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WineInk: A Legend Returns to the Floor


If you are on a fall-color bike ride around the valley the next couple of weeks and you get passed by a familiar face on the roads, it may well be Aspen’s legendary master sommelier Jay Fletcher. He has been out getting in shape for his next challenge: running the beverage program at Matsuhisa Aspen, where his first night will be Oct. 1.

“I got a 45-mile ride in yesterday,” he said about his training to get back on the floor to pour wines, something he has not done on a nightly basis for over 20 years when he last was a full-time sommelier at the late lamented Syzygy in Aspen. “You know I have pulled shifts at Cache Cache with Alex (Harvier, the sommelier) during the holidays and poured wines at Art Crush and corporate events on occasion. But being on the floor every night is different. You pour hundreds of glasses, you walk about 5 miles a night and then there are the boxes and cases of wine you need to move.”

“It’s a young man’s game. You don’t see many out-of-shape somms,” he added with a chuckle.

This pairing of venerable Aspen stalwarts makes for one of the best local hospitality stories of the season. Fletcher, perhaps the key player in making Aspen the significant wine town it is, brings his considerable talents to one of Aspen’s most iconic restaurants and comes full circle to the position in which he made his reputation.

“The opportunity to try and improve an already excellent program was just too good to pass up,” Fletcher said about the move.

For close to two decades, Fletcher has been the executive director of fine wine for Southern Glazer Wine and Spirits, one of the most unique jobs in the world of wine: “I oversaw the fine wine portfolio, was the lead educator for the company and worked closely with key accounts selling the finest wines in the world. It was an incredible experience, but I was just constantly busy. During the last year with this COVID thing I began to start thinking about how I spent my time and what I wanted to do. Then this came up and it seemed like a perfect time to go back to working like a real somm rather than a paper somm.”


THE QUEST

While he is starting with a proven program, Fletcher has a few plans: “I’ll just be trying to grow on the current list’s excellence and focus a little bit on building a collection of the classics.”

Matsuhisa has created a world-class beverage program catering to a clientele that expects only the best.

“The red and white Burgundy offerings, the cocktail program and the sake program are as complete as any in the world. But I want to make sure we have a cellar with the best wines, the best vintages from France, Italy and Spain. We may get a few red Bordeaux wines that we don’t have now, because people like to drink great red wine, even with Asian foods,” said Fletcher, who has long been considered an authority on the wines of Bordeaux. He also wants to upgrade the wines-by-the-glass list, provide some more affordable wine options for diners, put together pairing dinners and perhaps even offer a wine class.

While pairing wines with both the subtlety of sushi and the more powerful flavors of other Asian-inspired dishes can be a challenge, Fletcher has worked this magic before. “A few years ago I worked with chef Nobu Matsuhisa on a 13-course tasting dinner. Chef Nobu’s cuisine can be very complicated, but we paired beer, sake and wine with the courses and did not use anything from the same grape or the same country twice.”


The Matsuhisa team, including operating partners Michael and Steve Goldberg and director of operations Todd Clark, are looking forward to welcoming Fletcher.

“I have known Jay for 25 years,” Clark said. “He has been a mentor, a friend and a ski buddy, and to have him on board is kind of a dream that all just came together.”

Clark met with Jay in his backyard on Juan St. and asked if he might be interested. “I asked him, ‘Hey do you think this could work?’ He is super passionate about this and we are really excited to have one of the best sommeliers in the world.”

Fletcher concurs, noting, “Family is a big deal to ownership. Todd is one of my best friends and I’ll be able to work with Dave Musser (Matsuhisa sommelier), who I knew from our time at Southern.”

JAY’S JOURNEY

Fletcher first came to Aspen 43 winters ago with a pair of skis and a pool cue. “The first two months here I lived in the Difficult Campground,” he recalled in a 2019 interview. “I could play pool pretty well, and I made some money gambling to support myself.”

He soon took the standard route of working in local establishments to pay the bills and discovered wine. “I think the first wine that really hit me was a Joseph Drouhin Puligny-Montrachet. I was working as a busboy in Charlemagne (an old Main Street French restaurant) and somehow got to taste the wine. I began reading books and studying wine a bit.”

But it was stint at Krabloonik on Snowmass where he really began to explore the pleasure of the grape. “We took a list of 15 wines and built it to 300 selections. Every night we would open something great and learn about it.” A chance reading of an article in 1993 about a fledgling organization called the Court of Master Sommeliers and an introductory wine course in Vail literally changed his life.

“I was immediately hooked and began studying places and wines and service to become a master,” he said. But it was a harder road than he thought. “I took the Masters for the first time in the summer of 1994 and I got destroyed,” he said with a voice still tinged with pain. “I just wasn’t ready. They told me I should quit. It beat me up pretty bad.” But instead of quitting, he persevered, and on Nov. 6, 1996, he received his Masters pin at the Dorchester Hotel in London. In 2008 he would become the chairman of the American Chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Jay Fletcher

Back in Aspen, he worked the floor as sommelier at the aforementioned Syzygy while spreading the gospel of fine wine to both his customers and a growing group of young somms who had drunk the Kool-Aid, as it were, of the Court of Master Sommeliers. The Wizard of Juan Street, as he came be known, mentored an entire generation of Aspen sommeliers, including Bobby Stuckey, Jonathan Pullis, Sabato Sagaria, Dustin Wilson and others through the Masters certification process.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE


We asked Jay Fletcher to pick a special bottle from Matsuhisa’s cellar and tell us about it:

2017 Domaine Michel Niellon Chavalier-Montrachet

“There is nothing better to go with fine Japanese cuisine than grand cru white burgundy.

The Michel Niellon Chavalier-Montrachet is located just above Le Montrachet on rocky, calcareous soils. Planted in 1962 this small parcel produces wine of outstanding power with refined elegance and a linear minerality backed by hints of sweet oak. With a production of just five barrels, it is a rare treat.”

Just this week he was conducting individual “coaching sessions” with five local somms who were off to St. Louis to sit for the final exam to become master sommeliers. “I really love the mentorship and will continue to help when I can.”

