Family Tree

The Unstoppable Daniel Johnnes

The Burgundy-obsessed wine impresario helped shape a generation of wine professionals—and is doubling down with a new festival

Photo courtesy of Daniel Johnnes.

“We’re a little tired,” says Daniel Johnnes, fiddling with his overburdened computer. It’s March in New York, and Johnnes and his staff are back in their office after La Paulée, the Burgundy festival that Johnnes founded in 1992. A week of wine dinners, lunches, seminars, tastings, and auctions held in alternate years in New York or San Francisco, La Paulée culminates in a bacchanalian gala dinner, fueled by invited vignerons’ wines as well as whatever bottles attendees pull from their own cellars. This year, the festival was held in San Francisco, and there are piles of thank-you notes to send. Thirty-one winemakers, 61 sommeliers, 5 chefs, and 21 sponsors served hundreds upon hundreds of attendees—“There are a lot of people involved,” says Johnnes.

It’s all to keep Burgundy on the map. As Dominique Lafon, the winemaker and owner of Burgundy’s Domaine des Comtes Lafon, says, “My friend Daniel has given Burgundy the incredible recognition the region has nowadays in the U.S.” Christophe Roumier, the third-generation winemaker at Burgundy’s Domaine Georges Roumier, agrees. It’s a view shared not only by superstar vignerons but by noted sommeliers, collectors, and wine writers. And in the course of making Burgundy what it is, Johnnes has also “made sommeliers the tastemakers that we are,” says Raj Vaidya, the head somm under Johnnes at Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group. “He made it possible for this to be a real career.”

Yet this wine-world impresario—importer of Daniel Johnnes Selections, organizer of two (soon, three) major festivals, Dinex Group wine director, recipient of multiple James Beard Awards and France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole, and someone whom Secrets of the Sommeliers author Raj Parr calls “among the top five most influential sommeliers of all time”—remains remarkably down-to-earth. As everyone who knows him can attest, there’s nothing more important to Johnnes than relationships. In fact, you could say of his achievements in wine that he’s done it all for love.

Learning by Doing

“I didn’t know where France was,” Johnnes says. “I knew it was somewhere across the ocean, but I wasn’t sure which ocean.” He tells his life story with typical humility. He was raised in New York before his parents divorced and his mother moved the children to Provence. It was 1974. Johnnes was fresh out of high school. “I fell in love with the culture,” he says. “I met a French girl, and her family exposed me to the cuisine. I learned a bit about wine. I just saw something I liked.”

He enrolled in the University of Grenoble, and for the next four years, he traveled back and forth, spending some time in France and some at the State University of New York in New Paltz as a French major. He acquired a proficiency that would prove an asset not just to his career but to scores of sommeliers who have traveled to France with him since.

Says one of them, the wine consultant Tim Kopec, “Daniel’s ability to speak French with the French immediately creates a familiarity. There aren’t all these barriers up.” Johnnes’s fluency helped open cellar doors.

After graduating, Johnnes returned to New York, got a job as a reservationist for a French cruise line, and moonlighted at a pub called The Landmark Tavern. There he caught the restaurant bug. Gregarious and energetic—“He loves having people around him,” says Parr—Johnnes enjoyed the adrenaline and teamwork. He started to learn from the pastry chef. He took baking classes, and a wine course with John Sheldon, among the few wine educators in the ’70s. That is the extent of Johnnes’s formal wine training. “I was self-taught,” he says. “I read books and traveled.”

For younger sommeliers, who are coming up in an increasingly academic profession, Johnnes’s learning as he goes has been instructive. Christine Collado worked for Johnnes at Bar Boulud, Boulud Sud, and Daniel before moving on to Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and, now, a new retail venture she’s partnering on at Hudson Yards. “When he doesn’t know something, he’s open about it. I admire that,” she says. “A lot of wine pros have amazing minds—databases that carry information—but he seems to always be curious, and that’s something he instills in others.”

