Attending a Burg-orgy: The DO’s and DON’Ts of La Paulée

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 03-25-2013

Les Chanteurs de Bourgogne: they drink, then they sing!

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending my first La Paulée de New York, a week-long celebration that founder Daniel Johnnes calls an “uncontrolled, unplugged, unleashed expression of Burgundy,” and that Tyler Colman submits is “hedonistic to the extreme.”

Johnnes, the wine director for Daniel Boulud’s restaurant group, founded La Paulée in 2000 as homage to La Paulée de Meursault, a traditional end-of-harvest celebration in Burgundy. In recent years, the American version has alternated between New York and San Francisco. The full event consists of four days of seminars, formal tastings, lunches and dinners, but the main event is always the Gala Dinner—a formal affair where collectors engage in “friendly but intense competition . . . as bottles are uncorked, shared and imbibed.”  Or, as Lettie Teague calls it, “a very expensive BYO meal.”

Despite it being my first time, I felt I was adequately prepared for the Paulée experience, and upon reflection, I think I was able to make the most of it. There’s a fair amount of misperception out there about the event, so in the spirit of sharing, I offer this list of ten suggestions for how to maximize your enjoyment at what is the greatest wine event in the country.

DO: Go with friends!

Johnnes says La Paulée is intended to evoke “the Burgundy spirit of generosity and camaraderie.” And there’s no better way to capture that spirit than to share a glass with friends. Having Burg-loving companions with you for these events makes everything better. You can certainly make lots of new friends (more on that below), but it is a lot more fun to have someone you know around to debate the current vintage at a tasting, discuss the wines being passed at a dinner, and join forces when moving around in search of pours at the Gala.

DON’T: Spend your money on the rare wine dinners or lunches!

As I mentioned, the Gala is the main attraction of La Paulée, but there’s a lot more going on, most of which is absurdly expensive. For example, Wednesday night included a “Rare Wine Dinner” featuring Champagne Salon, a vertical of Dauvissat Chablis going back to 1983, and a ridiculous selection of Roumier wines, including a 1955 Bonnes Mares, all direct from the domaines’ cellars. The price for admission?  $4,750 per person. Friday night featured a similar “Legends Dinner” for the same price, but this time the wines were from Domaine Leflaive and the legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

I don’t know about you, but $5,000 is a lot of money to spend on a dinner, even if it does include three older vintages of La Tâche (1971, 1978 and 1985). Here’s the thing, though: all told, the dinners are not a very good value, and you have no control over the wine and food. So here’s my suggestion—and one that more and more Burg-o-philes have been choosing in recent years—skip the pricey “official” events, make a reservation at one of the scores of great restaurants in Manhattan, and bring some great bottles to enjoy with friends in a more relaxed setting. That’s exactly what my group did this year, at the wonderful Corton in Tribeca, where we popped the corks on some great bottles, including a magnum of 1982 Pierre Gimonnet Champagne, a 1990 Leflaive Pucelles (older than any of the Pucelles at the “Legends” Dinner), a 1990 Leroy Brulées, a 1993 Méo-Camuzet Clos de Vougeot, and a 1967 Cathiard Suchots, among many, many others.

DO: Attend the Grand Tasting!

That said, you absolutely must attend Saturday afternoon’s Grand Tasting, which features 34 of the best domaines from Burgundy pouring a selection of wines (usually four) from the most recently released vintage—in this case, the gorgeous 2010s. In many cases, these are rare, expensive, highly-allocated wines that you might not have a chance to taste, let alone buy, anywhere else. For a budding Burgundy collector like myself, it was an invaluable opportunity to gauge the vintage characteristics, but also to identify my own stylistic preferences among the varied producers. Without La Paulée, it would take months, if not years, and hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to compare and contrast the styles of, say, Dujac versus Fourrier.

I have only been drinking Burgundy for a few years, so I don’t have much of a reference point, but I can say this: across the board, 2010 was a fantastic vintage. The whites have amazing freshness, and are delicious now, but also have the structure to age (premox concerns notwithstanding). In particular I enjoyed the entire lineup from Christian Moreau of Chablis, and the Les Preuses from both Dauvissat and Fèvre, the latter of which practically pulsed with electric acid and minerality. The Bâtard-Montrachets from Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey and Leflaive also were predictably brilliant. Olivier Lamy’s wines, on the other hand, were reminiscent of chewing on wood chips.

