When I make Zoom contact with Daniel Johnnes, he’s fresh out of a meeting to discuss diversity in the wine industry. He’s talking from his New York apartment in mid-June, when America (and much of the world) is convulsed by the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
“It’s one more huge thing, on top of the pandemic, that has changed our lives. It’s causing a lot of reflection, and it’s really for the good,” he says.
Johnnes has been immersed in the US wine industry since the mid-1980s, when as wine director for the now-legendary Montrachet restaurant in Tribeca he won a stream of accolades, ultimately being awarded France’s Ordre du Mérite Agricole. He went on to found La Paulée de New York, the annual celebration of the wines of Burgundy, while his day job is working for Daniel Boulud as wine director across the international Dinex group (though he makes clear at the beginning of the interview that he can’t speak about Boulud’s plans for the restaurant group).
When someone of Johnnes’ experience and influence says “It’s time to reflect”, his intent is to use the convulsions we are going through to improve his corner of the wine world, as well as keep his business afloat.
“One of the key things we’ve learned is that there was this indiscriminate assumption that everything was fine. That the economy was buzzing along, people were coming to our events and filling up our rooms. How easy everything was, how easy to talk about wine, to get a job as a sommelier, to sell wine.”
Now, he says, with “so many people” who have lost their jobs and their livelihoods, “what we have to do is maintain what we have and not take it for granted.”
Johnnes has always been about connecting people to wine, disseminating information, putting winemakers in front of wine lovers. In 2000 he ran the first Paulée de New York – a homage to the great annual harvest celebrations held in Burgundy. The New York event has grown to take in the San Francisco Paulée every other year, and now the Fête du Champagne, each event based on the same formula of lavish dinners and huge tastings over three to five days. Ticket prices range from $1,500 for one dinner, to $22,000 for the full gargantuan package.
In a post-Covid world, the pictures of past Paulées have a fantastical look. Hundreds of diners packed together at their tables, people hugging and kissing, wine flowing. Not a mask in sight, and the only gloves are pristine white on the waiters’ hands. How can such events survive?
“This is what we’ve been discussing – how can we hold the Fête du Champagne in the fall? (it’s scheduled for October this year)” There are various plans: they may extend it over a longer period via “a mix of on-site events with social distancing” and simultaneous meals with parties of 20 in Reims and New York and the whole thing streamed online. Because it’s so much more difficult for winemakers to travel there will be museum-style audio guides at the tastings, available via a download to your phone, featuring winemakers talking about their wines.
The big problem with all this is that the whole point of La Paulée (in which, for full disclosure, Club Oenologique’s parent company, The Conversion Group, holds a 5 per cent stake) is that it’s a great big party, and there is no more depressing a concept than the “virtual celebration”. Johnnes acknowledges the fact – but in common with the thousands of successful entrepreneurs around the world who have had their businesses pulled from under their feet, he’s focusing on the opportunities.
“We have to be hyper-conscious to preserve what we have, and we have to continue to be creative in introducing new ideas and finding new avenues to pursue.”
The online avenue is the obvious one, and the launch of the wine club Pressoir.wine 18 months ago has put the Paulée team in a good position. Membership of Pressoir brings you wine dinners, consultancy services, tastings and seminars. The latter cost around $50 and feature such figures as Pierre-Antoine Rovani of Remoissenet or Etienne de Montille, with wines supplied exclusively by New York wine merchant Morell. It’s an attractive enough proposition for American Express to sponsor the 2020 series.
“We’re going to build on this,” Johnnes says. “Add more spokes to the Pressoir hub. The focus is going to be more educational, more dynamic, reaching a younger demographic – not just the clients but the winemakers as well. We’re also talking about starting a wine school. We want to draw in the younger generation, people who are interested in learning about wine. It’s a big move.”
In common with anyone involved in virtual events, he’s noticed the odd intimacy they allow. “Those Zoom sessions have been energising. They’ve improved our way of communicating – you’ve got 30 to 40 people on the screen and they’re so far away yet so close. You get more of their attention.”
Another advantage of virtual tastings, he notes, is that “rather than just being a big social event, it’s more of a seminar. It adds a whole new dimension.”
While there’s no doubt that there are opportunities to be exploited, there is no getting away from the fact that any events-based business has a mountain to climb. “We don’t even know what we’ll be allowed to do in a few months, Johnnes notes.
But he remains optimistic. The upheavals of the last four months will change things for the better, he’s convinced. Black Lives Matter, for example, has focused the minds of he and his colleagues on how diverse an organisation they are. “It has brought awareness to people like me, who are open-minded, who are not racist – as far as I can tell – but who realise they have to do more for the community.
“One of the problems I’ve encountered is that we can be looking for someone [to recruit] but we don’t know where to look, so we’ll be connecting with training programmes and schools, informing people about scholarships and mentorships. To actively participate is something I can be better at.”
Just before lockdown, Johnnes was on a business-related ski trip at Jackson Hole. “This was just before things were starting to implode, borders were closing. I was shocked by how unconcerned everyone was. I think many people are going to live their lives and pretend it’s just as it always was. But a lot will change when it comes to their lifestyle. There is always good that comes out of adversity though – if you have your mind open to it.”
Visit Pressoir.wine for a list of upcoming events and seminars, including Pierre-Antoine Rovani of Remoissenet, Etienne de Montille, and Alain and Maxime Graillot.
The Paulée de San Francisco will take place in 2021; La Fête du Champagne will take place the weekend of 17 October 2020– visit lapaulee.com for updates.