Food Arts presents the April 2013 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Daniel Johnnes, the sommelier who cast off the pretensions of the job description like a tarnished tastevin, while picking up the gauntlet of wine importer, winemaker, author, mentor, and champion of Burgundy, ushering in with a smile a new generation of restaurant wine pros, as approachable as they are accomplished.
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Daniel Johnnes

Jeffery Lindenmuth / April 2013

Food Arts presents the April 2013 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Daniel Johnnes, the sommelier who cast off the pretensions of the job description like a tarnished tastevin, while picking up the gauntlet of wine importer, winemaker, author, mentor, and champion of Burgundy, ushering in with a smile a new generation of restaurant wine pros, as approachable as they are accomplished. Johnnes credits restaurateur Drew Nieporent for offering him his first “big break,” indulging the young man’s proposition to craft a wine program for the opening of New York City’s Montrachet in 1985. Johnnes nurtured the program into a winner of the Grand Award from Wine Spectator in 1994, when the magazine anointed Montrachet as the city’s finest wine restaurant, a groundbreaking accolade for a wine list with focus on a region, especially one as problematic as Burgundy. “I knew in my gut that Daniel was somebody approaching wine in the correct fashion,” says Nieporent. “He was very schooled in the winemakers in America and France, but he could speak about them without the flowery verbosity. His approach was pro-guest.”

At Montrachet and beyond, Johnnes proclaims food has always been the driving force in his approach to wine, a passion awakened in him as a 12 year old dining at New York City’s legendary Lutèce. The budding Francophile studied at the University of Grenoble, then graduated from the State University of New York at New Paltz with a degree in French language before securing a stage at Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris. Today, he gets his daily French fix at the side of Daniel Boulud, whose offer of wine director of the chef’s Dinex Group of restaurants—including its flagship, Daniel—he accepted in 2005.

Johnnes remains as enthusiastic as ever about his collaboration with Boulud. “When we sit in the office and talk about ideas, it’s my most exciting moment, like we are musicians having a jam session,” he says.

Boulud counts Johnnes as his vinous counterpart. “Daniel offers the sommeliers a sense of direction and mentorship, while giving them the freedom to discover their own personality. ” Boulud notes. “We share the same philosophy in business, so our friendship and working relationship are well aligned.”

With the current popularity of Burgundian wines, Johnnes finds himself in the uncomfortable position leading a popular trend as the creator of La Paulée de New York, a celebration of Burgundian culture he launched in 2000. “I don’t believe in trends. Growing up with leftists and war protesters, my tendency has always been to buck the trend,” says Johnnes, who toasted with Burgundian bonhomie long before the ascent of Pinot Noir. Taken on the road to San Francisco, then Aspen, La Paulée has raised over $2,000,000 for charity and continues to offer young sommeliers the rare opportunity to sample sought-after wines.

Whether crafting an award-winning wine list at Montrachet, defying convention to organize wines by intensity of flavor at East Hampton Point, or stepping beyond the bottle and into the barrel to craft wine in Oregon and Gevrey-Chambertin under the label Johnnes & Company, Johnnes has let his passion guide his profession. By blazing the trail to Burgundy and beyond, he has altered the way America dines with wine. “Pursuing my ideas can create confusion and hardship, because I always feel I’m not doing enough,” he says. “My plan was never to change the image of the sommelier, but to convey to sommeliers that you should follow your own curiosity.”