Twenty years ago, when Fletcher left the floor to take the corporate job, he did so as a father with responsibilities. “I had two daughters who were everything to me. I used to work 25 straight days through the Christmas holidays. It was just too much.”

But now both are grown, and Fletcher is itching for a third act.

“The best days of my life have been pouring wine in restaurants. This is a chance to have days free to ski and spend time with my wife and go to work at night and do what I do best,” he concluded. “Change is good for the human spirit.”

 

Food Matters: Cooking with Rosemary

Chef Rosemary Burkholder

Borscht is bubbling on the stove inside Rosemary Burkholder’s rustic alpine home, perched up a steep, rocky shelf between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. The chunky stew honors autumn for the classically trained chef, who hails from Berks County, Pennsylvania, and has spent the past 32 years working with food here in the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond.

“As a kid playing in the woods of Pennsylvania, being a rebellious child (with my siblings), we ended up in some hippie garden farm. They had borscht going,” she recalls. “I fell in love with it then.”

Burkholder has prepared a gourmet lunch to highlight early fall harvest and showcase fresh elk, hunted in Steamboat Springs by her husband, an avid outdoorsman. She’s also gathered ingredients to prepare two kinds of fruit-infused vinegar, another seasonal tradition that helps to stock her pantry for winter. (See recipes at the end of the article.)

“I used the blackberry-herb vinegar to deglaze this elk shank,” she says, stirring the mixture in a cast-iron pot.

The meat simmered in broth all morning before Burkholder added cubed golden beets and potatoes from her garden. After ladling the fragrant goulash into ceramic bowls, Burkholder adds a hearty dollop of caraway-seed crème fraiche. Alongside, crusty bread and a simple salad of red kale from a plot at River Bend River Ranch in Carbondale, julienned jicama, goat cheese, crushed pistachios and vinaigrette made from kumquats pickled last March with star anise, cardamom seed and ginger root.

“It’s about preserving, using the land, being simple,” the chef explains of her culinary philosophy, which serves as a model for home cooks seeking to honor their own connection to the land this harvest season. (It’s also about being resourceful: Those pistachios were swagged from last weekend’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, her 15th festival, where she plated dishes for the 2021 Best New Chefs in the Grand Tasting Pavilion.)

Burkholder was trained at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, New York; experimented with California and Southwestern cuisine out West under Wolfgang Puck; taught regional American food in China for nine weeks during a cultural exchange program; and landed in the Roaring Fork Valley in 1989. Soon after, she helped to open Kenichi Aspen as a sous chef, then chef de cuisine, staying on the line three years. The pan Burkholder used to prepare hundreds of orders of Kenichi’s famous blackened tuna now hangs on her mudroom wall.

“It was a fabulous scene back then—I made phenomenal money,” Burkholder recalls. “But the kitchen was so small. I could feel it taking a toll on my health.”

Now 63, Burkholder combines her rural upbringing and formal training with creative inspiration from experience working in farmers’ markets, traveling Europe, and catering for years in this valley. She crafts everything from scratch, including canning vegetables and preserves and fermenting wine from grapes, plums, chokecherries, dandelion, rhubarb and more.


Noticing that her stew is a tad pale, Burkholder snips a few sprigs of parsley from her garden. Borscht is usually made with red beets, she clarifies, but golden beets were ready to pick. Herein lies Burkholder’s first lesson for cooking confidently: substitutions are always welcome. Use whatever is available, and work around that.

“I think recipes should be guides, not set in stone,” advises Burkholder, who once stirred 20-gallon batches of soup in enormous steam kettles at The Sundeck on Aspen Mountain. “Make it work for you: alter a simple soup recipe (or) add a garnish, like this crème fraiche with caraway.”

Tomorrow, Burkholder will cater a harvest party for 30 guests, centered around a whole lamb asado, the animal cooked on a spit over live fire. Burkholder plans to enhance a cornucopia of September vegetables (butternut squash, golden beets, carrots, parsnips, cauliflower, shishito pepper, and foraged porcini mushrooms) with tomatillo salsa from her pantry.

“Rosemary has worked in the valley for many years and is, in my humble opinion, the ultimate farm-to-table chef,” says chef Martin Oswald of Pyramid Bistro in Aspen and mix6 in Snowmass. Having worked with Burkholder at the annual Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience (see the Sept. 2 edition of “Food Matters”), Oswald tapped Burkholder to craft mix6’s farm-to-table menu, offered every Friday all summer.

Using a list of mature ingredients supplied by local farmers, Burkholder composed dishes to highlight the regional bounty, be it black beans cultivated in Delta and simmered into a French ragout with hearty kale or summer squash stuffed with porcini mushrooms, sundried tomato, and goat feta, served with heirloom tomato coulis. Choosing the highest quality ingredients, Burkholder advises, results in the most flavorful final dish.

Burkholder grew up the middle of seven children on a 150-acre family farm.

“We wasted nothing,” she recalls, adding that her parents would deliver excess orchard harvest to those in need. “Everything was either used or given to someone who would utilize it. I’m still that way.”


Since her River Bend patch produces an overabundance of food, Burkholder will drive a Jeepload to town and “put a stack of overgrown zucchinis on Main Street (in Carbondale) with a ‘free’ sign and they’re gone in an hour.”

Burkholder heads outside to collect an armful of sage, parsley, thyme and purple basil for the vinegar infusions. “Having an herb garden out your back door inspires you to play with it,” Burkholder notes. A windowsill planter works, too. “Having it at your fingertips is key.”

BOOK CHEF ROSEMARY

Rosela Posela Eats, LLC

Chef Rosemary Burkholder

rosiebee58@gmail.com

Together we stuff blackberries and foliage into sanitized glass jugs, along with crushed garlic cloves, black peppercorns and mustard seed. Burkholder heats apple cider vinegar until simmering, then pours the hot liquid into the jar.

“I love to teach. I want to pass it on,” continues the chef, who is working on a memoir. “Fine, healthy cuisine does not need to be intimidating.”


In a week or so, Burkholder’s jewel-toned elixir will be ready to use. She urges home cooks to taste often — whatever the preparation.