In the course of his travels, Johnnes worked many gigs. This organic career path, says Daniel Boulud, gave him the practical experience to excel in fine dining. “He did his work in hospitality to learn the basics first,” says Boulud. “It’s not like one day he got up and said he was going to be a sommelier. He got a progressive and very knowledgeable understanding of the restaurant business before got into the wine business, which is key.”

Falling for Burgundy

Johnnes’s interests were starting to coalesce: the language, food, hospitality, wine. When he learned that Guy Savoy, whose restaurants had earned multiple Michelin stars, had opened a restaurant in Connecticut, he went for dinner and talked himself, in French, into a stage in Savoy’s Paris kitchen. He was 26 years old, and he thought he might like to be a chef.

He soon quit the internship, though. The abusive chef de cuisine showed no respect, and respect is important to Johnnes—both giving and getting it. “He doesn’t take himself too seriously,” says Collado, “but he’s also such a gentleman and incredibly respectful.”

It’s a graciousness, says Walnut Street Cafe’s Patrick Cappiello, who coleads La Paulée’s somms, that Johnnes brings to everyone he encounters in wine: “His number one concern is respecting the vigneron. Regal, basic, expensive, inexpensive, yet to be discovered—he wants to respect their craft.”

Johnnes got more of a taste for that craft when he began to cook at a restaurant in the Landes. There, along with making foie gras and dressing wood pigeons, he helped cater dinners at châteaus in Saint-Émilion and Graves. On days off, he’d go back to the châteaus to taste and “discover a bit about wine.”

Eventually, he returned to New York, where he worked as a private chef and had a part-time position at Acker Merrall & Condit, a venerable wine shop with a deep French list. It was 1983 and “there was not really a culture of going into the cellars,” says Johnnes. In particular, “nobody was going to Burgundy”—except for a colleague named Jerry Jacobson, who invited Johnnes along.

Burgundy was in bad shape. Fertilizer and chemical companies had persuaded winemakers to produce in quantity. “The vineyards were polluted,” says Johnnes, “except for these few estates we were visiting—Georges Roumier, René Engel. They were known for making great wine, though nobody wanted it.” But Johnnes was hooked. “I smelled the cellars,” he says, “I met the people, and it was heaven. I fell in love with it.”

A few more years passed, though, before Johnnes fully immersed himself in the world of wine. First he needed a real job, and retail wasn’t it. He has never liked the barefaced sell. Even as an importer, he lets others—Skurnik, and now, Grand Cru Selections—market his portfolio. “For me,” he says, “it’s about the relationships with the winemakers and sourcing the wine and communicating about it. To go knock on a door, even if it’s Roumier I’m selling, I feel like I’m giving them a load of shit so they buy it. I’m a salesman without being a salesman.”

Carving a New Niche

What’s a job for a salesman who’s not really a salesman? Front of house. Johnnes answered an ad for a new restaurant at New York’s Plaza Athénée hotel. The chef interviewed him. It was Daniel Boulud, who today calls Johnnes “my brother from another mother.”

“I was 29,” Johnnes says, “and I figured I didn’t really aspire to be a chef, so he hired me to be a waiter.” Johnnes worked at the hotel’s restaurant, Le Regence, under a captain named Drew Nieporent. Right off the bat, Nieporent said, “‘I’m only here a while. I’m preparing to open my own restaurant.”

That restaurant was Montrachet, and along with a few other houses—Union Square Cafe, Chanterelle, The Odeon—it would transform New York dining, bringing casual style to haute cuisine. Johnnes followed Nieporent to uncharted Tribeca. The man at the burners was David Bouley. Within two months of opening in 1985, Nieporent’s bootstraps operation garnered three stars from the New York Times.

“The restaurant exploded,” Johnnes recalls. Nieporent couldn’t manage the floor and also deal with the wine. “So little by little, I just took the role.” Johnnes put the restaurant’s namesake on the list. From there, things snowballed. “I was like a kid in a candy shop,” he says. “We were getting all the great Burgundies, and prices were ridiculously low. We could buy Grand Cru for $30 and $50. I would meet with my importer at Château & Estate and say, ‘Do you have anything older?’ Nobody was buying that stuff. He would look in his notepad and say, ‘Well, I happen to have a 1982 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Ruchottes from Domaine Ramonet. It’s $20 a bottle, and I have 20 cases.’”

