Planting roots: How Food & Wine began
Special to The Aspen Times
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in The Aspen Times’ Food & Wine magazine, distributed across town all weekend. Check it out for more features, schedules and insider information on the 35th annual Classic.
“We were pretty quiet in the shoulder seasons,” said Gary Plumley as traffic buzzed by of Grape and Grain and people rushed in to buy wine and liquor for a recent June weekend. “You remember the shoulder seasons, right?”
Back in 1982, America was just waking up to a food and wine revolution. Wolfgang Puck had recently opened the first Spago on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, “Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pepin” had just been released and, in Bordeaux, the negociants were buoyed by one of the epic vintages of the century.
But in the Rockies, things were pretty quiet once the ski lifts shut down. Aspen wine shop owner Plumley and his friends, Snowmass restaurateurs Bob and Ruth Kevan of Chez Grand’mere, thought a cozy, local wine festival might bring some folks to town during those then-long shoulder seasons.
“We had done some dinners pairing food with French wines and they had gone over well,” Gary remembered. “One night over a glass of wine after one of the dinners, I shared my idea with Bob and Ruth: ‘What if we had an early summer wine tasting festival?’”
In June 1983 the Aspen/Snowmass International Wine Classic made its debut, with 50 winemakers pouring wines for just over 300 guests.
“We put up a tent in the parking lot near Snowmass Village, had a tasting in the covered tennis court where the Maroon Creek Club is and also a dessert and wine pairing on the Roaring Fork River under a tent below the Meadows,” he recalled. “We did it all with the help of the volunteers. There were no consultants, no studies. The guests were our focus groups.”
The festival was instantly loved, though it struggled financially. In 1987, Food & Wine Magazine, whixh had become the sponsor a year earlier, rebranded the festival as Aspen/Snowmass Food & Wine Classic. And, as they say, the rest is history.
The magazine began bringing the first generation of celebrity chefs like Puck, Dean Fearing and Jasper White to the tents, along with wine experts like Joshua Wesson, Kevin Zraly and Robert Parker Jr.
“It really opened a whole realm of possibility,” Plumley said. “Suddenly the event was working with these professionals in Manhattan and we were these country bumpkins,” he chuckled. “But we both brought good ideas.”
One of the best ideas was the volunteer program. “That goes back to the very first festival and is still a thing that people love to be a part of.” This year there will be upward of 600 volunteers working the Classic.
Thirty-four years after that first bottle of wine was uncorked at the first festival, many who were there are gone, including the Kevans, longtime stalwarts of the Snowmass Community.
“The hardest part of the event each year is remembering all the great people who are gone now,” the 78-year-old Plumley said wistfully. “When we started my idea was to have just winery owners or winemakers pouring. We made so many great friends.”
This past ski season, Plumley marked his 50th year on the Aspen slopes. In the fall he made another sojourn to the beloved wine regions of southern France, and just this spring he and his wife and dog spent a week camping in the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness of Southern Colorado.
And if you walk into of Grape and Grain, you and can still say hello and buy a bottle of wine from an Aspen legend, Plumley, the man whose plan for a little local wine festival became the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.
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