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Roadtrip: The over-the-top Paulée Dinner in the Russian River wine country

DeLoach Winery's outrageous fantasy barrel room, at the Paulée Dinner, in the Russian River wine country.
DeLoach Winery's outrageous fantasy barrel room, at the Paulée Dinner, in the Russian River wine country.Gayle Keck.

The Paulée Dinner invitation included the word "Bacchanalia." As in Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. As in a really, really wild party. And, while no bulls or virgins were sacrificed, it was quite a night up in the Russian River Valley. I took a little detour from the San Francisco restaurant scene to check it out.

The "Paulée Dinner" concept comes from Burgundy, France, where vintners gather at the end of the harvest to celebrate by sharing a meal and some very special bottles of wine that they've dug up from their cellars. The Russian River version was part of last weekend's Pinot Classic events, which also included barrel tastings, a seminar and other activities that connected pinot noir-lovers with producers.

For the first time, "civilians" were invited to join the winemakers at their Paulée Dinner, and I was lucky to snag an invitation. The affair was held this past Saturday, at DeLoach Vineyards, where 150 guests gathered and schmoozed on the tented lawn. Kind of like a wine wedding. All the area's pinot royalty were there: Merry Edwards, Michael Browne of Kosta Browne, Rod Berglund of Joseph Swan, Jean-Charles Boisset of DeLoach, Jeff Mangahas of Williams Selyem, Scot Covington of Trione, Guy Davis of Davis Family Vineyards and many more (see them all in the slideshow).

Large-format bottles ruled the night, as winemakers table-hopped, offering pours from magnums and jeroboams. Some well-aged vintages were liberated from their cellars. Mangahas made the rounds with a 1988, and sommelier Chris Sawyer saw to it that I got a taste from the last known bottle of 1979 Bacigalupi chardonnay. At my table, Covington was pouring a four-year Trione vertical. But nobody took themselves too seriously, especially Browne, who hoisted a huge bottle of his own excellent pinot and pretended to chug it (see the slideshow).

The ringleader of it all was Boisset, dressed in a red jacket, who led the group in the "Ban Bourguignon," a song that made the entire bunch of attendees appear to be happily surrendering, as we twirled our hands in the air and clapped to the "la-la-la" lyrics (clearly, this song was meant to be taught to tipsy people).

The food, of course, was French, with Chef Michel Cornu turning out four courses that paired perfectly with pinot. We started with fish, ombre laid over grilled white asparagus and topped with a rich sauce. That was followed by oeufs meurette, poached eggs in a wine sauce with mushrooms and a touch of contraband foie gras. Then rabbit, braised with onions and falling off the bone ("Really, it's chicken!" the husband of a newlywed couple sitting next to me promised his wife, snatching away her menu). And finally, the cheese course arrived, with compte, brillat savarin and--pardon me, I've forgotten the third fromage. Could I have had just a tad too much wine?

We all retired to the JCB (Boisset's initials and another of his wine brands) lair for macarons, petits fours and flutes of sparkling wine. I say "lair," because it's a barrel room decked out like a dance club, with a huge chandelier and bright-colored wigs for guests to try on.

I've no doubt that Bacchus would have approved.

The Paulée Dinner is an annual event, so save up for next year. The $250 per person price tag is worth it for a one-of-a-kind wine and food experience.