“Don’t put a teaspoon of chile powder into (a recipe) if you don’t know what it tastes like!” Burkholder cautions. Also, practice restraint. “Just because you have it doesn’t mean you need to add it to the recipe.”

Which is why we prepare a second vinegar, using sliced Palisade peaches, ginger root, basil, dried chile pepper, white vinegar and sherry vinegar. Et voilà: two unique flavoring agents to enhance home-cooked food with the flavor of fall, all winter long.


SPICED BLACKBERRY VINEGAR

“Flavored vinegars are a great way to glean (ingredients from) your herb garden prior to it being taken by frost” or use up market fruit, says chef Rosemary Burkholder. Inexpensive and simple to prepare, infused vinegar may be used to marinate meat, make salad dressing, deglaze a sauté pan, or added to sparkling water as an invigorating tonic. Substitute coriander seed for black peppercorns, if desired. “Exact amounts aren’t super important,” Burkholder notes. “The flavor will be there.”

2 cups whole blackberries

3-4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon yellow or brown mustard seed

1 tablespoon black peppercorns, crushed

5-7 sprigs fresh thyme

2 large sprigs fresh sage (more or less to taste)

4 cups apple cider vinegar

PEACH-GINGER-CHILE VINEGAR

Sherry vinegar adds depth; omit garlic here for a sweeter, more delicate vinegar.

2 cups sliced peaches

3 tablespoons peeled, sliced ginger

1 tablespoon yellow or brown mustard seed

4 large sprigs fresh purple basil

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 dried pasilla chile pepper, deseeded (optional)

3 cups white vinegar

1 cup sherry vinegar

•Divide fruit, herbs, and spices into a two clean, sanitized pint-sized jars.

•Heat vinegar to just simmering, then pour into jar. (Use a funnel, if possible, to prevent hot vinegar from splashing.)

•Let mixture cool, then swirl jar to combine.

•Store jars in a cool, dark place 3 to 4 weeks. Shake gently every week to help flavors meld. Taste vinegar after one week to determine if it is infused to your liking.

•Once desired flavor is reached, vinegar may be strained to remove add-ins. Or keep infusing, and strain before using. (Note: solids will “blanch out” over time, this is natural!)

*To make vinaigrette: Combine ¼ cup strained vinegar + 2/3 cup olive oil + 1 plump clove garlic, crushed or minced + salt + freshly ground black pepper to taste in a jar with a lid. Close lid and shake until combined. Taste and add honey to sweeten, if desired. Vinegar-based dressings may be stored at room temperature. (If refrigerated, allow to come to room temperature before serving.) Shake well before using.

 

One step at a time: Reaching the summit of Mt. Elbert

Assaf Dory, right, Shannon von Driska, Steven Fotion, and Dash Wong walk along the Mt. Elbert Challenge trail towards the summit as the sun rises on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Assaf Dory’s voice rang out in the darkness, cutting through the tent fabric and waking up the rest of the team before 5 a.m. accompanied by speakers blaring a song by The 5th Dimension.

Although he didn’t sleep the night before due to pain from his first day of hiking, Assaf’s excitement to summit Mount Elbert kept him in his usual intoxicating cheerful demeanor. The dozens of people who gathered to celebrate this astounding accomplishment – including Assaf, fellow military veterans facing injuries and chronic pain, and their friends – filed out of their tents to eat oatmeal and chug instant coffee around the fire that was still burning from the night before. At approximately 5:30 a.m., the team pulled on their packs and filed into line as they began the second half of the hike to the top of the tallest mountain in Colorado.

The Mt. Elbert Challenge all started with Assaf. He first brought in his friend Steven Fotion and then he picked up the phone and made a call to another friend and fellow veteran, Dash Wong.

Dash Wong, left, and Assaf Dory share a joke on the first leg of the Mt. Elbert hike to the summit on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
As Steven Fotion catches up the Mt. Elbert Challenge crew after a later start, he embraces Shannon von Driska while she rests next to the fire at the campsite on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. The team hiked Mt. Elbert in two stages, camping overnight at tree line. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

“I have a stupid idea,” he told Dash.

“I’m in,” replied Dash before Assaf even had the chance to tell him more.

The three friends grew their crew to four and brought in fellow injured veteran Shannon von Driska, the only woman on the team and the only person from outside of Colorado, to climb Mount Elbert to raise awareness for suicide prevention and raise money for Challenge America. Over the course of several months, the team trained for the feat but had never reached the 14,000 feet of elevation that they planned to encounter for their main challenge. This would also be all four of their first 14ers, an accomplishment that they all relished.

Each with their own challenge to face, the foursome had no doubt that they would be summiting on Sept. 15.

Dash Wong tells jokes as Assaf Dory chews on a stick and Shannon von Driska rests with her legs up after the first day of hiking on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. Assaf and Shannon both have mouth guards to avoid breaking teeth when bouts of pain hit them from CRPS. Unfortunately, they had both forgotten them, so Assaf used a stick instead. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Assaf was injured in the line of duty as a Florida deputy sheriff 17 years prior that resulted in amputation of his right leg. What came next was worse: the Complex Regional Pain Syndrome that both Assaf and Shannon live with. It is also known as “the suicide disease,” because the only known way out of the pain is to end your life.

For Shannon and Assaf, the mutual understanding of the pain and mental struggle brought them together through an online support group for those living with CRPS. Shannon was diagnosed with the disease in 2019 following multiple surgeries for her broken leg and ankle suffered while training to be a U.S. Army medic in 2007. Although Dash and Steven do not live with CRPS, the two face their own debilitating physical maladies. Dash served in the U.S. Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen command team and in 2017 had his right lung removed due to adenocarcinoma. Then, earlier in March 2019, Dash contracted COVID-19 which left him with 40% scar tissue on his remaining lung. Steven is a veteran of the U.S. Army Reserves and competes in both strongman and bodybuilding competitions. He suffered catastrophic failure to both quadriceps tendons that he’s still recovering from.

