Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. HayesThe Aspen Times

The blink of an eye. That’s how fast the previous two decades seem to have gone by.But in the restaurant business, 20 years is an eternity. If a restaurant can survive, let alone prosper, for that long, it has done something right. But if it can evolve and remain relevant through time, well then, it is doing something truly special.This week, The Little Nell hotel celebrates its 20th anniversary. And Montagna, the hotel’s restaurant, is pouring some special wines, one from each vintage of the past two decades, to help commemorate the milestone.Since opening its doors in 1989, The Little Nell’s dining room has created and maintained a reputation as one of America’s great dining establishments. Creative chefs like Richard Chamberlain, George Mahaffey, Keith Luce, Bryan Moscatello and the current farm-to-table pioneer Ryan Hardy have brought not just fresh cuisine, but fresh ideas to the kitchen.Yet as treasured as the talents in the kitchen, some of Montagna’s greatest accomplishments may have resulted from the wines and the people who have poured them through the years. First awarded a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 1997 for its list, Montagna today remains one of the top wine destinations in the world. Its cellar includes somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 bottles; the selections not only represent the finest wines from around the globe, but those from the most storied vineyards, the most legendary winemakers and the most desired vintages.Perhaps most astounding has been the talents that have stewarded the wine program and the efforts they have made to educate themselves about their wares. Three Sommeliers in succession, Bobby Stuckey, Richard Betts and Jonathan Pullis, who currently oversees Montagna’s wines, have attained the lofty designation of Master Sommelier while at the hotel. This is a remarkable achievement. Consider that in all the world just 168 people have ever passed the rigorous test, and just 103 Americans have the initials MS following their names. There are other restaurants that hire Masters, but to have a collection of self-made experts like this come through one restaurant is astounding. It could be said that that The Little Nell is “the cradle of Master Sommeliers.”Twenty years ago, Jonathan Pullis was a senior in high school in Weston, Conn., practicing for the state championship swimming finals. His current cohort at Montagna, Dustin Wilson (who is just a test away from becoming the Nell’s fourth MS), was playing kickball as a fifth grader in Maryland. Neither could have conceived at the time that their destinies would be tied to a hotel that was holding its grand opening in the Rocky Mountains.And yet, starting on Dec. 1, the two will preside over one of the most prestigious offerings the hotel has ever undertaken.Twenty years, twenty wines. Beginning with a Vega-Sicilia “Unico,” Ribera del Duero, Spain, 1989, one of the most sought after and prestigious wines ever to come from Spain and ending with, what else, champagne from Krug, Montagna will offer one wine from each year of its storied existence.The iconic regions (Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Barossa Valley), the talented winemakers, (Jean-Louis Chave, Miguel Torres, Richard Betts), the prized vineyards (Monte Bello, Hill of Grace, Clos de la Roche) are all represented in this remarkable collection of wines selected by Pullis and Wilson with input from Bobby Stuckey and Richard Betts. If one had the inclination, the time and the money, 20 nights at Montagna drinking one’s way through the list would be a wonderful way to take a trip around the world.In 20 years, there have innumerable bottles of wine consumed and millions of dollars invested in the opportunity to taste some of the great wines of the world. But perhaps most enduring are the memories, the bottle sipped on a summer night during the Fourth of July fireworks, the splurge on a Christmas Eve, the raucous evenings during the Food & Wine Classic, the engagements, the weddings, the anniversaries.It is these events, all enhanced by great wine, that have made Montagna so special. A toast to The Little Nell. Here is to the next 20 years.And the next 20 vintages.

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

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