One of the most coveted events on the international wine calendar started as a rural luncheon. La Paulée, the series of tastings, seminars and dinners celebrating all things Burgundy, grew from a humble Meursault harvest party to a parade of globe-trotting bacchanals, with guests digging deep into their cellars to bring their best bottles of Burgundy to share. It has been dubbed the “world’s classiest BYOB.”
The primary modern event is held in New York. To understand its transformation is to trace the progression of global wine culture and commerce.
La Paulée is steeped in centuries of history and tradition.
Every domaine in Burgundy has a kind of paulée, or celebration to mark the end of harvest. Though no one knows when the practice began, the best guess is the Middle Ages. It started as a hearty lunch to fill the bellies of the vignerons and workers of the commune of Meursault, in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, after an arduous harvest. In fact, the word paulée is taken from the French word poêle, which means “pan,” as the lunch was originally a one-pan meal.
Jules Lafon, great-grandfather of Burgundy’s inimitable Dominique Lafon of Domaine des Comtes Lafon, was the mayor of Meursault in 1923, and continued the tradition but with a twist. His version of La Paulée included inviting friends from nearby domaines to his winery to celebrate the end of harvest. They’d bring bottles from their own domaines to share. The trend caught on and La Paulée de Meursault began.
By 1932, it became an annual event in the village .
In 1933, La Paulée de Meursault was tacked onto the already-established Saturday Clos Vougeot dinner and Sunday auction as a third day called Les Trois Glorieuses, or the Three Glorious Days. Those three days are usually held around the third Thursday in November and consist of a black-tie dinner at Clos Vougeot on Saturday, the Sunday auction for Hospices de Beaune, which raises millions for the elderly and sick, and a Monday “lunch” at Château de Meursault that lasts well into the evening.
La Paulée de New York
In 2000, Daniel Johnnes, then the sommelier at erstwhile Montrachet restaurant in New York City, and creator of the modern-day roving version of La Paulée, had a brazen idea: to bring the spirit of Burgundy stateside.
“After attending the original Paulée in Meursault in the early ‘90s, I understood it was a wonderful way to bring people together to share wine and food in a convivial atmosphere,” Johnnes says.
But recreating that vibe wasn’t easy. La Paulée was not a suitcase that could be put on a plane and then unpacked upon landing.
Johnnes had a gargantuan task ahead of him.
“For the first few years, it was not received particularly well,” says Johnnes. “It was a dining experience people were not accustomed to. But then, over time, it caught on and people grasped the spirit of the event.”
La Paulée was confounding to people in the beginning. Paying money and bringing a bottle(s) to share? Some thought it ludicrous.
Slowly but surely, however, attendees grew increasingly enthusiastic about the prospect of opening, showing off and sharing bottles with others who were just as fiendish about Burgundy as they were. The convivial atmosphere and camaraderie, always part of the ethos of the event, were foremost in the hearts of the winemakers and those in attendance.
Johnnes was determined to make La Paulée de New York a world-class affair.
“I wanted to have the blessing of the village of Meursault,” he says. “I had a lunch with the mayor of Meursault, the president of the Paulée de Meursault, and several winemakers on the committee including Jean-Marc Roulot and Pierre Morey. Fortunately, they saw the promotional value of what I was trying to do.”
The earliest days of La Paulée de New York bore no resemblance to the grand affair that it is today. It included intimate wine dinners hosted by Johnnes and Drew Nieporent, Montrachet’s chef. They highlighted the future Burgundian winemaking vanguard like Dominique Lafon, Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac and Jean-Marc Roulot of Domaine Roulot. It was a one-night affair and consisted of little more than a group of pals eating and drinking alongside one another.
But that soon changed.
La Paulée: The Later Years
By 2008 , La Paulée had picked up steam and become a bona fide hit. Attendance swelled, and programming had expanded from one night to a week’s worth of tastings, seminars, lunches and dinners that range from $350 to $15,000.
The success of the New York event also led Johnnes and his team to establish other Paulées worldwide. Since 2001, La Paulée de San Francisco regularly alternated on the off years of the New York edition. There have also been versions in Hong Kong, Aspen, Stockholm’s La Paulée Nordic, Chicago and, as of this year, Los Angeles.
As many as 400 attendees, many flying in from far-flung destinations, bring their top bottles to open at each raucous event. They dine, taste and celebrate alongside chefs like Daniel Boulud and a star-studded cast of Burgundian winemakers.
At a fancy dinner for the 1%, one would expect to have outstanding wine service. La Paulée does not disappoint, and sommeliers are a major part of the event’s success.
To pour at La Paulée is a lifelong dream for some, as it is incredibly prestigious to do so. And no, just holding the title “sommelier” does not confer eligibility.
La Paulée’s staff dubs the honor of pouring at the event “Burgundy University.” Most of the bottles poured come from Burgundy aficionados who have been collecting its wines for years, and they are often in possession of many prestigious and elusive bottles. For a sommelier, an advanced understanding of how to deal with a crumbling cork from a decades-old wine or proper decantation of some most delicate juice is essential.