Shannon von Driska braces her head on her hands as she tries to find a comfortable position on the ground at the campsite as the pain from the first day of hiking sets in on her leg on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
As the pain from the first day of hiking sets in, Assaf Dory and Shannon von Driska rest around the campfire on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. Both Assaf and Shannon live with a rare condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome that leaves them in extreme pain after physical activity. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Shannon von Driska takes her second bout of pills of the day for nerve and pain mitigation for her Complex Regional Pain Syndrome while hiking the first leg of the Mt. Elbert trail on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. Shannon takes medication three times a day since she was diagnosed with CRPS in 2019. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

“I don’t know if I’m stupid or stubborn,” said Assaf multiple times as he continued up the rocky trail on the East Ridge of Mount Elbert.

The team had broken up the 10.5 mile out-and-back trek into two parts. On Tuesday, they hiked in approximately two miles to tree line and set up camp where they recovered from the initial elevation gain and then continued on the next morning to reach their goal at the summit. For Assaf and Shannon, the real challenge was the technical rock stairs and loose dirt that made it difficult to navigate on crutches. Both of them had to rely on their arm muscles to hold themselves up and push themselves over the obstacles, even taking to crawling over some of the larger rock steps.

By the second morning, Shannon’s left leg was no longer cooperating with her. She was having trouble with it responding to her orders to step forward or hold weight. For Assaf, the burning feeling that the CRPS brings on was spreading. And although Dash maintained his big smiles and never failed to share one of his famous “dad jokes,” he would stop to check his oxygen levels and take a breather. By the second morning, Dash left his oxygen on for the majority of the hike as he increased in nearly 3,000 feet of elevation. For Steven, the real difficulty came after the summit. Navigating the rocky downhill grade can be extremely painful on his knees.

Assaf Dory braces his head has convulsions from his Complex Regional Pain Syndrome set in on his amputated leg after the Mt. Elbert Challenge crew’s first day of hiking on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Assaf Dory’s prosthetic lies on a sleeping pad covered with a plastic bag to protect it from the dirt at the campsite as he rests after the first day of hiking on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Manny Doron holds the hand of his friend Assaf Dory while he rests and embraces the pain setting in from the first day of hiking on the Mt. Elbert trail on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The team knew what to expect and anticipated the pain of the hike and what would come after. For Shannon and Assaf, the worst was yet to come when their bodies settled in from the adrenaline and the pain left them bedridden for days on end and in a state of depression after the goal was met. The Mount Elbert Challenge is what has kept them going over the past few months, they said. It gave them a goal, a sense of community, and an ability to tell their stories to let others know that they are not suffering alone.

After six and a half hours, each teammate summited: Shannon in the lead, as Assaf had insisted, followed by Assaf, Dash and then Steven. Tears were shed as each teammate hugged one another in gratitude for lifting each other up – physically and emotionally – and pushing each other forward during the entire process and to the peak.

In the end, it was a team effort. Packs were passed around, water was shared, hands were held and words of encouragement were handed out freely. The summit was only part of the story. As the team discussed future plans, such as swimming with manatees in Florida and a 10-day hut trip in the Swiss Alps, they turned around to head back down the mountain, together, one step at a time.

The sun begins to rise over Twin Lakes while Dash Wong and the Mt. Elbert Challenge team make their way to the summit before 6 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
The Mt. Elbert Challenge crew swap packs around and distribute weight in the early morning as Twin Lakes is lit up from the rising sun on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Shannon von Driska alongside the Mt. Elbert Challenge crew looks up the trail in the early morning on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
The Mt. Elbert Challenge crew walks towards the summit in the early morning as the sun rises on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Assaf Dory watches the trail as he edges around the rocky path as himself and the Mt. Elbert Challenge crew make their way towards the summit on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Steven Fotion, left, takes a break alongside Dash Wong as he checks his oxygen levels as the Mt. Elbert trail makes a turn towards rocky steps on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Shannon von Driska crawls along one of the many rock stairs on the Mt. Elbert trail on the Mt. Elbert Challenge crew’s quest for the summit on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Assaf Dory leads the Mt. Elbert Challenge team, setting the pace to reach the summit in 6.5 hours of climbing on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
As the Mt. Elbert Challenge crew summited after 6.5 hours of climbing, they embraced on the top with tears in their eyes and screams of joy on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Dash Wong takes a break on the summit of Mt. Elbert after 6.5 hours of climbing on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

kbrunner@aspentimes.com

Remembering Norm Macdonald in Aspen

Norm Macdonald at the Aspen Laugh Festival in the Wheeler Opera House in February 2020. (Hal Williams/Courtesy photo)

This might be the smallest footnote of all the footnotes in the grand, weird, hilarious and uncompromising career of Norm Macdonald, who died last week at 61, but it’s worth noting around here: he told the best Aspen joke I’ve ever heard.

Just about every stand-up who comes through here feels obliged to ridicule the ridiculous resort a little bit. Usually they offer a lame and lazy few lines about the oxygen tank backstage or the billionaires up the block, rote and forgettable bits of local material.

The best of outsider’s Aspen jokes came from Macdonald during a 2014 set at Belly Up. In his signature deadpan, Macdonald — sparking a lighter and mouthing a cigarette he never quite lit throughout the night — went through the litany of common sense deterrents to human life in Aspen, from the thin air to the common black bear home invasions (the visit came during a particularly wild bear season), drawing it out in extended storytelling style and eventually buttoned it up by noting how cheap one would assume it would be to live in a place where you can’t breathe and wildlife might rip your front door off and such. The absurdity of Aspen’s existence, and the fact that its homes are ludicrously expensive despite it all, delighted Macdonald.

The joke (murderously funny in his telling, of course, but never when I try to explain it) spoke to something at the core of Macdonald’s work: he paid attention more than all the other comics, even when scoring a local laugh.

Macdonald played Aspen occasionally across three decades, going back to the old HBO Comedy Fest days (“I don’t like festivals much, but I like Aspen,” he told me). While other comics would ski and après-ski during their visits, Macdonald the nonconformist and consummate Canadian instead was known to drop in and skate at local rinks when he was in town.

