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From Aspen to South Beach: The best food and wine festivals

Kelly J. HayesAspen Times Weekly

The twin hulls of the catamaran cut through the azure waters of the Caribbean as the captain sets a course towards Stingray City. On deck, superstar chef Eric Ripert, who captains the kitchen at New York’s famed fish palace, Le Bernardin, explains in a thick French accent the simple recipe for the conch ceviche that he will prepare shortly for those on board after they swim with the sting rays.It was just another fabulous day at another fabulous food and wine festival, this one in the Cayman Islands.These days, there seems to be a food and wine festival in every city and resort community in America. They have become ubiquitous as local chambers of commerce and luxury hotel chains conspire to capture high-end, high-dollar visitors who want to mingle and meet chefs and winemakers.The festivals are successful because they are fun. Take people who love to eat and drink, combine them with an industry that specializes in hospitality and voila! You have a happening.Of course, this was not always the case. There was a time not long ago when The Joy of Cooking was the best-selling cookbook, chefs labored in obscurity and the only people who subscribed to food magazines were cult cooks who likely had been to France. That began to change in the early 1980s. In Berkeley, Calif., Alice Waters began a movement at her Chez Panisse restaurant that emphasized fresh, local ingredients and simple presentations. In Santa Monica, Calif., Michael McCarty, with Chef Jonathan Waxman, introduced contemporary art, casual outdoor dining and California cuisine at his eponymous restaurant. Across town, Wolfgang Puck was changing the concept of high-end dining, first at Patrick Terrail’s Ma Maison, then at his own Spago, above the Sunset Strip. And in New York, Larry Forgione had just opened “An American Place,” celebrating the regional foods of the country.They were heady times indeed. And at the same time in Snowmass, Colo., local wine merchant Gary Plumley and two friends, Bob and Ruth Kevan, who owned Chez Grandmere in Snowmass, started to noodle with the notion of a summer wine tasting event to bring visitors to the mountain resort. On June 17, 1983, the Aspen/Snowmass International Wine Classic made its debut. Sponsored by American Express, the event drew 150 paying customers, according to The Aspen Times.”We had 22 wineries and literally had to pull people off the street to come and taste,” laughed Plumley many years later. Each summer the crowds grew a little bigger and the wines a little more plentiful, until 1987 when the local of Chamber of Commerce, which had purchased the event, signed a sponsorship deal with Food & Wine Magazine. The magazine quickly began to put its imprint on the festival, with food becoming a much bigger part of the equation. At the time, there was no template for such an event. But with Julia Child, perhaps the most significant figure in modern American cuisine, on board, and Jacques Pepin, who to this day is the esteemed godfather of the Food & Wine Classic, alongside Child, a formula was created.It seems pretty simple now. Hold a weekend event in a beautiful place. Invite the world’s best chefs and winemakers. Sell tickets to the general public. Have a grand tasting in the center of town where everyone can meet and mingle. Conduct breakout seminars with chefs preparing foods under mirrored ceilings and wine experts leading tastings. But before Aspen, the concept simply didn’t exist.Christina Grdovic, vice president and publisher of Food & Wine Magazine, has been to 15 Classics. At her debut in the early 1990s, long before she began her career with the magazine, she poured Spanish wines in the tent.”Aspen absolutely set the standard for other events,” she remarked recently. “When we first started to talk to the people in South Beach, for example, about becoming involved in their event, they said to us ‘Aspen is the mold.'”Other events have emerged and excelled at creating their own personality, but clearly Grdovic has a soft spot for Aspen.”I think the town has a lot to do with how successful Aspen is,” she says. “It creates an intangible vibe. There is an intimacy. You might be walking down the street next to Jacques (Pepin) or Danny (Meyer). It is almost impossible to have an exact copy because other places don’t have the size and the charm of Aspen.”Ah, but there are other events that have their own charm. And if you have fallen in love with food, wine and the people who make both, there are ample opportunities to travel to great events. Here is a sampling of some of the best.

In just eight years, the SoBe event in Miami Beach, Fla., has become the de facto big dog of food and wine events. With television’s Food Network and publishing’s Food & Wine Magazine as sponsors, a veritable who’s who of first-name-only culinary stars make the scene. This year Rachel (Ray), Martha (Stewart), Emeril (Lagasse), Bobby (Flay), Paula (Deen) and, well … you get the picture … all hosted events.More than 53,000 people participated (10 times the number that attend in Aspen), including the king and queen of Spain and Florida’s governor. It’s Food & Wine on steroids. Basalt local Devin Padgett, who has been the logistical point person at the Aspen Classic for the last two decades, is the ringleader (or managing director) of this multi-faceted circus.Some $4 million in tickets were sold to the South Beach festival, with events ranging from the “Kellogg’s Kidz Kitchen” mini-fest, which draws 12,000 children, to the more intimate Screaming Eagle Wine Tasting, where folks paid a grand apiece (not including tax and service) to sample six vintages of the cult Cabernet Sauvignon. Next year’s event will be held February 25-28. Information can be found at sobefest.com.

