie 2004). It was getting towards the end of the event and I had tried everything I had really wanted to try so I wasn’t spitting anymore and was frankly getting a little bit buzzed. As I was chatting with my friends the memory of the incredible 2005 Musigny was haunting me so I excused myself and made my way over to Mugnier’s table again. I asked by chance if there was any of the Musigny left and he cheerfully said yes. I held out my glass and just as he was about to pour I noticed it was the 2004 and said “oh actually…” and for some strange reason I yanked my glass back and the wine cascade down onto the table and splashed up onto his shirt…
…yeah, not my finest moment. To say the least I was pretty embarrassed. I can still remember to look on his face.
Anyway, it’s a great event and well worth attending.
After the Grand Tasting is what is billed as the “flagship” event of the weekend and that is the Gala dinner. Truthfully, I probably won’t be attending this. I could actually probably get the go ahead from the boss (my wife) to attend even with the price tag but what keeps me from going is that I frankly don’t have the “lumber” caliber wines that most people bring to this event and wouldn’t want to come unless I could contribute in kind. I am sure it is a fantastic event though and if one can afford it and has wines to contribute, I would heartily recommend it. Where else can you find a dream team of the world’s finest chefs collaborating to cook you dinner?
For those of us not going to this there will certainly be a lot of informal dinners with friends from around the country meeting up and sharing treasures. Two years ago some friends and I had dinner at a restaurant called Piperade which serves fantastic Basque food and they were cheerfully indulgent of us bringing a lot of our own wine. If you are looking for a venue for your own dinner I would recommend giving them a call.
Lastly, I am not sure if it will happen again but two years ago when I attended last, there was a type of after-party Saturday night at RN-74. There was a big lounge area and everyone mingled and shared wines. It seems to really get going after everyone leaves the Gala dinner and makes their way over to RN74. Compared to the other events, this had very much a party type atmosphere. At some points there were even some smoky wafts of California’s finest floating through the crowd as the energy really got going. It was actually one of my favorite parts of the weekend last year so I hope it happens again.
It’s around the time for me to start my training again for the Burgundy Olympics. I’m hoping to place this year in the gluttony event without being disqualified for pouring wine on any of the shirts of my favorite producers. Hope to see you there.
For more information about La Paulee including participating winemakers and the schedule visit http://www.lapaulee.com/.