His last show here was among his final gigs before the pandemic hit – a sold-out, envelope-pushing headline spot in February 2020 at the Wheeler Opera House for the Aspen Laugh Festival.

Norm Macdonald at the Aspen Laugh Festival in the Wheeler Opera House in February 2020. (Hal Williams/Courtesy photo)

I once asked him about his string of (short-lived) post-“Saturday Night Live” TV shows and (scant) film projects and asked why he kept going as a road comic rather than following his former castmates and friends on the road to Hollywood. His answer was blunt: “It’s the only one I’m good at. … I’m pretty good at being a guest on shows, but stand-up is the only one that I’m good at. The other ones I just stumbled into from stand-up.”

Seeing the YouTube clips bounce around in the days following news of his death – he’d reportedly been sick with cancer for nine years but kept his illness private from even his closest friends – it’s evident that he was indeed one of the great contemporary talk show guests, showing up for classic moments beside Conan O’Brien and David Letterman.

His brief stint as a host also hints at what could have been. In 2018 Netflix premiered the first and only 10 episodes of “Norm Macdonald Has a Show,” a sort of anti-talk show deconstruction of the form that opened with David Spade, Macdonald and sidekick Adam Eget talking for 20 minutes about how Macdonald didn’t know how to do a talk show (he had campaigned publicly to replace Craig Ferguson as host of “Late Late Show” before the job went to James Corden).

On the second episode, when guest Drew Barrymore doesn’t get Macdonald’s Dracula joke, Macdonald says with a wide smile: “I love when people don’t get it,” which is the closest thing you’ll hear to a Norm Macdonald mission statement. He never cared if he got the laugh, and that’s what’s made him timeless (and made for some frustrating stretches as an audience member).

His stand-up could turn dark, with its comedic possibilities turned up by Macdonald’s matter-of-fact delivery and what he called his “weird voice” – a mix of North Country accent and adopted old-timeyness – in a style that defined his “Weekend Update” years and in more recent stand-up sets somehow carried bits as grim-seeming as one about his grandfather’s suicide.

Norm Macdonald at the Aspen Laugh Festival in the Wheeler Opera House in February 2020. (Hal Williams/Courtesy photo)

On “Weekend Update” in the ‘90s, Macdonald memorably blew past the era’s standards of good taste with his O.J. Simpson jokes and he used non-sequiturs and random references — David Hasselhoff, for instance, and Frank Stallone — to pepper the segment, which he made a surreal weekly performance. That free-association-as-comedy style has been widely influential, most readily seen in shows like “Family Guy” since then.

He wasn’t philosophical about stand-up or comedy and he easily cut through the bullshit when asked about the craft: “It’s weird,” he said. “You’re just talking to yourself for an hour.”

Asher on Aspen: Wining Down Summer

Courtesy Snowmass Rotary

I had only just settled down from the previous weekend’s lively Food & Wine activities when I realized it was time to do it all over again for the Snowmass Wine Festival. This made for two weekends in a row of getting dolled up and sampling food and wine like I was some fabulous Aspen socialite. I’m not by the way, but I secretly love acting the part. ‘Tis the season, I suppose!

This annual festival is a great way to wind down summer and squeeze in one more opportunity to wear a sundress before it most likely starts snowing next week. Compared to the weekend before, the ambiance this weekend was much more casual and relaxed. We recognized the vendor names, and it felt good to know that we were supporting local restaurants here in the valley.

Like the weekend prior, the people-watching was an amusing, ever-changing spectacle. Women were dressed to the nines with fashionable and over-the-top outfits. A healthy mix of tourists appeared to still be in town, and they mingled nicely with the locals. Everyone was just delighted to be there and be in community with others.

The Grand Tasting was an afternoon affair where we basked in the sunny, 75-degree weather. Bouncing around from booth to booth, we tried delectable wine served with scrumptious, savory bites. The festival came alive especially when they started playing timeless music over the loudspeaker that every generation could recognize and bop along to. In total, there were 36 vintners, six spirit distilleries and roughly 20 different food stations.

A personal favorite was the duck confit taco served on a homemade beet tortilla with achiote brussels sprout kimchi and micro cilantro sprinkled on top. This mouth-watering dish came from Toro (located inside the Viceroy Hotel). I will certainly be making a trip back to Snowmass to revisit these homemade Argentine beet-pressed tacos.

Another exceptional vendor was Il Poggio. Their long-running Italian restaurant presented two types of cappelletti (mushroom and pumpkin) that they served with sage butter, parsley, and fresh tomato. Just this one small sample of pasta alone convinced me that I need to return to this establishment immediately—especially since they’ve been open for 31 years. Clearly, they’re doing something right. Lastly, for dessert they served chocolate candied citrus rind that was deliciously idyllic when paired with a pinot noir.

After a couple glasses of wine and some food in my belly, I looked around and took a moment to take in the scene. This very much felt like the last few moments of summer, and I embraced it in full. The leaves on the trees surrounding Town Park were just on the verge of changing colors and there were some that had already started turning to that bright, canary yellow. I just wanted to bottle up that dazzling color and save it forever.

It was all too easy and delightful to spend an afternoon sipping wine and catching up with old friends. Without a doubt, this event fostered a greater appreciation for the local restaurateurs by educating residents and visitors on the wine and food sold right here. Not only was this a beautifully organized and well-put-together event, but the festival also generates tens of thousands of dollars each year for some pretty incredible things: the Rotary Club of Snowmass Village hosts this popular event annually to raise money for scholarships for high school students, grants for local nonprofits, and other charitable giving.

It’s no secret that wine makes people more congenial. The steady flow of wine is probably what prompted my encounter with a super sweet, older woman who we had a very pleasant conversation with just as we were leaving. She donned a large bonnet with flowers and grapes secured to the top and a long flowy dress with a hoop skirt and shoulder pads. She told me, “No matter how far you travel, always come back to Aspen. This is Heaven.” I concurred and told her that I couldn’t agree more.

