Food & Wine: aged in a mountain town
ASPEN The Food & Wine Magazine Classic has an unmistakable, powerful presence that comes from being aged for 25 years; it is full-bodied, well-balanced and smooth – with a slight sweetness. It’s a small festival, kept in reserve stock for the select few. Capped at 5,000 attendees since 1995, the Classic sells out earlier and earlier every year. It opens Friday and runs through Sunday.Like for a fine wine, prices go up with vintage, and this festival is no exception. A ticket the first year was $185 and a ticket this year was roughly $1,000, depending on time of purchase.Of course, back in 1983, you could still find a quaint bungalow in town for less than a million. All this suggests something of an elite crowd. Indeed, Food & Wine boasts that the average household income of attendees this year is $489,000, with an average net worth of $2.5 million.Put up a table in the grand tasting tent to show your wares, and the tab will be $2,000, not including hotel or airfare. Organizers insist it’s really a bargain because an exhibitor table comes with two passes to the festival. Not surprisingly, the 300 positions in Wagner Park, site of the grand tasting tent, sell out quickly.It’s a sign of the times that the Classic can put on a reserve tasting of Screaming Eagle wines, set for 9:30 a.m. Friday – for an extra $750 – and have it sell out, quickly.
It’s also a sign of the times that a festival organized around consumption – 50,000 bottles of wine in a weekend – is launching numerous green programs this year in an attempt to become more environmentally friendly.Yes, the Food & Wine Classic has matured into a festival seasoned with complicated flavors far different from the modest late-spring party Gary Plumley and friends threw in 1983 – called the Aspen/Snowmass International Wine Classic – when it was but a freshly plucked grape. This year, there are about three times as many volunteers – 900 – as there were attendees at the first event. Plumley, owner of Aspen’s Of Grape & Grain liquor and wine store, ran the festival for the first two years but sold the idea to the chamber resort associations of Aspen and Snowmass after going $60,000 in debt. The Classic, which title sponsor Food & Wine Magazine since 1986, changed from a wine-tasting event into a full-on foodie smorgasbord. The festival hit stride in 1990 when Julia Child was the featured speaker and attendance grew to more than 2,500. Of course, the Classic was never a one-person show, and numerous celebrity chefs have been mainstays since the late ’80s. This year, foodies can watch Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali and a dozen other big names cook a dish or two. In 1995, The New York Times called it the “granddaddy of them all,” and the festival sold out for the first time the next year.
“This isn’t even close to the biggest culinary event and we don’t strive to be the biggest,” said Christina Grdovic, associate publisher of Food & Wine. “It’s all about connecting with other people in the industry.”The small-town atmosphere, and the ease of walking from one event to the next, gives people the opportunity to see one another over and over again. It’s one of the reasons the Classic has worked so well in Aspen, Grdovic said, and one of the reasons for the attendance cap. Devin Padgett, producer of special projects for Food & Wine, said the festival has stayed popular because it stays fresh with new things while keeping essential elements the same each year. He said they try to find out what interests people and feature those things in the event. This year, it’s no surprise that Food & Wine is doing an environmental push. Padgett said that as soon as organizers began looking into the idea, doors opened. “If you look at culture today, that’s what’s happening,” Padgett said. “The trend is towards smaller restaurants, people-focused. … Everyone is trying to save the planet.” Food & Wine has set a goal of raising $1 million for Farm to Table, an organization that supports local farmers and sustainable practices. Four percent of proceeds from passes benefits the campaign. Some of the tents at this year’s Classic are shooting for zero waste with the use of compostable plates and glasses. It’s timely: American food travels an average of 2,000 miles from farm to table, and urban sprawl devours two acres of farmland every minute.
“It’s an evolution, not a revolution,” Padgett said. Apart from the environmental campaign, Food & Wine is sticking to some well-worn paths such as Lagasse showcasing seafood recipes from Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House. Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto will make a debut appearance with sushi and sashimi.New favorite Giada De Laurentiis will discuss home-cooked pasta, and Mario Batali will explore foods of a lesser-known part of Tuscany, La Garfagnana.Padgett and Grdovic talked up some of the wine highlights, such as the Screaming Eagle tasting, a first, and a tasting of the 1982 Bordeaux. Experts will also pair wines with chocolate, cheese and ham. In all, it’s everything attendees have come to expect from the Classic – and a little bit more. The only thing that seemed to faze organizers was that more people couldn’t enjoy the event.”We don’t have enough spots to fulfill everyone’s wishes,” Padgett said, “but that’s part of the Aspen experience as well.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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