We stand in a dark, dank cellar on a cold November morning, glasses in hand as Gilles Lafouge draws wine from barrel with a pipette and give each of us a sample to swirl, smell, savor and then spit into a bucket. I've come to Burgundy to experience its wine-making culture; the nine guys I'm with come every fall from St. Louis to immerse themselves in the food and wine of their favorite region. Two of them, the father and son Tony Bommarito, are importers; the other seven obsess over producers and vintages both here and at home, where a group of them gathers for lunch every week.
They're in excellent company. Now that the harvest is over, importers and journalists are flocking to this rural part of France about 200 miles southeast of Paris to talk to producers and assess their wares. One morning at breakfast at Chambres de L'imprimerie, a charming bed and breakfast on the outskirts of Beaune, the capital of the wine trade here, I run into Jancis Robinson, the longtime wine critic at the Financial Times. She's off to taste at Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, one of the world's most famous estates. Even though she's been at this for 40 years, she admits that it's still a little disorienting to spit wines that go for thousands of dollars a bottle, but that's the only way to stay sober when you taste upwards of 100 wines a day, writing notes as you go.
Only the wine elite can visit DRC, but Burgundy is a great place for drinkers of all levels of sophistication to learn about wine. The easiest way to do that is to stay in Beaune. The largest producers, called negociants, offer wines at all levels from basic Bourgogne, which can be made from grapes grown anywhere in Burgundy, to village, which must come from a single town like Beaune or Volnay, to single-vineyard wines like DRC's Romanee-Conti. Houses such as Drouhin and Louis Jadot can easily accommodate visitors and give them a sense of how the specific plot of land where grapes are grown manifests itself in the wine made from them. Almost all of Burgundy's whites are Chardonnay, its reds Pinot Noir, so place rather than variety is paramount here: the precise soil on which a vine grows, the slope of the hill on which it sites, the exposure to sun it receives.