Mountain Mayhem: Fall Food & Wine

Danette Stuckey, Anna Hansen, Bobby Stuckey and Lance Armstrong at the fun Liftoff party for Lift Vodka.
Lori Pevny with Dwayne and Durée Ross at the Lift Vodka party.
Graham Frandson, Sicily Cronin, Elyssa Spector, Joe Hess and Kevin Jones at the opening reception in the Hotel Jerome courtyard.
Gary Obligacion of The Alinia Group in Chicago pours Krug Champagne cocktails at Bad Harriet at Hotel Jerome.
Scott Kotchko with Mandi Meng, director of marketing for Hotel Jerome, and Patrick Davila, general manager of Hotel Jerome, Naomi Davila and Brechtje and Michael Estabrook at Bad Harriet.
Jesse Bouchard and Kim Edwards in the garden at Danté at The St. Regis Aspen.
Ron Snyder and Betsy Heneghan with Codigo tequila.
Pink and Martha Stewart were two of the special celebrity guests in town for the Classic. Courtesy photo.
Maneet Chauhan, Marcus Samuelsson and Carla Hall make for an animated trio. Courtesy photo.
Wine expert and author Mark Oldman with one big bottle of BV at his popular wine seminar. Courtesy photo.
Chef Daniel Boulud with Chef Matt Zubrod at The Nell. Courtesy photo.
Cari Kuhlman and Mary Kent enjoy aperol spritzes at The Nell. Courtesy photo.
Southern Wine & Spirits’ Jeremy Barbin and Heidi Klein at The Lift Vodka party with Litch Politch with Breckenridge Distillery.
Chris Radomski with Duke Spirits and La Adelita Tequila alongside his girlfriend, Gloria Apodoca.

The first – and likely only – fall Food & Wine Classic was a welcome addition to the Aspen calendar over the weekend of Sept. 10 – 12. With glorious weather, an A-list of guests from Pink with her Two Wolves wine and Martha Stewart for a dessert seminar, and an enthusiastic spirit by vendors and consumers, it was a special experience all around. Official events such as the Grand Tastings at Wagner Park and the seminars in tents around town catered to a smaller sized crowd capped at roughly 60% of the traditional number. The opening night party took place in the courtyard at Hotel Jerome, which also presented a variety of events throughout the weekend from a speakeasy in the sky with Casa Dragones tequila, a pop-up with the swanky cocktail lounge Aviary of Chicago at Bad Harriet and a grand al fresco dinner with Maestro Dobel Tequila and world-renowned chef Jorge Vallejo of Quintonil.

A smattering of unofficial parties and promotions around town were additional to the event roster including a few of highlights below.

On Thursday evening, hosts Lance Armstrong and Anna Hansen welcomed guests to their home for a Liftoff party kicking off Food & Wine weekend. Lift Vodka cocktails were served from a bar on the lawn while an endless stream of wood fired pizzas were baked in a mobile oven on the driveway.

On Friday night, Codigo Tequila hosted an intimate event at a private residence with owners Ron Snyder and Betsy Heneghan along with sales directors Brice Erichsen and Lawrence Witt

On Saturday afternoon, La Adelita Tequila presented its caviar bump party on the Ajax Tavern patio with a DJ, small bites, tequila cocktails and caviar served by the spoonful. Over at the W rooftop, Dalwhinnie Farms hosted a “food, wine and flower” party. And right next to Glory Hole Park in a grassy backyard, Revelshine Wines served up their canned vino with co-owner Chris Davenport as a co-host.

All weekend, Danté at The St. Regis Aspen partnered with Mr. Black coffee liquor for a cocktail collaboration in their courtyard and dining room.

Given the next set of dates for Food & Wine have been announced for June 17-19, 2022, this past fest was all the more special as a one-off September event.

Aspen History: Ashcroft Horse Thieves

One mounted and sepia toned photograph of the town of Ashcroft from the east looking over the town - probably taken from Taylor Pass Toll Road. There is snow on the ground and on the roofs of the buildings. All of the buildings look well kept-up. 1881-

“A short time since a stranger entered Ashcroft riding a gray horse,” observed the Rocky Mountain Sun on September 10, 1881. “Putting his horse up at a stable he commenced ‘taking in’ the town and was soon on terms of intimacy with one or two characters whose reputation was not of the best; several of the citizens concluding that his actions were suspicious determined to watch him. Followed him up a mountain near the town where they suddenly came upon four horses that had been staked out; they also found a bridle and saddle that had been stolen a few nights before from a cabin on Pine Creek. Upon such strong evidence that a theft was intended the party returned to town to await the appearance of the stranger, who, however, took the alarm and left the district, not being willing to furnish the corpse for such a funeral as Ashcroft would have given him. Charles Miller who had been his associate while in town was arrested as an accessory, but there being no evidence against him he was released and given just fifteen minutes to leave town. Understanding the nature of the people he had to deal with he was far on his way to Leadville ere the time expired.” The image above shows the town of Ashcroft, circa 1881.

42nd Filmfest includes tribute to founder

Ellen Kohner (Hunt) photographed in her office in September 1985. (Aspen Historical Society/Aspen Times Collection)

 

The 42nd annual Aspen Filmfest includes some of the year’s most anticipated independent films, thought-provoking documentaries, foreign language titles and a spotlight on a local filmmaker, carrying on the vision of its founder, Ellen Kohner Hunt, who died early this year.

The festival program itself, which opens Tuesday night with the Jessica Chastain-led drama “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” is a tribute to the founder. To further honor Hunt’s memory, Aspen Film also is producing “Ellenfest” on Thursday evening, gathering friends at the Wheeler Opera House and showing an hour-long compilation of tributes and film clips.

“My goal was never that people need to like what we showed,” Hunt says in the film. “I just didn’t want anyone to be hopelessly bored.”

With recollections from friends and filmmakers, the film recounts how Hunt started Aspen Filmfest with a group of committed volunteers — all women — and grew it into a launchpad for independent filmmakers with Filmfest, later creating an incubator for new and marginalized voices at Aspen Shortsfest.

“I would like to see Aspen be a place for hosting short subject filmmaker, to be the place that supports and identifies new talent up and coming in the motion picture world,” she says in the film.