The reds were equally, if not more, stunning. Bright fruit, supported by ample acidity and substantial, but not overbearing, tannins. These wines were oh-so-tasty last month, but are built to last seemingly forever. The highlights of the tasting, for me, were Liger-Belair’s Echézeaux, Hudelot-Noellat’s Romanée St. Vivant, and Roumier’s Ruchottes-Chambertin. These grand crus are not cheap—they will eat into your retirement, but also will drink well into your retirement. For relative(!) values, look to the village wines of Gevrey-Chambertin (especially examples from Fourrier and Trapet) or Vosne Romanee (Mugneret-Gibourg and Hudelot-Noellat). I also very much enjoyed Lafarge’s whole lineup of Volnays.

DON’T: Forget to pace yourself (or overdo it)!

So you have to go to the Grand Tasting, but the Gala is only a few hours later that day. How do you do it? SPIT! Don’t drink too much (or any) wine in the afternoon, or your night will be ruined. Trust me; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The Gala starts around 6:30pm, ends after 11:00pm, then the after-party, which lasts into the wee hours of the morning. La Paulée helpfully provides plastic spit cups in addition to your souvenir Riedel tasting glass, and buckets are everywhere (and are frequently emptied), so take advantage. There’s also some great food at the afternoon event, so don’t try to evaluate over 100 wines on an empty stomach! My advice also is to go back to your hotel and take a nap after the tasting, and maybe squeeze in a run or something. Whatever you need to do to prepare yourself for the big event.

DO: Be “aggressively friendly”!

The Grand Tasting is not the place for wallflowers. You cannot be afraid to introduce yourself to strangers, and you cannot be reluctant to ask people for tastes of wine. If you stay put at your own table and never leave, you are severely limiting the number of wines you will get to try. Get up, move around, shake hands, and express interest in what others are drinking. BUT don’t be a jerk. Aggressive, but friendly, is the name of the game. If you act entitled to a taste, or worse yet, demand one, you will be shunned. Ask nicely, be gracious and complimentary.

Jim Clendenen, proprietor of Au Bon Climat Winery in Santa Barbara, was at the other end of my table. He brought tons of great wine with him. I have never met him before, and none of my friends knew him, but I introduced myself anyway. Within minutes I had a taste of 2001 Henri Jayer Cros Parantoux in my glass. This may very well be the only taste of Jayer I ever have in my life (at over $5K per bottle, it’s a safe bet), and it was suitably amazing. If I wasn’t aggressively friendly, I would have missed out.

(Stay with me for five more tips after the jump!)

DON’T: Expect to be able to contemplate your wine!

A giant bottle of Bouchard!

Over the course of the night, I estimate that I tasted between 30 to 40 wines. You get two stems at your seat. Even if you utilize your water glass (not recommended!), there just isn’t enough glassware to keep the wines long enough to ponder and evaluate, not to mention check in on how they develop over time in the glass. This results—lamentably, sure—in a lot of great wine being poured into the dump bucket in order to make room for the next pour. So what? The Gala is an orgy of Burgundy. And like any type of orgy, the goal is not to spend all night with just one partner. (Not that I have any experience with this!) If you can only appreciate fine wine over a leisurely dinner, or worse, at a desk with a pen and pad, then maybe La Paulée is not for you. Or, as I explained above, plan a smaller dinner with friends for one of the nights. If your goal, on the other hand, is to taste as many mind-blowing wines as possible in one setting, because you otherwise may never get another chance to taste them, then by all means, go for it! Here’s an incomplete list of the wines I tried at the Gala, in no particular order:

A pair of absolutely stunning 1962 Leroys (La Romanée and Mazis-Chambertin); a ton of great Drouhin (1961 Romanée St. Vivant, 1988 and 1990 Grands-Echézeaux, and 1989 Chambertin); a killer 1986 Rousseau Chambertin; 1993 Bouchard La Romanée out of a Methuselah; a pair of ridiculous Ponsot Clos de la Roche (1988 and 1999); some silly good 1993s (Mugnier Musigny and Arnoux Clos de Vougeot); a gorgeous magnum of 1990 Mugneret Ruchottes-Chambertin; a beautiful pair of 1999 Fourriers (Clos St. Jacques and Griottes-Chambertin); and a lovely 1985 DRC Grands-Echézeaux from magnum.

