The smell of wines bursting with fruit, spice and freshly foraged mushrooms filled the air bringing an energy to the room that was so electric that it vibrated on another level of happiness, sense of community and pure exuberance. As the night went on, wine producers hugged long time wine clients, Rolling Stones songs became the soundtrack to this celebration, people chatted about their favorite wine of the night while pouring it in a glass of someone they just met hours ago; the evening culminated with people singing Burgundian drinking songs while waving their napkins in the air with complete abandonment. It was a Burgundy wine gala dinner to be remembered for the ages and it was a source of mental nutrition that many drew on during one of the worst times in recent history that would descend upon everyone just shortly after – this was the 20th Anniversary of La Paulée de New York that was celebrated five days before the Covid lockdown in New York City in March of 2020.
For 20 years, La Paulée de New York has been considered one of the greatest wine celebrations in the U.S.. Former wine director of Daniel (one of the top fine dining restaurants in New York City and beyond founded by chef Daniel Boulud), Daniel Johnnes, based his La Paulée on a recreation of La Paulée de Meursault in Burgundy where wine producers and their friends come together to share their wines. It is a much needed gathering, putting all the competition and stresses of life to the side to come together without any walls so people can bond over a common love – wine. It doesn’t matter if one is rich or poor, young or old, wine savvy or novice; many from all walks of life have joined various aspects of La Paulée, which has been celebrated in other U.S. cities throughout the years; and that is when wine is at its best, when good people drinking good wine are sharing it with others. It is an experience that goes beyond just the alcohol creating a buzz as it is a mutual group intoxication that takes everyone on an ethereal carpet ride that creates one of the best wine related memories for all involved.
The creator, Daniel Johnnes, was not raised drinking expensive Burgundy wines; he had a humble upbringing in the middle class suburbs outside New York City. But it was an intense love for everything French that started to percolate at 18 years old that would eventually lead him to working in the wine world. He became the wine director of Montrachet restaurant in 1985, the first restaurant of the famous wine restaurateur Drew Nieporent that opened in the once desolate NYC neighborhood of Tribeca – later becoming one of the prime downtown areas for innovative dining and killer wine lists. Daniel noted that at the time there weren’t any places outside of the Windows on the World restaurant, which was located in the World Trade Center, in NYC that were “serious wine restaurants” during that time and so Montrachet, with its encompassing wine list, was a revolution. He then went on to become wine director of Daniel Boulud’s The Dinex Group starting in 2005 and Daniel Boulud has been one of the chefs who has been an integral part of La Paulée de New York as well as partnering with other events such as La Fête du Champagne.
Restocking Up on Vital Good Times
As cities such as New York City are returning to a state of relative normalcy with the restaurant world coming back to life due to high Covid vaccination rates, Daniel Johnnes and his team are now planning live events again to take place between November 6th-13th with their La Fête du Champagne festival – a combination of Champagne events and virtual webinars; the webinars will include wine packs for people so they can taste along from the comfort of their homes. All the live events will be following the NYC and CDC guidelines as well as requiring proof of vaccination from anyone working or attending the events. Champagne wine expert Peter Liem will be presenting the La Fête du Champagne with Daniel Johnnes again and just a couple of the extraordinary events include a grand tasting with Olivier Krug, sixth generation of the Krug family, and a gala dinner where attending Champagne producers will be sharing special bottles, as well as guests bringing their own Champagne bottles from their cellar, to be paired with a multi-course menu designed by chef d’honneur Daniel Boulud who will collaborate with chef Esther Ha of Momokfuku Ko, chef Ryan Hardy of Legacy Records and chef Melissa Rodriguez.
From November 10th-13th, Daniel Johnnes will reignite live dinners, lunches, seminars and tastings for Rhône wine lovers with the La Tablée New York festival and these wines not only connect to Daniel’s deep love for all things French but it also links back to his early beginnings as a wine director at Montrachet as his boss at the time, owner Drew Nieporent, went on to open Tribeca Grill which has one of the most comprehensive Rhône wine lists in the city.