Documentarian Aviva Slesin recalls how Filmfest nurtured her and shares a short comedy she made with a young Bill Murray — co-starring an array of costumed parrots — in Filmfest’s founding year.

“Ellen was at the core of this sisterhood,” Slesin recalled. “She was warm, she was generous, she loved and was very knowledgeable about film and she was easy to laugh with.”

Local figures in the tribute include Aspen Film stalwarts Gail Holstein, Judy Royer, Joyce Semple, Steve Alldredge and former Isis Theatre owner Dominic Linza.

 

IF YOU GO …

IF YOU GO …

What: Aspen Filmfest

Where: Wheeler Opera House; Isis Theatre; Crystal Theatre

When: Through Sunday, Sept. 26

How much: $20-25/single tickets; $300/full pass

Tickets: aspenshowtix.com

More info: Proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test required at Isis and Wheeler; Crystal Theatre requires patrons to be fully vaccinated; full lineup online at aspnfilm.org

*

What: Ellenfest

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Thursday, Sept. 23

How much: $9.23/program only; $125-150/reception and program

Tickets: aspenshowtix.com

More info: The reception will begin at 4 p.m. followed by the program at 5 p.m.

With Hunt at the helm, the organization resisted commercialization or growing too much — staying focused on locals even as festivals like Sundance and Telluride expanded to become international events.

“We wanted then, and still do want, to be an intimate experience,” Hunt says in the film.

Filmmakers include directors like Edgar Boyles, Bill Plympton and Adam Collis, interspersed with some of Hunt’s favorite shorts of years past. Locally based Hollywood figures, including Robert Wagner and Jill St. John, also make appearances.

Hunt herself sums up her volunteer work on Filmfest as an act of gratitude for a community that she loved and that supported her and her family.

“I felt that I wanted to give something back,” she says. “That sounds really corny, but it’s just the way it was. … There were a lot of filmmakers whose work was not being seen, and I thought it would be wonderful to have a film festival where we could promote and support the work of independent filmmakers and expand the horizons of our somewhat insular community.”

The six-day, all in-person 2021 festival includes films like the Kristen Stewart-led Princess Diana biopic “Spencer,” which will screen Friday night at the Wheeler, the “Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark,” director Antoine Fuqua’s new thriller “The Guilty” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and the locally produced documentary “Flying Boat” from Aspen documentarian Dirk Braun.

The Isis Theatre also will host daily documentary matinees through Saturday, including “Chasing Childhood” on the phenomenon of helicopter parenting, “My Name is Pauli Murray” from the directing duo that made “RBG,” and the Leonard Bernstein doc “Bernstein’s Wall.”

Foreign titles include Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s acclaimed “A Hero,” Mia Hansen-Love’s “Bergman Island” and Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” — all three already darlings of the festival circuit since their premieres at Cannes.

This Filmfest marks the first all in-person festival for Aspen Film since Academy Screenings in early 2020. Due to the pandemic, last year’s Filmfest was hosted both virtually and in-person, with distanced screenings hosted at the Isis Theatre. Aspen Film canceled last winter’s Academy Screenings series and hosted the 2020 and 2021 Aspen Shortsfest virtually.

WineInk: The Local Vine

(Matt Dubé/Courtesy Snowmass Wine Festival).

This weekend we go local. After the bacchanalia that was the Food & Wine Classic last week, we turn to Snowmass for a kinder, gentler wine gathering as the 19th Snowmass Wine Festival gets underway.

“We love the Classic,” said Barbara Bakios-Wickes, who has been the “mother hen” for everything wine related at The Snowmass Wine Fest for the past 17 years. “But the Snowmass Festival is a little bit more locally oriented, a little more laid back.”

A presentation of the Snowmass Rotary Club, all the funds raised through the Snowmass Wine Festival are allocated to nonprofit organizations across the Roaring Fork Valley, charitable organizations worldwide, and Basalt High School Senior scholarships. It raises more than $100,000 in annual donations.

IF YOU GO …


What: An Evening of Wine and Food

When: Friday, Sept. 17, 6-8:30 p.m.

Where: The Collective, Snowmass Base VIllage

How much: $120

Tickets: snowmasswinefestival.com; Sundance Liquors

More info: The evening at the Collective has already sold out but there are still a few tickets for the Saturday Grand Tasting at $105 on-line or, if still available, $115 at the door.

*

What: Grand Tasting | Snowmass Wine Festival

When: Saturday, Sept. 18, 1:30-5 p.m.

Where: Snowmass Town Park

How much: $105 online; $115 at the door

Tickets: snowmasswinefestival.com; Sundance Liquors

More info: Funds raised are allocated to nonprofit organizations across the Roaring Fork Valley, charitable organizations worldwide, and Basalt High School Senior scholarships.

The 2021 edition of the Snowmass Wine Festival will be anchored by a pair of mostly outdoor gatherings. The first, on Friday evening Sept. 17, will be “An Evening of Food and Wine,” which will take place at The Collective in the Snowmass Base Village. Nutritarian chef Martin Oswald of Mix6 in the Collective in Snowmass Base Village and the Pyramid Bistro in Aspen will be preparing appetizers to pair with the wines of the producers who will be in attendance.

“We are really looking forward to doing this, something a little different,” Bakios-Wickes said about the new venue. “Typically, we have done a sit-down dinner at the Viceroy, which is really special, but this year, we just felt having the opportunity to do something a little more spread out would be the right thing.” Guests will also have an opportunity to experience a variety of live entertainment, participate in a silent auction and a raffle, and win exclusive prizes — all while benefiting local, national and international charities.

Then on Saturday afternoon, the main event will feature the traditional walk-around Grand Tasting under the tents at the Snowmass Town Park. The tasting, which begins at 1:30 p.m. and continues until 5 p.m., will feature 36 tables of wines spread out over five tasting tents along with food provided by a number of local restaurants, including Il Poggio, Daly Diner, Big Hoss Grill, Heather’s, Home Team, Mod Thai, Mix6, Toro and Stew Pot among others.

“We are so lucky to have the restaurants after such a long, hard summer of work and we really appreciate that they are coming this year,” Bakios-Wickes said.

