With high altitude (around 8000 feet) and an onslaught of activity, Aspen Food & Wine is a dizzying, long weekend of tastings, seminars, parties and events held in the idyllic mountain town of Aspen every June.
This summer I went with a drink focus in mind, even as I ate my way through the weekend. In fact, drink — namely wine — does seem the star of the show. Attending all Grand Tasting tents (twice daily), there is actually little food compared to events like Pebble Beach Food & Wine or Eat Drink SF. There seemed to be more cheese samples and random bites than chefs and restaurants represented, although the rotating dishes (two chefs per Grand Tasting) from this year’s F&W 10 Best New Chefs 2015 was a highlight during each session. My favorite bites from F&W’s 10 new chefs were Carlos Salgado’s (of OC‘s fantastic Taco Maria) scallop aguachile with squid ink, cucumber and serrano, and Tim Maslow’s (of Ribelle in Boston) killer savory dessert of rhubarb, dill, Okinawan black sugar and Devonshire cream.
The event is an important one in the food and wine world and draws a diverse crowd from all over, making it a key networking event but also a pleasure for foodies seeking food and drink centric-travel in a beautiful locale. Here were a few highlights from this year’s event:
When it comes to wine, F&W Aspen has nailed it with their seminars. Even for a knowledgeable industry professional, these seminars are fun, lively and interesting with a range of wines poured (everything from Chablis to Cabernet) and subjects covered by experts and luminaries in international wines.
A rowdy Grand Char-Cru-Terie tasting was led by none other than NY restaurateur legend Danny Meyer, North End Grill executive chef Eric Korsh and master sommelier John Ragan. Attendees were given a mix-and-match array of six wines, from 2013 P.J. Kuhn Quarzit Riesling from Rheingau, Germany, to 2013 Domaine Calot Morgon from Beaujolais, France, to taste alongside 6 different pates, foie gras, chicken liver mousse, etc. The goal was for each person to discover what pairings they are most drawn to by tasting all wines with all charcuterie.
My favorite wine seminar was Anthony Giglio’s The Rosé Revolution. Certainly tasting through six rosés from California, France and Italy felt appropriate during an oppressively hot Aspen weekend, but it was Giglio’s engaging, sarcastic humor that kept the 10am session lively and fun, coupled with his thoughtful cross-section of rosés.
OF COCKTAILS & SPIRITS…
Wine flows everywhere and there are no small amount of drink highlights over the course of the event. Cocktails and spirits are more sparse. Though there are a few cocktail sessions, they remain highly beginner-focused and mainstream (“The Bloody Mary: Not Just for Brunch”), not for the cocktail aficionado or industry (not even in the vicinity of Tales of the Cocktail offerings, for example).
There were a few spirits brands representing during the Grand Tastings and a few events (although brands didn’t seem to actually reach out to all the spirits/cocktail folks among us to make their outreach/events known). Of the few represented, it was lovely to see the Diplomatico Rum distiller pouring some of his rum rarities (Single Vintage 2000 and Ambassador). None other than the great Ron Cooper, who first popularized mezcal outside Mexico with Del Maguey, poured mezcal in the Grand Tasting tent. There was Colorado representation with Woody Creek Distillers — showcasing their newer gin and whiskey — and Breckenridge Distillery at the non-Food & Wine Grand Cochon event on June 20th. I would love to see more spirits and cocktails — and more of the wealth of small batch distillers that have exploded around Colorado in recent years (my interview with one of those distillers, Karen Hoskin of Montanya Rum, here).
In the heat, nothing was more refreshing than Appleton Estate Rum’s Jamaican Jungle Bird slushie cocktail, served in biodegradable, Tiki-esque wood cups: Appleton Estate Signature Blend, Campari, lime and pineapple juice.
… And WINE
Wine rules the drink side of Aspen Food & Wine. From a range of excellent seminars covering New and Old World wines to small production and major names in wine — as well as parties where sommeliers share fantastic bottles — there was no end to the goodness flowing.
As at Tales of the Cocktail (which is a longer event with even higher volume of parties and event), there are parties everywhere — most of them pleasantly walkable in Aspen’s charming, small town, so it is easy to roll from one to the next, tasting and connecting with industry folk.
Parties like the OpenTable party at Matsuhisa Aspen with chef Nobu himself (and luminaries like Eric Ripert and Morimoto), as well as Food & Wine’s Publishers Party atop the mountain, were the most celebrity chef-driven, the latter party also an 80th birthday celebration for the great Jacques Pepin.
Representing my home area, Petaluma-based (Sonoma County) olive oil producer and winery, McEvoy Ranch, threw a fabulous party on the rooftop of the Aspen Art Museum, showcasing their wines (including a lovely 2014 Rosebud Rosé) with winemaker Blake Yarger, set to a striking mountain backdrop and live Americana/bluegrass music.
On a more intimate, industry-only scale, another hometown great, Napa’s Long Meadow Ranch, threw a delightful Bantams & Bubbles house brunch complete with Champagne and sparkling wines, fried chicken and biscuits — and that ubiquitous Aspen F&W element: plenty of caviar.
Maybe my favorite party of the weekend? The Wines of Germany house party, some quiet blocks away from downtown Aspen in a beautiful house. Industry folk and sommeliers played glow in the dark bocce, sipped incredible bottles of German wines, from aged Riesling to Grauburgunder, all set to a playful rock and rap playlist. Thanks to gracious host, Paul Grieco of Summer of Riesling, for keeping our glasses filled and the vibe relaxed and welcoming.
Though not an F&W event and a good 20 minute shuttle ride to the Viceroy Resort at Snowmass, the aforementioned Grand Cochon finals on June 20th provided some of the most exciting food all week from 10 chef finalists around the country. The event is the culmination of a 10-city Cochon tour to crown the 7th annual King or Queen of the Porc. Each chef turned out 3 dishes showcasing all things pig. Some dishes where wonderfully playful and imaginative, whether a pork pani puri or jokbal (a Korean pig trotter dish).
But it was chef Thomas Boemer of Corner Table in Minneapolis and chef David Bazirgan of Dirty Habit in my home city of SF who turned out what I found to be the most cohesive and exciting trios of all 10 chefs/30 dishes. I found out after I left the event that Chef Boemer won King of Porc for 2015. He killed it with his pate en croute (pictured) and smoked pork jowl in hominy grits with pickled watermelon rind. Dirty Habit’s Baz did the same with his trio of dishes, including an unforgettable pork cannoli for dessert (would love to see that on the Dirty Habit menu!)
RNDC Cocktails offered a range of bottled and batched cocktails at one party, surprisingly fresh and balanced for mass-bottled cocktails. Talking to “Corporate Mixologist” Sly Cosmopoulas who created the recipes, she works hard to ensure a fresh balance, realizing how quickly bottled cocktails lose their vibrancy. I liked the orange bell pepper freshness of her Scotch and rum-based Grouse House Punch.
With vivid, Indian-inspired packaging, Indi&Co. was pouring lovely tonics, from a classic tonic to a dry lemon tonic, to a tart Seville orange tonic, showcasing their Spain-based ingredients and company — appropriate given Spain’s reign as the Gin & Tonic capitol of the world.