Aspen Times Weekly: Jimmy’s wine man | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: Jimmy’s wine man

by Kelly J. Hayes

JIMMY’S WINE CHALLENGE

Want to play? It’s really pretty simple.

At your request, the Jimmy’s staff will pour you a glass of wine. Blind.

Taste it. Identify it correctly and the glass is on Jimmy’s.

Ah, but there are variations to make it a bit more challenging. For example:

Guests are invited to choose between a “low stakes” wine or a “high stakes” wine with a by-the-glass price ranging from $20 to $100. The guest is given a card that corresponds to the blind pour with either the name of the grape or region or the actual names of the wines.

Low-stakes bidders can simply guess the grape or the region, such as French Pinot Noir or California Cabernet Sauvignon. The high-stakes option is a bit tougher. You may have a Barolo, a Barbaresco or a Brunello in the glass. You have to name the wine. Get it right, and the glass is on the house.

Regardless of whether or not you get the correct answer, you will have thought a little deeper about the wine and be assured that whatever is poured will be worthy of the price you paid.

Let’s face it, the only thing better than a free glass of wine is a free glass of GREAT wine. And if you are willing to wager a few bucks on your wine knowledge at Jimmy’s, An American Restaurant & Bar — and your palate can back it up — you just may be getting that glass of great wine for free.

That’s the deal in the new Jimmy’s Wine Challenge, offered nightly, tableside, by Greg Van Wagner, wine and beverage director at Jimmy’s and Jimmy’s Bodega, along with the restaurant’s sommelier, Perrin Wolfe. “We thought it would be fun to offer guests a chance to taste some of our great wines by the glass and give them an opportunity to show their wine knowledge. Oh, and a great glass of Barolo on us is fun as well.”

In some places, something like the Wine Challenge (see box for details) may seem like a promotion or a gimmick. But at Jimmy’s, and its sister restaurant Jimmy’s Bodega, no gimmicks are allowed. This is just one way that Aspen’s most uniquely hometown restaurant has fun with its friends and guests.

Van Wagner’s Journey in Wine

Jimmy Yeager opened what may be Aspen’s most iconic restaurant nearly two decades ago in one of the town’s primo spaces. While it has become recognized nationally as an outstanding bar and cocktail destination, insiders have long known that it has a serious wine program as well. That program was kicked up a notch in 2014 when Jimmy hired Greg Van Wagner to focus on the cellar.

A Pennsylvania native, the affable and handsome Van Wagner brought exemplary restaurant bona fides to the position with a background that began with a lucky break. “I came to Boulder, Colorado, to ride bikes,” said the former team racer. “I needed a job and saw an opening on Craigslist for a front of the house spot at Frasca Food and Wine and went in to interview.”

There he met Bobby Stuckey, one of Frasca’s founders, a Master Sommelier and the 2013 winner of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service. “It’s where I first learned about wine and there is no place better to learn ‘best habits’ early,” Van Wagner said of his experience as a server and bartender. “Everybody gets such strong wine exposure and an education there.” He was also fortunate to be included in a staff excursion to the Friuli region of Italy, the source of many of the wines that appear on Frasca’s wine list.

Fully committed to a life in hospitality, Van Wagner went to Boulder’s Oak at 14th for two years where he ran an innovative wine and cocktail program, and then landed in Aspen at the Little Nell’s Element 47, where he toiled as the maître d’hôtel for two years. “Again a great experience with another amazing restaurant and a great wine program,” he said.

He took the position at Jimmy’s after spending time with the Yeager and is now focused on building the wine program and working with the already outstanding spirits program. Van Wagner recently returned from a whirlwind trip to France and Italy with Jimmy’s staff and is intensely involved in his preparation for the Advanced Sommelier exam, which he will take next month in Portland.

JIMMY’S WINE PROGRAM

There are a number of things about the Jimmy’s wine program that make it unique. “First, we have ‘American’ in our name so we take pride in pouring the best wines form California, Oregon and Nevada,” explained Van Wagner. “Also, we like to go deep and make sure that we have vintages and verticals. You can find real value in, say, California cabs from the ’90s which can be much less expensive than Bordeaux.”

That’s not to say that they shirk their global responsibilities. In Aspen, a great list must include the wines of the world’s top wine regions, like Bordeaux, Piemonte and Priorat. “We also like to have a sliding scale when we price our wines so that the mark-up is reduced a bit as the price of the wines rise,” Van Wagner said. “That allows someone to have a great experience and maybe try wine that is perhaps a little more expensive.”

And Jimmy’s will sell any bottle on their list as a half bottle, at half the price. “Let’s say you just flew in from L.A. or San Francisco or New York, and you’ve just come up to the high altitude. You feel like a great glass or two of wine to celebrate but a whole bottle will be too much,” says Van Wagner. “Just order a bottle. Tell us you want half of it, we’ll decant it for you and put the rest under Corvin (a stopper that preserves already opened wine) and sell it by the glass.”

There also is a “Personal Experiences” section of the list. It is here that Jimmy and Greg write a few notes about the people and wines that they have experienced on their sojourns to different wineries and regions. It personalizes the list and brings a sense of place to the wines.

All that and a shot at a free glass of wine. Time to take the Wine Challenge.

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


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