Bakios-Wickes likes to give credit for the event to those at the Snowmass Rotary Club, but it has been a labor of love for the co-founder of Sundance Liquors in the Snowmass Center. She and her then-boyfriend, now-husband Steve Wickes opened the beloved shop in August 1979, and just a few months later they tied the knot. On Oct. 6 they will celebrate 42 years of marriage.

The Snowmass Wine Festival began as a small event but began to grow when Bakios-Wickes started to court her friends and contacts in the wine community and asking them to be a part of it.

(Aspen Times Archive)

“The wines come from a combination of individual wineries, importers and distributors who all make contributions to help out the community,” she explained with her characteristic gratitude. This year will see a collection of wines from esteemed California producers, like Barlow, Duckhorn, Justin, Hahn, Hess, Macauley and Rombauer, along with a number of imported wines from Italy, South Africa and Argentina.

In addition to the wines that will be poured, five local distillers who are participating in the Festival will be there on the periphery of the tents. Woody Creek Distillers, Marble Distilling Company, LIFT Vodka, Palisade’s Peachtree Street Distillers and Dona Vega Mezcal will all be pouring their spirits and mixing cocktails for guests. There will also be a DJ and a silent auction tent with incredible collectable wines.

The festival will adhere strictly to the Covid Entry Protocols that it has in place, which will require “proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or negative COVID-19 test result obtained within 72 hours of event attendance.” Current ticket holders will also receive an email with more information. “The lines may be a little longer to get in this year, but it should move quickly,” Bakios-Wickes said.

“We feel like this is a such a great social event. Not everyone can afford the price of the Food & Wine Classic for a full weekend pass, but we offer great wines in a beautiful setting at a great price,” she explained. “So many of the winemakers, and these people go to all of the events, say this their favorite event of the year because it is so laid back and is for such a good cause. Everything is donated and you can feel the essence of the event. Everyone is there to just have a good time.”

And while the Snowmass Rotary does great work, there is little question that her volunteered efforts over the years have created a life legacy for Barbara Bakios-Wickes. If you see her at the Festival, be sure to offer a toast.

Both for her work and her anniversary.

Greensky Back Where They Belong

Greensky Bluegrass at Belly Up Aspen in March 2017. Aspen Times Archive
STREAM IT

What: Greensky Bluegrass livestream from Red Rocks

Where: HYFI

When: Friday, Sept. 17 through Sunday, Sept. 19

How much: $25/one night; $60/three nights

Tickets and more info: hyfi.com

Greensky Bluegrass has bookended its summer 2021 return to live performance with two iconic Colorado gigs, beginning the pandemic return tour with a sunset slot at Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June and capping it this weekend with a three-show run at Red Rocks Ampitheatre.

For this beloved jam band, which has regularly topped 150 concerts a year since their founding in 2000, the long year-plus without live music during the pandemic shutdown of the live music industry was an unthinkable experience. Returning to the stage in Telluride in June was a spiritual homecoming.

“It was magical,” guitarist Dave Bruzza said from home in Denver days after the show. “It was great to be back. Telluride is such a core part of Greensky’s identity and it’s a special place for me personally – so the shows were great and it was great to see so many friends again.”

The band was founded in Michigan but Telluride is where Greensky broke out, winning the 2006 Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition, returning for a headlining slot the following year and quickly solidifying a legion of Colorado fans who’ve filled their shows ever since.

For this year, the band played the main stage in the park as well as their first indoor unmasked show in more than a year for a grateful vaccinated crowd.

“That was really special,” Bruzza said. “It felt a little strange, like ‘Woah, we’re inside and no one is wearing a mask. … But just to be in a room full of people and just feeling that again was really incredible And just to see all the faces of the people you’re playing for.”

Greensky’s connection to fans is intense and based in those live experiences, which made the pandemic shutdown period a struggle. Their Red Rocks shows have become a tentpole on the Colorado concert calendar since 2013, as have annual multi-day runs at Belly Up Aspen (fans will likely have to wait until winter or next year for those to return).

Greensky Bluegrass at Belly Up Aspen in March 2017. Aspen Times Archive

To fill the void during the long concert-less stretch, Greensky, like many bands, took to livestreaming. They played full sets in empty venues for their faithful fans. And this spring, as vaccines were rolling out and live music’s return was on the horizon, they began releasing their “Leap Year Sessions,” a series of live albums from the pandemic sessions.

“I think it is an important snapshot for history and to see what we all have had to do to adapt and to still have to have some connection with each other throughout the world by performing those shows,” said Bruzza.

The performances soundracked the turbulent season of the pandemic, the bitter 2020 election and the nationwide uprising following the murder of George Floyd. These recordings, at times mournful and touched by the tumult of the times, have a purpose beyond entertainment.

“I think it’s important that we don’t forget about that whole situation,” said Bruzza. “Because just like anything else in history, it’s important to keep in perspective and remember what we’re all going through.”

Greensky Bluegrass at Belly Up Aspen in March 2017. Aspen Times Archive

The livestreams also created a new virtual community for Greensky concerts. They’ll steram all three Red Rocks concerts live via the Hyfi platform.

For these much-anticipated Red Rocks shows, Greensky is paired each night with a different co-headliner: Friday with Lukas Nelson, Saturday with Circles Around the Sun and Sunday with Railroad Earth. After the weekend, they’re taking about a month off before Greensky’s fall and winter tour dates ramp up and run to the New Year.

All of Greensky’s members contribute to songwriting and Bruzza said they worked on a lot of new material during the shutdown, though they haven’t released any yet. Being forced to stay home – or stay in Telluride, which Bruzza and other bandmembers did for a stretch in fall 2020 – did have its upsides for the band, he noted, giving the Greensky family a chance to focus on personal growth and new songs.

“Now that we’ve gotten this far along, I’m actually kind of grateful for a little bit of a break,” he said. “It gave me a lot of opportunity to be extremely creative and write a lot of music.”

Greensky Bluegrass at Belly Up Aspen in March 2017. Aspen Times Archive

atravers@aspentimes.com