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Presenting the three-headed man.

SECURITY IS VERY HEAVY ON THE LOWER FLOOR OF SAN FRANCISCO'S FAIRMONT HOTEL. But the air is even heavier, thick with anticipation and lust. This is the receiving area for La Paulee, a U.S.-based homage to the traditional Burgundian post-harvest celebration founded by Daniel Johnnes, going into its fifteenth year. It rotates annually between New York, San Francisco, and Aspen, and in 2014,

"Burgundy week" came to the Bay Area. The wines in the spotlight total a dollar amount too high to count, yet rarity makes them even loftier.

To pull off this feat, Daniel Johnnes has assembled an extraordinary team of acrobats, floor sommeliers, and wine professionals who bend and twist and pull corks with the greatest of ease. Chef Sommelier Patrick Cappiello of Brooklyn's Pearl & Ash checks off line items on his clipboard as Christie DuFault from the Rudd Center CIA Napa Valley, quietly whispers the arrival of the '45 Grivot Echezeaux in magnum. Stashed is a veritable wish-list of reds and whites you could ever hope to see, let alone taste. Seated at a folding table, David Gordon, Wine Director of Tribeca Grill and La Paulee Chef Sommelier carries out his one duty: NEVER leave the room. Beside him, Daniel Johnnes takes a fleeting break. The two share the remaining cold, limp French fries from a Styrofoam container. No, it's not all glamorous under the big top.

When La Paulee comes to a close, Johnnes returns to New York where he has been the wine director since 2005 at Dinex, Daniel Boulud's 13-restaurant group. Boulud says "Daniel Johnnes is the most French of all Americans I know. And the most Burgundian at that!"

Born and raised in New York, Johnnes spent a series of immersive years in France as a young man. Pie studied abroad for a semester at University of Grenoble, and after returning to New York to cook and study with the late chef John Clancy, he hop-scotched back to France, staging at Guy Savoy in Paris, which led to a stint on a foie gras farm in the country's southwest region. Days off were spent in the nearby vineyards. "I loved to cook, but I'd started to find the kitchen a bit claustrophobic," explains Johnnes. "Not only was I learning so much about wine, but I realized how much I enjoyed being in the dining room communicating with people."

He searches for a similar passion in others, particularly when hiring for Daniel. "What I look for is not so much knowledge--although knowledge has to be there, that's a given. But I look for friendly people who want to communicate and share and make guests comfortable," he says. "Frankly, if I see that someone is a master sommelier, it tells me that I'm not so sure they're going to be with me for a long time, because maybe they want to pursue an academic line of work. I'm hiring people who want to work in a restaurant, in a dining room."

Long before the rush to drop a waiter's apron for a wine key, Johnnes worked alongside Drew Nieporent as wine director at Montrachet restaurant. Twenty years of his career were spent here building an astounding Burgundy-based wine program and paving the way for fine dining, not just in TriBeca, but in all of Manhattan.

"In the space of a few months in 1985, we went from a restaurant with very few resources to getting three stars in the New York Times," said Nieporent. "At that time, there were no sommeliers in American restaurants, but Daniel immersed himself in the world of Burgundy and got to know the prominent players."

At the same time, the way Burgundy wines were sold began to change. Growers moved away from the long-standing negociant model to a new paradigm: keeping the fruit to make their own wines. Independent producers emerged. Inspired, and smart to recognize the shift, Johnnes started an import business, Daniel Johnnes Selections. Now in its twenty-fifth year, he continues to carry a Burgundy-heavy portfolio of French wines marketed by prime distributors.

Dominique Lafon, winemaker of Burgundy's Domaine des Comte Lafon says, "The first time we [he and Johnnes] met, I couldn't sell him any wine because I had agreements with other importers and no wines to sell. We became friends over the pleasure of tasting wines and talking about them. It took us at least five years to do business together. Now, I still consider him more a friend than a business associate. He's the one who showed how good Burgundy could be, and how pleasant it is, to the most influential clients in the United States." Lafon can't help but add, "He's very short, but he's very good."

Since in Johnnes' mind, the more balls in the air the better, he founded La Paulee. Each year, the world beats down the door: a Who's Who of chefs, Burgundy's finest producers, a waiting list of sommeliers hoping to spend sleepless nights readying the decades-old delights, and a drooling public who regale in the treasure trove. By the end of the weekend, this circus packs up and moves on, and all that lingers is the faint smell of raspberry and yellow apple, and dreams of the next event.

Story by Lars Ryssdal; Reporting by Laurie Woolever
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Author:Ryssdal, Lars
Publication:Art Culinaire
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Dec 22, 2014
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