Daniel is hoping to bring back La Paulée live in NYC in March of 2022 as well as bring it to Los Angeles for the first time. Earlier this year, in March, they had what was called La Paulée Mondiale – Mondiale meaning Global in French – which was a 100% online celebration with people attending from Singapore to the U.S. to Europe and beyond. It was a bittersweet gathering online with wine producers and chefs with Daniel Johnnes leading the way; many had tears in their eyes that were a combination of pure joy of being able to at least connect as a group in some way combined with the sorrow that it wasn’t the same – nothing was the same. The question, “What does La Paulée mean to you?” was posed to many of the Burgundy wine producers in an interview series which was part of the La Paulée Mondiale online event this year and some spoke with a heartbreaking tone that struggled while holding back the emotions of being crushed… one moment they were hugging and kissing people while passing bottles around and the next moment French wine producers didn’t know when they would be able to visit the U.S. again.
But Daniel Johnnes, being the man that he has always been, held up the light for these wine producers (a combination of famous and obscure winemakers who held a special place in his heart) and he was not going to accept the possibility of the end of these extraordinary events as he knew there was an even greater urgency to bring civilized human interactions back that were centered on a passion for wine and food. “Wine is not about money,” Daniel said and it may seem odd to those not in the business but insiders know this all too well as it is a business with low margins even when it comes to selling wines for thousands of dollars – and many times the people involved in making that wine or pouring it for a customer in a restaurant are not getting the majority of the profits from such a bottle. These festivals that Daniel organizes demands a huge budget and huge investment hence there is a huge amount of risk and he is putting his whole livelihood and his future security on the line; such an idea became greatly apparent as he was on the verge of losing everything if the New York City lockdown had happened just five days earlier and La Paulée de New York would have been cancelled at the last moment.
Yet during the pandemic, Daniel Johnnes has been able to expand into online events, start consulting for restaurants by managing their wine programs (Daniel Boulud being his first client), establish a sommelier scholarship program and create the Pressoir.wine Club that is designed to take wine lovers’ and collectors’ experiences to the next level. Daniel has brought on-board Raj Vaidya, the last wine director of Daniel Boulud’s The Dinex Group, as Daniel Johnnes hired Raj back in 2009 as head sommelier at that group mentoring him to eventually take his place. Raj talked about the new role of the sommelier going back to the basics as he said, “You are not going to just have someone who dresses well and be that sort of sommelier. It is really about service and wine knowledge and having a certain amount of humility.” Another member of Daniel Johnnes team who has worked for his La Paulée company for over nine years, Max Goldberg Liu, has known Daniel all his life since he is his son’s lifelong friend. When Max was 13 years old, Daniel took him on a trip with his son to France and Max noted that such a trip was a great example of how Daniel mentors people by just showing them France through Daniel’s deep connection with the culture and people and Max exclaimed, “It was a life changing experience for me.”
Broken Pieces Coming Back Together
Many facets of societies around the world were broken once the pandemic came on full force, and Daniel Johnnes’ company was one of the many businesses that were broken as well when Covid initially reared its ugly head in the U.S. and he is on the journey of putting it back together again as he has many people he loves depending on him. And his mission is far from over with “turning people on” when it comes to French wine that goes beyond conceptual ideas in a book. Also, Daniel is very familiar with trying to put back together jagged, broken pieces as at the tender age of 15 years old, he lost his father and soon found himself getting into a lot of trouble as an adolescent trying to process an enormous amount of grief. His mother and father had lived in France after World War II for a time and so his mother thought that living in the South of France for several months before he went to college in the U.S. would be a good way to keep Daniel out of trouble. He ended up living with a local French woman for four years in the small Provençal town where he was staying… and that was the beginning of his great love affair with France.
This journey started with Daniel being broken by his father’s death and those pieces never exactly fit back together. But that is not always a bad thing as sometimes they fit back together in such a way that it allows in more light. And that is what is so exciting about the next La Fête du Champagne, La Tablée or La Paulée as all of these events are being put back together in a different way within a world that is forever changed. While there are certainly tons of trepidatious feelings mixed with intense adrenaline, it is the chance to experience falling in love for the first time all over again but with a greater sense of wisdom.
***Originally this article appeared in Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2021/08/27/champagne-rhone-and-burgundy-wine-festivals-coming-to-new-york-city/?sh=330ef0826bad