A Wine Destination Turns 30: The Little Nell Reaches a Milestone

Kelly Hayes

It was late November 1989, and Aspen was full of anticipation for the coming ski season. The Silver Queen Gondola had opened two seasons before, taking skiers to the top of Aspen Mountain in 14 minutes — cutting the previous base-to-peak time in half. There was controversy as the community fought over a measure to ban the sale of fur. In New York, a developer by the name of Trump was planning his Christmas vacation to Aspen. One that would include both his wife, Ivana, and his girlfriend, Marla Maples.

And at the base of Aspen Mountain, a new hotel was preparing to welcome its first guests for Thanksgiving. The Little Nell, a 92-room, five-star luxury hotel designed by the local architectural firm Hagman Yaw, opened Nov. 23, 1989. While it has changed many things in Aspen and the world of skiing, setting a standard in ski-in-ski-out luxury hotels that is mirrored at virtually all top-tier U.S. resorts today, it is its role as a premier wine destination that distinguishes it from other mountainside properties.

Over the last three decades, The Little Nell (TLN) has become a revered destination for a number of different wine constituencies. Its Wine Spectator Grand Award, one of fewer than 100 granted worldwide, has made it a must-stop for traveling wine connoisseurs since it was first awarded to the hotel in 1997. A staggering run of master sommeliers in the wine program (there have been 10 who have worked the floor in the hotel’s various restaurants) have made it the “Cradle of the Masters.” Those who aspire to be players in the wine community regard TLN as an ultimate proving ground and, for years, the Court of Master Sommeliers held both their educational events and final exams in TLN meeting rooms and restaurants.

Then there are the winemakers themselves, many whom have made the pilgrimage from around the globe to pour their wines for guests at TLN over the years. Peter Gago, the winemaker at Penfolds in Australia and the custodian of the famed Grange, has brought his bottlings from the Barossa. Vintage Dom Pérignon has been popped in TLN Wine Room by the Champagne’s former cellar master, Richard Geoffroy. And this past year saw the new world of minimalist wines represented when Raj Parr poured pinot noirs from the Sta. Rita Hills and Oregon.

And I nostalgically recall a La Paulée des Neiges wine event in 2013, held in the newly christened Element 47 restaurant, that saw a passel of Burgundy’s finest producers, including Dominique Lafon of Domaine des Comtes Lafon; Etienne Grivot of Domaine Jean Grivot; Jean-Pierre de Smet of Domaine de L’Arlot; Christophe Roumier of Domaine Georges Roumier; Pierre Meurgey of Maison Champy; and, from Crozes-Hermitage, Alain Graillot, pour their wines for an elite clientele. The accompanying meal was prepared by famed French chef Daniel Boulud. Sigh.

Pretty heady stuff. But why has this small boutique hotel sitting at 8,000 feet, miles from the nearest major city, become such a go-to for the wine world?

The answer traces back to the financial commitment made by the owners, the Crown family of Chicago and Aspen, to build a cellar that would rival the world’s best. That cellar, really not much more than a glorified, chilled storage room down a steep flight of stairs for the early years, grew under the stewardship of a cadre of young, energetic sommeliers.

Somms like Richard Betts, Bobby Stuckey, Jonathan Pullis, Sabato Sagaria and Carlton McCoy channeled their passion for wine into a place that holds over 20,000 bottles, serving a wine list of over 100 pages. Their commitment to service emphasizes a tradition that every bottle poured receives appropriate attention.

Today the wine program is under the auspices of newly named wine director Chris Dunaway, who looks forward to continuing the legacy of The Little Nell as a wine mecca. He will also oversee the wine cellar room that morphed into a destination speakeasy under past wine director Carlton McCoy.

On Friday, Nov. 29, The Little Nell is hosting a celebratory 30th anniversary dinner with the title “Dining Through the Decades” to commemorate its special culinary and wine history. Executive chef Matt Zubrod will be joined by chef George Mahaffey who, during his tenure at what was then called “The Restaurant at the Little Nell,” won a James Beard Award as Outstanding Chef: Southwest in 1997.

“When I arrived in October of 1992, The Nell was yet in its infancy,” Mahaffey recalled about his experience there. “I think that, all in all, we, a team of 300, did well. I have memories of hard work, and of our collective brilliance, of personal failures, and memories of laughter and tears, and of the many guests who also helped to make it so special.”

Pouring wines alongside Dunaway will be Stuckey, who worked with Mahaffey at TLN in the ’90s before going on to open Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, his Friuli-inspired wine centric restaurant that has also won a Beard Award for Best Wine service. He is looking forward to his return, stating, “I am so honored to be able to be back to The Little Nell for their 30th anniversary. Twenty-five years ago, when I went to work at The Little Nell, Eric Calderon, Connie Thornburg and chef George Mahaffey created an environment that created the food and wine and hospitality professional that I became. That era created many things about me that I pull on every day. I’m so excited to be back for the dinner.”

There will be stories. Wine will flow. And just like in 1989, everyone will be full of anticipation for another ski season to remember.

Aspen Times Weekly

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