DO: Be generous (and don’t over pour)!

You have to pay to play. The Gala Dinner is a BYOB event, attended by some of the most famous winemakers in Burgundy, some of the wealthiest collectors in the world, and some of the most important people in the wine trade. It is essential, then, that you bring appropriate wine to the dinner. What is appropriate? That’s hard to say in concrete terms. Take a look at the list of wines I tasted, or at some of the other notes from La Paulée that are available, to see the types of bottles being opened. I don’t have a deep cellar of old Burgundy gems, but I knew what I was getting into when I decided to attend La Paulée, so I planned ahead and started grabbing a few bottles here and there over the last year as candidates to bring with me to New York. And I’m glad I did—one of the bottles I brought was a hit, and made for an agreeable trading partner for many of the wines that I tried. Don’t be the guy who limps in with a lesser producer or an off vintage then asks people for tastes of their DRC. There’s a story about a prominent wine writer who attended La Paulée a few years back and brought with him a single bottle of Bourgogne Rouge. There’s a reason this story still gets told over and over.

Do you need to pour a taste for everyone who asks? Of course not. You use your judgment. Pour for your friends, pour for your table-mates, pour in exchange for other tastes. Pour for people who are friendly and seem genuine, even if you’ve just met (thanks, Jim!). Bring enough wine so that you don’t feel like you need to hoard your bottle (I opened a magnum and another single bottle of a different wine). The flipside to this rule is: don’t over pour! Many times a bottle will be sitting on the table when you ask for a taste, or the bottle will be given to you to pour for yourself. Don’t be an ass – give yourself a reasonable taste, not anywhere close to a full, or even half glass. People remember those people.

DON’T: Get caught up in what other people are drinking!

I feel like this rule veers almost into Commandment territory: thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s bottle! There is a ton of great wine at the Gala. You will not get to taste all of it, or even anywhere near a majority of it. So don’t beat yourself up over the fact that a particular prized bottle was empty by the time it reached you or caught your attention. Likewise, don’t stress yourself out trying to figure out a way to get a taste of someone special you see across the room. There’s plenty of other wine out there to try. Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was there, and I’m sure his table had some baller juice, but there was a wall of people surrounding it at all times. Just let it go. Be happy with what you got to taste, and if you are aggressively friendly and generous with your own wine, you should end up satisfied at the end of the night.

DO: Befriend the sommeliers!

Some of the best sommeliers in the country work the Gala Dinner. Sommeliers love Burgundy, and most of them “aspire to work at La Paulée,” according to Dustin Wilson, the wine director at Eleven Madison Park. They open and taste every bottle that is brought to the dinner (in a back room), checking the wines for faults and to decide on appropriate treatment (such as decanting). Therefore, they know what is out there, and what is coming. Befriend the somms, and you might just get a good tip regarding which table to hang around in a few minutes (wink, wink)! Our table was assisted by Mark Bright from Saison in San Francisco, and he did a fabulous job handling our wines and making the evening run smoothly. Plus, all of the sommeliers know where the after-party will be!

DON’T: Miss the food!

The madness that is the Paulee Gala Dinner!

It would be easy at an event like this to neglect the meal, writing it off as an afterthought, a plate of mass-produced banquet slop, unworthy of the fine and rare wine being sloshed about. That would be a mistake. The dinner at the La Paulée Gala is a six-course tasting menu extravaganza prepared by five world-class chefs, three of whom helm Michelin 3-Star kitchens. Highlights for me included Burgundy Snails with Garlic Sabayon and Crispy Shallots from César Ramirez of Brooklyn Fare, and Manchester Farms Quail “en Caillete” with Wild Mushroom Fricassée from Daniel Boulud. It is no easy feat to cook for close to 400 people and still make it seem like a chef’s table, but these artists somehow pull it off. So eat! Besides, you need something in your stomach if you’re going to be tasting dozens of wines!

So there you go, ten rules of thumb for getting the most out of your La Paulée experience. Have anything to add? Join us in the comments. I hope to see some of you there next year – be friendly and generous and I promise to do the same!

All photos are courtesy of the author. To view a very short cell phone video of Les Chanteurs in action, click here.

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