La Paulée, Oktoberfest for Wine Lovers

The three events that comprise Burgundy’s Trois Glorieuses weekend—the Saturday dinner at the Château du Clos de Vougeot; the Hospices de Beaune auction, held on Sunday; and La Paulée de Meursault, Monday’s wine-soaked lunch in the village of Meursault—all require tickets, and the dinner and the lunch are very tough tickets to score. But the festivities are by no means limited to these exclusive events. The town of Beaune becomes one giant party for the weekend. The Place Carnot and the surrounding streets are given over to vendors, most of whom sell food—everything from roasted chestnuts to kebabs to that Burgundian staple, escargots. The shops stay open late, there is street entertainment, and, of course, there is wine—lots of it.

As it happens, the third Thursday of November is the day that Beaujolais nouveau is released, and while Americans seem to have become largely indifferent to this rite of autumn, the French still take it seriously, filling bars and cafes to drink the first wine of the new vintage. Thus, it is entirely possible, for those so inclined, to arrive in Beaune on Thursday and maintain a very nice buzz straight through till Monday night. I wasn’t quite so ambitious, but I certainly didn’t leave Beaune hungry or thirsty. (OK, the vinous highlights of my weekend: the 1994 Raveneau Clos, the 1990 La Tâche, the 1999 Lafarge Clos des Chênes, and the 1988 Henri Jayer Cros Parantoux, the last a particularly cherished experience coming just two months after the legendary Jayer’s death.)

In addition to the various public events that are held during the Trois Glorieuses, there are a number of private tastings and dinners. The wines of Burgundy inspire a cultlike zeal among their most ardent fans, and Beaune was crawling with Burgundy fanatics during the Trois Glorieuses. In need of an Internet connection following the Sunday auction, I headed over to a hotel just off the Place Carnot and stumbled upon a hush-hush gathering of truly hard-core Burg-nuts. I knew a few people in the room and was invited to grab a glass and partake of the many gems that had been uncorked. (Most of them, anyway: A French guy who contributed a bottle of the 2000 Chave Ermitage Cuvée Cathelin got quite huffy when his friend, unbidden, poured me a taste. I felt bad, but he really shouldn’t have brought a Rhone wine to a Burgundy orgy.)

As for the weekend’s marquee events, I skipped the Saturday dinner on the advice of Becky Wasserman-Hone, who had told me it was a tedious affair attended by “lots of over-perfumed Belgians.” La Paulée, on the other hand, was a must. The lunch, first held in 1923, has become possibly the most fabled wine event on the planet—Oktoberfest for enophiles. All the winemakers in Meursault attend and come armed with large caches of wines. Other guests are also expected to contribute, which adds up to much drinking. The Meursault event has even inspired a riotous American knockoff, La Paulée de New York, which I’ve had the good fortune of attending several times. In fact, it was in the hazy aftermath of the last La Paulée de New York, in March 2005, that I vowed to experience the original.

Thus, it was with much anticipation (and some Tylenol) that I pulled into the long driveway of the 11th-century Château de Meursault just before noon on Monday. Walking up the steps, I ran into great Meursault winemaker Dominique Lafon, whose grandfather started La Paulée. “Is this your first Paulée?” Dominique asked. I told him it was. “You’ll be surprised,” he said with a sly grin.

The initial surprise was the obstacle course we had to negotiate to get to lunch. We first had to go through a narrow picture gallery, then down a steep staircase into the château’s famous cellars (the château produces wine under its own label), which can apparently hold up to 700,000 bottles. What followed was a seemingly interminable walk through subterranean vaults (a walk made a bit more palatable by the glass of white wine given to each guest on the way out of the foyer). I was beginning to think that maybe La Paulée was actually a rave, when daylight finally appeared at the top of another flight of steps, one that delivered us, at last, to the large hall in which the lunch was being held.

There were around 600 attendees at this year’s La Paulée, including—if I heard correctly—the Japanese and Singaporean ambassadors (there was a sizable contingent of Asian guests, along with quite a few Americans and plenty of other foreigners). We were seated at long tables, each of which was supplied, mercifully, with silver buckets in which to spit. The long walk delayed the start of the lunch by almost an hour, and the introductory speeches (notable mainly for the in-jest admonition to “have a good tasting, but in moderation,” followed by a pointed reminder that taxis were just a phone call away) delayed things further. This caused a problem for me, as I had an appointment later in the afternoon. Still, I managed to stay long enough to get a flavor of the event, and it lived up to the advanced billing.

The food surpassed my expectations: It was remarkably good, given the size of the crowd. As for the wines, there were lots of them. Compared to the New York version, the wines served in Meursault (at least those that came my way) were generally pretty modest, but that was fine—less note-taking, more drinking. Between the singing (a men’s chorus was on hand to lead us through various Burgundian favorites, including the signature La Paulée song, “Le Ban Bourguignon,” which involves rhythmically chanting “la, la, la, la” while doing what look to be titty twisters in the air), the speeches, and the spigot of wine, there was a wonderful conviviality to the event. I imagine things turned a bit sloppy toward the end, but that was to be expected. (I suspect quite a few Meursault residents have been conceived in the hours immediately after La Paulée, possibly even during.)

As I headed back to my car that afternoon, I noticed that a number of gentlemen were relieving themselves on the grounds of the château—returning the wine to the soil that nurtured it, you might say. I’m sure La Paulée’s organizers, to say nothing of the château’s owners, were touched by the gesture.