If there is a rising star on the festival circuit it is certainly Pebble Beach. Just two years young, the event has generated huge buzz. Location, of course, has much to do with it. The Del Monte Forest on the Monterey Peninsula is one of the choice spots in all the world and guests at hotels like The Inn at Spanish Bay and the Lodge at Pebble Beach were pampered in high style. And it didn’t hurt that the sun shone brightly on the Pacific for the entire 4-day run. “We love Aspen,” said Jim Velarde, vice president of brand relations for Coastal Luxury Management, which stages the event. “We look at it as the place that created the kind of event that we wanted to put on. But we are in the heart of California’s wine and culinary culture, and thought we could put our own spin and flair on our event and our location.”Billed as “The Premier Epicurean Lifestyle Event in the Country,” it makes the most of its surroundings. At the opening tee-off, Cristal was poured for guests on the first tee of the Pebble Beach Golf Links; the likes of Thomas Keller from Napa’s French Laundry and New York’s Per Se, and Top Chef’s Tom Collichio joined the guests for a round of golf.The wine tastings were all first-rate, as former Bordeaux ambassador and current Sherry-Lehman wine educator Robin Kelly O’Connor presided over an offering of the 1959 Bordeaux vintage. Dinners featured a presentation of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred chefs, including last year’s Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef Douglas Keane of Cyrus in Healdsburg, Calif.All in all, perfection was the word from those who attended. Next year’s event is scheduled for April 8-11 and you can get on an information list at pebblebeachfoodandwine.com.

Another new event with just two years under its belt is the Cayman Cookout, held on Grand Cayman in the middle of January in the middle of the Caribbean. I repeat – in the Caribbean in January. It is a perfect time for sun, sand and sea, and this event focuses on all three.The previously mentioned Eric Ripert, in addition to his role at Le Bernardin, also has a restaurant called Blue in The Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Grand Cayman, where he hosts this seafood-centric festival. The opening event – on the beach, of course – featured a well-dressed crowd in bare feet as they feasted on a variety of dishes made with local fish and island-grown ingredients. Fresh, simple and revelatory. As the calypso band played, guests sampled cuisine from Dallas chef Dean Fearing and Laurent Tourondel, who has turned his BLT brand into an empire.Regional cuisine and local products resonate with Ripert, and the Cayman Cookout emphasizes the culinary tradition of the Caribbean. The wine presentation included the beguiling Laura Catena, who brought her family wines from Argentina, and there was a seminar hosted by Joy Spence, the master blender for Appleton Jamaica Rum.The catamaran trip to Stingray City, with Ripert in the galley, was as pure a food experience as can be imagined. Swimming with the beautiful rays – yes, they have stingers but rarely sting unless seriously provoked – in the crystal clear, bathtub-temperature water while Eric prepared fresh conch ceviche for lunch … it gets no better.Just announced dates for 2010 are January 15-18. For more information, go to caymanislands.ky/cayman_cookout

Most food and wine gatherings take place in summer locales, but Vail has for the past 19 years produced one of the great winter/spring events. The Taste of Vail is a 4-day festival with a picnic and tasting on top of Vail Mountain in April.Guests can purchase tickets for the entire event or just for the picnic, and it is a blast. At the top of the Lionshead gondola, snowcats wait to ferry hungry and thirsty skiers who have had a full morning playing in the powder (this year featured more than a foot of fresh snow in the famed Back Bowls) to a “snow-fort” with a view of the entire Vail Valley. The scene is exquisite and the crowd goes from station to station around the outskirts of the fortress, sampling fare from local restaurants: barbecue, fish tacos, elk, lamb.In the center is a tent with winemakers, most from California and many who come because it is a slow time in the vineyards and a great time to get in some turns. All communal tastings have a good vibe, but there is something special about a tasting at 10,000 feet. Yes, the altitude adds to the buzz.The 2010 dates for Taste of Vail – next year will be the festival’s 20th Anniversary – are April 7- 10. For information, go to tasteofvail.com.


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