Glorious Excess, Painful Aftermath
Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending La Paulée de New York. Daniel Johnnes, who oversees wine operations for Daniel Boulud’s restaurant empire, started the event 10 years ago as a celebration of Burgundy (the Paulée is modeled after the annual postharvest celebration in the village of Meursault), and it has quickly become what I think is the greatest bacchanal on the planet. Some of the biggest names in Burgundy take part, along with Les Cadets de Bourgogne, the very spirited all-male choir that performs at the Meursault Paulée. Burgundy buffs from around the world fly in; perhaps I’m biased, but I think that Burgundy inspires passion like no other wine region in the world, and the Paulée de New York truly feels like a gathering of the tribe. It is Woodstock for Winos. Johnnes also does a Paulée in San Francisco, and the event now alternates every year between the two cities. As well, he hosts a Paulée in Aspen, and more expansion is on the way: he is planning to do one in Hong Kong, which I wish he wouldn’t. Burgundy is already pricy; the last thing we need is China catching the fever.
Presumably because it was the 10th anniversary of the New York Paulée, the Burgundy contingent was particularly impressive this year. Over 30 wineries were represented, and the vignerons on hand included Dominique Lafon, Jean-Marc Roulot, Pierre Morey, Christophe Roumier, Eric Rousseau, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, and Frédéric Lafarge. They were joined by two Burgundian deities: Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, or DRC, and Jean-Francois Coche of Coche-Dury fame (at the 2005 Paulée de New York, I was proffered a glass of Coche’s 1996 Corton-Charlemagne and was so smitten with it that I embarked on a nearly two-year long quest to taste it again, a story I recounted for Slate. I see that a case of the 96 sold for $46,000 at a Zachys auction held in conjunction with this year’s Paulée; I’m glad that I became obsessed with the 96 when I did). Neither was pouring wines at the walk-around tasting in the afternoon, but both were on hand for the dinner that night.
The walk-around tasting is a three-hour event, at which producers typically show four of their wines from the most current vintage, which in this case was 2008. It’s a great opportunity to not only get a snapshot of a vintage, but to chat with the winemakers. The tasting was held at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Pavilion, which provided ample elbow room; there were a lot of attendees, but it never felt congested. On balance, the 08 whites were stronger than the reds. The offerings from Domaine Leflaive were predictably stellar, but I was also very impressed by what I tasted from Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey (especially the sensational 08 Corton-Charlemagne) and Lafon (his 08 Meursault Charmes is terrific). I’m a huge fan of Roulot’s wines, but I didn’t think they were showing especially well on this occasion. It happens. With the red wines, it is clear that the further north you go in the Côte d’Or in 2008, the better you fare. The wines from Roumier were excellent, especially his Bonnes-Mares (no surprise), and I also liked what I tasted from Domaine Fourrier and Domaine Georges Mugneret-Gibourg. But I thought Domaine Rousseau had the finest reds. The 08 Gevrey was a superb villages wine, the Lavaux Saint-Jacques and the Ruchottes-Chambertin Clos des Ruchottes were both excellent, and the Chambertin-Clos de Bèze was electrifying—easily the wine of the tasting for me, red or white. The Rousseau table had the biggest scrum, proof that there is indeed wisdom in crowds.
After the tasting, I headed to a nearby Starbucks, where I spent a couple of hours trying to do some work and fighting off the urge to take a nap. As usual, the dinner, which was held at the same place, was a wine riot. It is always an evening of excess; it is a BYOB affair (the producers also bring wines), and decadence and generosity are the watchwords. I am certainly sympathetic to the argument that opening so many great bottles in a single sitting is a disservice to the wines. But I also think we grape nuts tend to do a little too much sacralizing; there’s something to be said for just pulling the cork and treating wine, no matter how rare or costly, like the fermented grape juice that it is. Moreover, the Paulée is the only chance many of us get to taste some of these wines; much as I’d love to spend an evening contemplating a bottle of 1971 DRC La Tâche in the comfort of my home, with my beautiful wife and adorable children at my side, it ain’t happening.
The dinner began with white wines. Among the standouts for me were the 2002 Ramonet Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet , the 1989 Drouhin Montrachet, and the 2001 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Clavoillon, which was from a magnum (that’s another thing about the Paulée—lots of big bottles). But the best white wine that I tasted was the one I brought, the 2000 Raveneau Chablis Valmur, which was sensational. Hey—the journalist shows up with something decent to drink! I was particularly pleased because this was the first time in several Paulées that my bottle wasn’t corked. But good as the whites were, the crowd was itching to get to the reds, and we weren’t even through the first course when the colors changed. While there were lots of great wines in the room, some wines were greater than others. I was fortunate to have a friend at the dinner whose glass didn’t seem to miss a bottle of DRC all night, and who kindly and repeatedly shared his glass with me. My wines of the evening were the 1990 DRC Romanée-Conti, which is truly the Platonic form of pinot noir (ditto the 90 La Tâche), and the 1949 DRC Richebourg, which was very special, too.
Some other wines that I loved (in no particular order):
-1993 Rousseau Chambertin-Clos de Bèze
-1996 Rousseau Chambertin-Clos de Bèze
-1995 Rousseau Gevry Chambertin 1er Cru Clos St Jacques (it was a big Rousseau day for me, clearly)
-1962 DRC Grands Échézeaux
-1971 DRC Grands Échézeaux
-1985 Roumier Bonnes-Mares
-1993 DRC Romanée-Conti
-2002 de Vogue Musigny
-1986 Henri Jayer Vosne-Romanee 1er Cru Les Brulées
-2002 Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Amoureuses
The evening was not without its minor tragedies, chief among them a corked double magnum of 1949 La Tâche. I took a taste anyway, and it was clear that there was a brilliant wine buried beneath the rubble, which only deepened the sense of loss. I certainly felt the pain of whoever brought the bottle. On a cheerier note, the food was an excellent afterthought, with dishes prepared by Tom Colicchio, Michel Troisgros, Daniel Boulud, and Daniel Humm. All in all, it was a terrific night, with a wonderful conviviality—hell, I even spent 20 minutes chatting amicably with Jeff Sokolin of Royal Wine Merchants, who has been the unhappy subject of two of my recent articles. A good Burgundy, I am convinced, can bridge any divide; a room overflowing with hundreds of good Burgundies can cure humanity of all that ails it. Burgundy is the answer.
Of course, this being the Paulée, there’s no such thing as enough, and following the dinner, there was an afterparty at Colicchio & Sons. Colicchio himself was manning the wood-burning oven, making pizzas and other nibbles for all the well-lubricated Burghounds suddenly swarming his restaurant. There was more wine, naturally: a 93 Rousseau Clos St Jacques, a 1998 Mugnier Amoureuses, a 95 Krug (some Champagne always manages to sneak into the Paulée. Bordeaux? Never). When I left around 2:30 in the morning, the party was still thumping. I caught a 3AM train home, crawled into bed around 6, and managed to get an hour’s sleep before my kids woke up. I coach both of them at basketball, and both had games that Sunday. Suffice it to say, the sound of bouncing basketballs was tough to take after the evening I’d had. But a pounding head was a price well worth paying.