Aspen Times Weekly: A wine plan of attack at the Classic

by Kelly J. Hayes

We are still a week away from the opening festivities of the 32nd Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, but the buzz is already beginning. The tents are starting to go up. The pop-ups are starting to, well, pop up, and the wines are arriving by the case.

For regular attendees, volunteers, and those in the hospitality industry, the Classic is a rite of summer. A much-anticipated weekend of non-stop bacchanalia that sets the tone for the season of the sun. It is a chance to see old friends, eat some amazing food, drink some great wine, and perhaps even learn a thing or three in the seminars from the world-class roster of presenters.

For me, the Classic is like a wine Christmas as I get to meet so many winemakers and taste so many different wines from around the world. Each time I go into the tents or sit at a seminar or go to an outside tasting event, there are a plethora of choices of what to drink and who to talk with.

After attending close to two dozen Classics over the years, it would be pretty easy to get a little jaded about it all. Instead I find that each year brings its own surprises and discoveries. And besides, even if it didn’t, a June weekend in Aspen with a slight wine buzz never could, or at least never should, get old.

This year will see, by my count, forty-nine separate seminars on wines, cocktails, and spirits. All in forty-nine hours and 15 minutes. And, if you throw in a round number of, say, six wines per session, that means we are looking at around 300 different wines from the time the first session opens on Friday at 10 a.m. until the finale at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, when Laura Werlin will pour a Tasmanian Rosé with her cheese course. Figure close to 500 cases of outstanding and interesting wines will be on hand. And that is just in the seminars. There will be exponentially more wine available for tasting under the tents at the five Grand Tastings

So with all of that wine, how do you get the most out of the Classic? Well, it may be counter-intuitive, but begin with the old adage “less is more.” There are so many wines from so many makers from so many countries that it is easy to be overwhelmed. You want to have a plan. You want to focus on something rather than trying to do everything.

Start with the Grand Tastings. Instead of just grabbing a glass and heading for the first table, pick something you like and seek it out. Say you’re interested in the reds of Rioja. Head straight for the Spain tent and get an overview of the region in the first Grand Tasting session. Walk in and ask questions. Find out the difference between a 100 percent tempranillo and a wine that is blended with garnacha. Taste a couple of different vintages and see if you can taste the variations. Learn the differences between a Crianza, a Reserva and a Gran Reserva. Try to discern what the extra aging in American oak does to the wine’s flavors.

Or pick a varietal or a style and wander through the tents tasting just that wine. There will be plenty of Rosé, something that we have watched explode over the last decade here in Aspen. Try them from California, Provence and New Zealand. See if you like your Rosé made from Grenache or Pinot Noir. Do you prefer dry or sweet Rosé? Now is your chance to find out.

Make it your goal to learn something in each and every Grand Tasting. You don’t have to get too serious, but if you are going to put the time in, take something out as well. Besides a glass of wine that is.

As for the seminars, use the same strategy. Pick seminars that focus on what you drink and attend those. If Champagne is your thing then head over to Shayn

Bjornholm’s “Showstopping Champagne.” If you spend a lot of time in sushi bars then Joshua Wesson is your man with his “Omakase OMG! Sensational Sips for Sushi” seminar. Bottom line is, if you are already interested in a particular wine or style, then the seminars will help you up your game. Oh, and for good measure I always try to attend one seminar about something that I know little or nothing about. This year that means I have plans to attend Ray Isle’s seminar on “The Wines of Portugal,” a place I’d like to get to know a little better.

Have a great time and I’ll see you in the tents.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at

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