Johnnes would stay at Montrachet for 20 years, building its wine program into “a seminar in what makes Burgundy so wonderful,” says New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov. “At a time when there weren’t that many sommeliers, or even restaurants focused on wine, Montrachet started doing wine dinners, bringing producers over, and sharing the excitement that Daniel felt with this historic region.”

Johnnes’s restless enthusiasm kept that excitement fresh. In 1988 he became an importer, launching Daniel Johnnes Selections. “I brought in cool little wines, country wines,” he says. “For me, it was the romance of France. It wasn’t about impressive labels or the price of the wine or anything. Like Saint-Pourçain, like Gaillac—places no one in this country had ever heard of because no one was importing them.”

Says David Gordon, the current wine director for Nieporent’s Myriad Group, “[Johnnes] was an inspiration in the creative way he thought about the profession, which was not just that you had to work the floor but [that you] could do these other fun things: wine dinners, importing wines.”

Young professionals gravitated toward him. Johnnes hired Tim Kopec fresh out of the Culinary Institute of America. Raj Parr showed up in the one suit he owned. Though Johnnes sent him to San Francisco to work with Larry Stone at Nieporent’s Rubicon, he always flew back to pitch in at Johnnes’s wine dinners. Says Parr, “He was the one who channeled my Burgundy emotion.”

The wine events instituted by Johnnes presented a unique opportunity to learn and taste. Cappiello, who had met Johnnes while working as a cellar rat in Burgundy, was waiting tables at Nieporent’s second New York restaurant. “I would hustle out of Tribeca Grill,” he says, “and get to Montrachet before the wines were gone. It was amazing.”

Those parties formed the seeds of a festival Johnnes named after Burgundian vignerons’ own BYOB harvest fete. In 1992 he threw his first dinner with multiple producers—Lafon, Roumier, Patrick Bize, Jacques Seysses, Jean-Pierre de Smet, Étienne Grivot—along with a tasting at Tribeca Grill and a Q&A in Robert De Niro’s Tribeca screening room. La Paulée was born. A way to support Burgundy’s new generation of growers, it quickly became the wine world’s hottest ticket, for collectors and professionals alike.

“Look at the number of sommeliers beating down doors to work with Daniel on [La Paulée],” says Kopec. Racine’s Pascaline Lepeltier, Quince’s Cameron Taylor, Yoshi Takemura from Tokyo, Michael Sager from London, Marco Pelletier from Paris, Larry Stone—“They’re flying internationally for it,” he says. “It’s a pretty massive influence he’s had.”

La Paulée auctions have raised more than $1.5 million for Meals on Wheels. And other festivals—Rieslingfeier, BurdiGala—“make no pretense of knocking off La Paulée,” says Asimov. Johnnes himself has started two more galas: La Fête du Champagne, with Peter Liem, and the upcoming La Tablée, with Cappiello, Gordon, and Parr. Launching in New York in early 2019, this celebration of Gordon’s beloved Southern Rhône and Cappiello’s favored Northern Rhône will bring producers from the entire Rhône Valley together with fans, collectors, and sommeliers, just as La Paulée does for Burgundy.

“Daniel loves doing events, and I love doing them with him,” says Cappiello. “He wants to make sure that the end experience is envisioned correctly, so he starts with, ‘What’s the dream event? Who are the 30 producers we want?’ We shoot for stars, and we go see them, and most of the time it works. He’s very organized but also very conceptual.”

Daniel Johnnes.
Photo courtesy of Daniel Johnnes.

Paying It Forward

All the while Johnnes has been bringing wines and winemakers to the States, he has also been taking sommeliers to France. Among the first was Tim Kopec, whom he hired to assume his floor duties at Montrachet. “I’ve been many times to Burgundy since,” Kopec says. “But the first time was shocking. It was a very generous move on his part. And he wasn’t just making an introduction. He was saying, ‘Tim’s part of the team.’ He gave me credibility with the winemakers that, 20-some years later, is still helpful.”

