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Dispatches from Aspen Food & Wine Classic 2011

Drinkhacker:

“Is this your first Classic?”

It was a question I’d hear more than once over the three days I spent in Aspen last month at what has become the pre-eminent annual food and wine event in America. Emphasis on food. In a single evening I encountered Mario Batali, Jacques Pepin, Jose Andres (who personally prepared the salt-crusted grilled prawn I ate while berating someone for disturbing his onions), and Andrew Zimmern (who heroically saved me from a deadly spider).

A few weeks later, so much of the Classic, hosted by Food & Wine magazine and an event of absurdly high expense to those who pay to attend it, is now but a blur. Is it the Aspen elevation? The long days of seminars and tasting sessions? Or simply the mountain of business cards I now have to follow up on that makes the whole thing seem so daunting in retrospect?

Structurally the Classic sounds like an easy-to-manage thing. For two and a half days, the schedule (basically) runs like this: Sessions (there are a dozen food, wine, or spirits-focused seminars to choose from) start at 10, then the grand tasting event (more on that later) is open for a couple of hours after that. The tent shuts down for a while to allow for more sessions, then it reopens in the afternoon, closing promptly around 6 o’clock so dinners can be had and the parties can begin. Depending on who you know there may be a half dozen to chose from each night.

Friday and Saturday are “full” days, and Sunday is a lighter one, as most people try to get home, fast (not an easy feat from remote Aspen, Colorado).

“The tent” — the grand tasting pavilion — is , for most people, the centerpiece of their experience here. Hundreds of exhibitors represent wineries around the world, spirits sellers, food merchants, kitchenware purveyors, restaurants, even countries hoping to get tourists, cruise ships, car companies, and just about anything else have a booth. Everyone is either pouring or cooking: A quick spin through a fraction of the tent will have you noshing on Korean noodles, sashimi, barbeque, chocolate, salad, root beer, and pork rinds — and probably in that order. While there’s plenty of supermarket brand stuff being poured here, a lot of it is upscale, sometimes extremely so. While there were many fabulous wines (including a whole sub-tent devoted to Spanish wine), I found the spirits purveyors to be the most rewarding: Casa Dragones tequila, private bottlings of all sorts of whisky from Samaroli (see pics), and Ron Cooper personally pouring just about all of his company’s Del Maguey mezcals, including the bizarre but fantastic Pechuga (which is made with a whole chicken breast), of which only 650 bottles were made. I probably looped back to Cooper’s table four times over the two days I was in the tent.

The seminars should not be underestimated. I attended two great ones: One tasting the audience members on old wines dating back to 1980, and another comparing Oregon and California Pinot Noirs of various vintages and regions. (Discovery: I liked southern California Pinot the best of these.) If you’re more into cooking, copious celebrity chef-led demonstrations are available, as are sessions dedicated to all levels of expertise.

Then there are the parties, and one finds that in the tiny town of Aspen, it’s easy to hop from a Macallan event to a tasting of two vintages of Penfolds Grange in a manner of minutes. (The 2006 Grange stands as my favorite wine tasted the entire weekend.) Everywhere you go, someone’s cooking a whole pig or three (as with the Wines of Spain party), or pouring something surprising (as with the “Magnum” party, where several dozen large-format bottles of wines are available to try — all self-serve).

I feel fatter just writing about it.

If you’re a gourmand and you have the means (all-access tickets are over $1,000, but tent-only consumer access runs under $400 for the weekend), this is worth an excursion once in your life. Some advice if you go: Stay as close to town as you can, over-prepare for the extreme altitude (various supplements were recommended to me), and get some rest before you arrive. You’ll need it!

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