Food, wine, ice and Aspen expertise at Virtual Culinary Weekend

Kelly J. Hayes

Well, we all knew that this year’s Food & Wine weekend in Aspen would be like none before. The cancellation of the 2020 Classic meant that we would not be seeing old friends, attending seminars or tasting through dozens of wines in the tents. Yes, all of that was deeply missed.

However, thanks to a series of Zoom and Facebook Live presentations by The Aspen Times, part of a “Virtual Culinary Weekend,” wine lovers were able to glean some great wine knowledge from local talent in the Roaring Fork Valley. The events also raised money for the Aspen Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Relief Program through donations and a virtual run.

But beyond the fundraising and edification, the live video elements (which you can still watch on The Aspen Times’ Facebook page) offered an homage to what is the foundation of the Classic: passionate professionals gathering to share knowledge, fine foods, great wines and personal stories.

Appropriately, the weekend kicked off on the terrace of the Little Nell’s Paepcke Suite at the base of Ajax with iconic gondola cars floating down the mountainside in the background. Matt Zubrod, culinary director at the Nell and his wine counterpart, Chris Dunaway, spoke nostalgically for those who would not be here in person this year, then gave a masterful seminar on pairing fish with a quartette of wines.

In honor of World Oceans Day, which promotes the sustainable utilization of seafood, Zubrod created dishes using a whole sea bream, a fish often overlooked in high-end kitchens.

Dunaway went with a Clos Cibonne Cuvée Tradition Tibouren 2017 Côtes de Provence, and no, I had never heard of the wine either. He explained the way in which this cuvée, a blend of 90% tibouren and 10% grenache, was made, and how the salinity of the wine complimented the fish. “When you pair wine with a crudo,” he noted, “you don’t want the wine to have too much exuberance.”

The story helped make this combination one you wanted to taste.

The same location was the scene as Johnny Ivansco of Sopris Liquors and Wines launched a seminar with Perrin Wolfe of The Old World Wine Co. on the differences between Old World and New World Wines. Ivansco told a tale of being in Burgundy during a freeze and seeing the entire commune come together to light fires and protect the vines.

We were again reminded of the tenor of the times on Saturday afternoon. Wendy Mitchell, owner of Meat & Cheese in Aspen, hosted a split Zoom seminar from her home, where she has been quarantined since coming in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. She is not ill — her upbeat positivity and demeanor was inspirational. And her cheese and wine pairings looked delicious.

Sitting on the very Parisian-looking patio in front of Meat & Cheese were Perrin Wolfe, making a second appearance, and Natural Wine Company’s Chris Schaetzle. The pair provided the perfect foil for Mitchell as they opened and explained the nuances of natural wines and the budding “Pet Nat” movement of slightly spritzy wines that are made using non-interventional ancient techniques.

As Chris popped the top on a crown-capped, non-disgorged Birichino Malvasia Bianca wine from Santa Cruz, California, Wendy sliced into a Los Cameros, mixed milk cheese (cow, goat and sheep) from Rioja, Spain.

“This is a sessionable cheese,” she laughed, parroting a phrase used by beer makers for an easy brew. It was a pure Food & Wine moment.

The weekend ended with magic from Aspen favorite Jimmy Yeager, who indulged in a private passion: making pristine ice spheres for cocktails from a massive block of frozen water. Measuring 2-by-2 inches, these spheres “are the sexiest ice there is and the process to make them is Zen-like,” says Jimmy. The Iceman clearly cometh.

Just four Zoom sessions, but it felt like we could have gone all weekend with the local talent found in this valley. Tune in. Maybe this could become a thing.