“To have the keys to Burgundy thrown at us, and all the doors open, was pretty magical,” Cappiello agrees. “Daniel has an advantage in this region, and he realizes that comes with responsibility.”

Four years ago, Johnnes formalized the trips by creating the Sommelier Scholarship. “I saw that Burgundy was getting more rarefied in access, quantities, pricing, and image,” he says. “I feared that a new generation of sommeliers who can’t get allocations or can’t afford it because it doesn’t make sense to put it on a list at such high prices for their clientele, can’t get into the cellars and would lose touch with it. And the only way you can understand a region is to go to the region.”

Why do you want to go to Burgundy? What do you want to do with your career as a sommelier? The subjective questions Johnnes asks on the scholarship application testify to the way he thinks of the profession. “I don’t care how much they know,” Johnnes says. “I want to see their motivation and enthusiasm, because I think anybody with a well-developed brain can learn, but you can’t learn enthusiasm and you can’t learn to share enthusiasm.”

Johnnes’s unpretentious attitude is no more in evidence than on a scholarship trip. “I was blown away by how disarming and witty Daniel is,” says Steve Wildy, the wine director for Philadelphia’s Vetri Group. “At the same time, it’s real-deal fact-finding at a very high level. He’s still searching for what’s cool about Burgundy, and he’s honest about what he likes and doesn’t like. It was a foundational experience for me, impossible to re-create because he’s really revered over there.”

But while Johnnes excels at the relationships that have made his endeavors possible, he has experienced the pain of ending them too. Montrachet was slowing down, eclipsed by newer entries in the wine-driven dining trend it started. Johnnes was restless. He had built a thousand-bottle Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning list. He had written the opening lists for Nieporent’s other restaurants, including Nobu. Then came 9/11, and business in Tribeca tanked. Daniel Boulud offered Johnnes a job, and he took it. Johnnes says, “That was one of the most difficult conversations I had with Drew.”

“Daniel is a very loyal person,” says Boulud. “There are three most important things to him: to be connected with winemakers, connected with customers, and connected with industry people.”

But his deepest loyalty is to the vignerons. As Cappiello says, “He’s custodian to these people’s hard work, and he never takes that lightly.” It’s why, a few years ago, he moved his import portfolio. “Just like when I left Drew, leaving Skurnik was not easy. We had a great relationship, and it was a breakup,” he says. But Grand Cru was young and eager. “I felt that the growers who were part of my portfolio that trust me for that kind of attention would also get it, and not get lost in a bigger company.”

Such care for the people he works with has garnered the man—someone that collector George Sape calls “the Johnny Appleseed of Burgundy”—loyalty in return. “Burgundians are farmers,” says Sape. “They’re very attached to their property. But they have respect for Daniel, which is why they come and support his events. It’s not about sales. It’s about respect, and Daniel more than anyone gets their respect.”

Of course, elevating a wine region’s profile can bring its own complications. Today, Burgundy’s steep prices are widely bemoaned, and La Paulée, says Eric Asimov, has become a “measuring contest for wealthy collectors.”

“A lot of those collectors have since built huge cellars,” Johnnes admits. “They would buy and buy and buy and buy—to the point where I felt I couldn’t compete with them because I was buying for a restaurant wine list, and you don’t want to put wines on a list at these very high prices.”

Still, the culprit in this part of the story isn’t the wine festival; it’s an economic system that funnels money upward into runaway corporate salaries that engender fevered collecting. It may be true that, as David Gordon puts it, “you can track the prices of Burgundy with the success of La Paulée.” But capitalism isn’t Johnnes’s doing. A ludicrous bid on a Burgundy does not detract from his accomplishments. On the contrary. In the 1980s, Burgundy was suffering, and the American wine scene was nowhere. Johnnes created a relationship between them that helped—indeed, continues to help—players on both sides to thrive.

“Daniel is a hero,” says Asimov. “And I’m sure he has new things ahead that we don’t know about yet.”

Betsy Andrews is a journalist and poet. Her award-winning books include New Jersey and The Bottom. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.

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