La Paulée, Manhattan’s Homage to Burgundy

© Thomas Schauer

A week-long celebration draws oenophiles from around the globe.

Last week, an army of sommeliers, chefs, winemakers, and VIDs (Very Important Drinkers) gathered in New York City for La Paulée, an annual Burgundy bacchanal with roots in a century-old French tradition of the same name.

“It’s sensory overload,” bubbled a sommelier who poured wines at Friday’s 10 AM tasting. “You’re confronted by greatness repeatedly until you barely understand what greatness is.”

La Paulée organizer Daniel Johnnes, the wine director for Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group, envisions the five-day event as an “education” in Burgundy’s wines, presented in a “convivial way that’s unpretentious.” The tutelage takes the form of a dozen events ranging from a $95 tasting of value bottles to a $7,250-a-head “legends dinner” featuring flights of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Like an Art Basel for wine connoisseurs, the main La Paulée program has inspired two weeks’ worth of spin-off Burgundy celebrations, including a wine auction and by-the-glass specials at restaurants across the country.

But the capstone event remains Saturday evening’s $1,500 BYOB dinner: Under wall-sized photographs of Cote d’Or chateaux, the evening’s champagne reception rapidly gave way to crowd surfing on the shoulders of Michelin-starred chefs. Tasting notes were shouted late into the night over the baritone of Burgundian singers belting out chansons a boire, from under the arms of decorated sommeliers pouring new wine faster than it could be drunk, and across tables sagging with the “treasures” attendees had been encouraged to bring from their cellars. More than a few bottles were old enough to join the Baby Boomer generation, and many—from Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Domaine Leroy, and others—rare enough to make grown men giddy. “You have to make a show of strength,” my local wine merchant advised me as I went searching for a bottle to bring.

“A lot of wine doesn’t taste as good after this,” North End Grill executive chef Eric Korsh observed at a Saturday afternoon tasting of wines from the 2012 vintage. “La Paulée is the best place in the world to taste Burgundy.”

It may seem strange this distinction goes to an event held in downtown Manhattan, not a cave somewhere in France. But with varied tastings designed to illuminate different facets of Burgundy’s storied producers and access to hard-to-come-by wines, the festival is indeed the ne plus ultra of wine events. To devotees, it’s also an opportunity to celebrate the senses, explore history through a glass, and network with a who's who of other oenophiles. 

The names on the place cards at Saturday night's Gala Dinner rivaled those on the bottles: Paulée-goers shook hands with star winemakers like Dominique Lafon and Michel Lafarge and took selfies with celebrity somms like Raj Parr and Larry Stone, whose presence sparked an excited gasp from a woman seated to my right. The sommeliers milk every connection they can for the privilege of pouring.

The success of La Paulée, which sold out faster than ever this year despite expanding from three days to five, has spawned a spate of imitators. There is Rieslingfeir, a celebration of Riesling; La Festa del Barolo, a Barolo festival; and the upcoming BurdiGala, a Bordeaux-themed fête in March (tickets from $250; March 13, 2015). Since 2014, Johnnes has also organized the Fête du Champagne in the fall (tickets from $75; November 7, 2015).

Yet it’s hard to match the devotion La Paulée commands. This year drew veteran Burghounds who hadn’t missed a Paulée since its inception in 2000, as well as a woman visiting from Israel who'd extended her trip to New York by three weeks to catch the action. She’d sprung for the $14,5000 Methusala package, which includes admission to the full suite of La Paulée events.

She had her own way of characterizing the event. To her, it was not an education so much as an immersion in art.

“When an aficionado comes and tastes, he’s not just having a good time. He’s experiencing the art of winemaking,” she said as she left one tasting and geared up for the Gala Dinner. “It’s an art. It’s truly an art.”