At the start of each dinner, the staff whisks away the bottles brought by the guests to prepare them for service. That includes decanting and, if needed, tasting, to see which course the wine should be served with, and then pouring.
The give and take of guest-sharing and sommelier-pouring is seamless. One by one, glasses are filled and emptied, almost rhythmically, by both parties. And because the sommeliers and wine directors are some of the most respected in their fields, they know each wine and can explain its flavor profile if what’s in your glass is a wine you’ve never had.
But even sommeliers who have relatively easy access to the world’s best wines have their fantasies.
“This will be my first time [at La Paulée],” says Maia Parish, owner and sommelier at The Wine Suite. “There was a lot of mystique behind it and I looked at it as a very big deal—a big honor. I met the producer of Domaine du Cellier aux Moines [a while ago], and she has really diverse wines. I’m looking forward to meeting her again. I’m very honored that I was asked to come to this to pour.”
For some somms, La Paulée is more than a professional engagement. It’s an opportunity not only to meet and mingle with top winemakers and collectors, but also to taste some of the rarest, most revered wines in the world.
“I would love to revisit some… Sylvain Cathiard [wines] and Hubert Lamy,” says Cheron Cowan, beverage director for Danny Meyer’s Maialino Mare in D.C., of the wines she hopes to see at La Paulée de New York. “I am also interested in seeing if Aligoté has representation at the event. Every producer [Michel Lafarge, Coche-Dury, Sylvain Pataille] seemed to be making one when I visited Burgundy last year, and I am interested if this will transcend that more insular environment of the winemaking community that I visited.”
La Paulée is a spectacle, to be sure. At the New York event, the grand tasting consists of current vintages as well as some older selections of what many deem to be the world’s best wines. These include Domaine Pierre Morey, Maison Joseph Drouhin, Domaine du Clos de Tart, Domaine Simon Bize, Chantêreves and Domaine du Cellier aux Moines, along with about 35 others.
The dinner is another scene entirely. There are always whispers and questions about who brought the 1949 La Tâche or the 1959 Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé. Audible gasps, hushed tones and wide eyes are among the sounds heard and expressions seen over dinner.
“It’s always spoken of in this tone of reverence and awe,” says Scott Wright, owner of Caveau Selections, an import company, about the ensuing degustation in the documentary Three Days of Glory.
The bottles consumed are once-in-a-lifetime offerings, likely never seen again. For the privilege of that opportunity, there is a cost.
Mitch Kysar, a La Paulée acolyte and Burgundy collector who has attended every one of Johnnes’ in-person U.S. fêtes, went to great lengths to ensure that Burgundy vintages had the most prominent place in his cellar.
“Burgundy lovers dream about opening several vintages of a treasured vineyard or producer, and it’s just so damn difficult given the rarity of the most acclaimed wines,” says Kysar. “[However,] it was a dream come true. I sold everything that wasn’t Burgundy and Champagne in 1996 and focused on a growing love of Burgundy.”
Secrets of La Paulée
An event of La Paulée’s caliber, with Michelin-starred chefs preparing multicourse meals and star sommeliers serving bottles that most can only dream of, does not come cheap. For the tasting and dinner, one can expect to fork up around $2,000. That does not include the bottle(s) that guests are tasked with bringing to share.
But there are ways to cut down on the expense. One is to go to the tasting only, which averages around $500 and includes tastings of over 100 wines from some of the most famous producers in Burgundy. And the producers themselves—not representatives or importers—are the ones who do the pouring. The tasting lasts only three hours but offers the chance to mingle and chat with the winemakers about their wines, taste their latest offerings and meet other Burgfiends. Many of the attendees attend the dinner as well, but the tasting is a bit of a more professional environment. The dinner is where guests let their hair down.
Another option is to forgo the grand tasting and gala dinner altogether and purchase one of the smaller dinners taking place during the week. Instead of the 200–400 guests who attend the gala dinner, attendance at the smaller ones hovers around 15–30 people. They’re hosted by specific winemakers who will bring the full range and multiple vintages of their often very-rare wines.
Or you can skip La Paulée entirely and attend one of Johnnes’ other events in the La Paulée universe, like La Fête du Champagne, a collaboration with Peter Liem, the renowned Champagne expert, which is dedicated to the beverage of the same name, and La Tablée, a celebration of all things Rhône. Both are less expensive than La Paulée but share its BYO ethos.
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
There are homages to La Paulée worldwide, too.
At Napaulée, first launched in 2018, attendees bring their favorite bottle of Napa Valley wine to share at a multicourse meal at PRESS restaurant in Napa Valley, California. Other cities have their own versions as well.
Though today’s U.S.-born La Paulée is quite a departure from its humble beginnings in Burgundy, its success has grown in tandem with wine culture and consumption. Without global collectors eager to share their bottles, and wine lovers eager to dine alongside their favorite producers, La Paulée might have remained a small-scale gathering akin to any other New York City trade event. Instead, it’s a glittering embodiment of the ways people consume wine today—or at least, the ways many of us wish we did.
Last Updated: September 28, 2022