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WineInk: A Global Tasting

Ray Isle’s ‘Judgment of Aspen’

By Kelly J. Hayes
On the dais of the 'Judgment of Aspen' seminar are (from left to right) Ray Isle, executive wine editor for Food & Wine Magazine, Braiden Albrecht, winemaker for Mayacamas Vineyards and Winery and Andrew Latta founder of Latta Wines.
Kaya Williams

It may have been the sublime sunny Sunday scene at the nearly full River Tent following a rollicking Saturday eve of over-indulgence that made the morning a little more special. Perhaps it was the soothing sounds of the Roaring Fork River flowing serenely just outside the seminar tent. Or maybe it was the welcoming, gracious, early morning enthusiasm shown by host Ray Isle and his guests as he conducted a seminar titled “The Judgment of Aspen.”

Whatever the reason, or perhaps because of all three, the Cabernet Sauvignon wine tasting on the final Sunday of the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen was one of the most engaging wine hours that I have spent in my many years (27 or so) at the Classic. And all of it was over before noon.

Oh, and of course, there were wines. Great wines. “The Judgment of Aspen” was a concept that provided Ray the opportunity to show off Cabernet Sauvignon from around the world. Placed in front of each attendee at the seminar sat glasses of Cabernet from six different countries on four different continents. It was a veritable journey around the world in eight glasses.



Ray Isle is the executive wine editor for Food & Wine magazine and has been a figure — and a force — both at the Classic and in wine since at least 2005, when he joined the publication. Over the years, I have come to know and appreciate him not just for his wine chops, but also for his writing style. That should come as no surprise, as he does hold an master’s degree in creative writing from Boston University, my own alma mater.

Beyond Ray’s skills as a scribe, he has a way with people, an appreciation of history and an aversion to those who believe that wine should be an insider’s game, only for the pretentious or wealthy. His egalitarian way of looking at wine as a shared experience has always appealed to my sensibilities. It was these attributes he brought to his “The Judgment of Aspen” seminar.




Ray’s inspiration for the seminar goes back nearly five decades. In 1976, an ambitious young British wine merchant and educator named Steven Spurrier organized a famed wine tasting in Paris. Held on the Fourth of July of America’s Bicentennial year, Spurrier blind-tasted some of the most esteemed French wine authorities in a side-by-side comparison of French and American wines. Inexplicably, two American wines, the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, both from the 1973 vintage, took first-place honors. The tasting changed the world of wine and has become the template for tastings ever since. The event became known as the Judgment of Paris.

Riffing off the “Judgment” concept, Ray selected the eight Cabs for the event.

“My point wasn’t so much to crown a ‘winner’ as to show people that there are really great Cabernet regions around the world, and that the wine you think you like the best might not actually be the one you like the best when you put them in a line and taste them together,” he said of his selections.

At Ray’s seminar, there were three wines from the United States: the 2018 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Napa Valley, the 2018 Cornell Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County and the Figgins Estate Walla Walla Red Wine from Washington State. Though very young and a bit tight, each of the three were terrific wines.

The international selections included two wines from South America: a 2019 Concha y Toro Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2013 Zuccardi Family Finca de los Membrillos Mendoza from Argentina, the oldest wine in the tasting. A 2019 Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon from the Margaret River region represented Australia. A pair of European wines were also poured: the 2016 Le Macchiole Paleo Rosso from the Bolgheri region of Tuscany and a 2015 Château Talbot Grand Cru Classé Saint-Julien from the motherland of Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux. If you were to buy these wines at retail to duplicate the tasting, assuming you could find all of them, it would cost around $1,100.

Two esteemed West Coast winemakers joined Ray on the dais in front of the 80 or so sippers in the crowd.

“Braiden Albrecht is the winemaker for Mayacamas Vineyard, one of the great, historic Napa Valley estates, located high up on Mount Veeder, and Andrew Latta (Latta Wines) makes some of my favorite Washington State Rhône-style wines. His Upland Vineyard Grenache, which I used in my potato chip pairing seminar, is stellar,” Ray said about his guest “judges.” “I picked Braiden and Andrew because they both have red hair,” he joked.

It was obvious he holds both in high esteem.

“Braiden’s a super-talented young guy with an incredibly bright future ahead of him,” Ray said. “He’s a terrific winemaker, who’s helped usher in a new era for Mayacamas after the retirement of longtime owner Bob Travers, one of the first people I ever interviewed for a wine story, a million years ago. Andrew and I met several years ago at Taste Washington in Seattle. We were on a panel together, and I was blown away both by his articulate, thoughtful way of speaking about wine — a lot of winemakers get way too technical way too quick in front of an audience — and also by his wines, which are terrific.”

The lineup of eight wines from the ‘Judgment of Aspen’ tasting await their judgment.
Kelly Hayes

Together, the trio led the audience’s tasting through the wines, discussing their individual impressions of each and talking about the variations in growing regions for Cabernet Sauvignon. While things occasionally got a bit geeky, say when the conversation turned toward Brett, (Brettanomyces, a type of yeast commonly found in wineries, which has the potential to produce volatile phenol compounds that can damage a wine) for the most part it came across as a casual conversation amongst friends.

The high-elevation Finca-Los-Membrillos vineyard is the source of the beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon from Zuccardi in Argentina that was poured in the ‘Judgment of Aspen’ tasting at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.
Courtesy: Zuccardi Winery

The wines, though all made from the same grape, were subtly different and varied by region. For example, there was a hint of a pleasant, minty herbaceous character in the Moss Wood wine, while the Chateau Talbot, which was blended with a healthy portion of Merlot, felt softer on the palate then some of the other wines. Both the Don Melchor and the Argentine Zuccardi wine had a purity and earthiness that I truly enjoyed.

At the end of the tasting, a showing of hands indicated that a slight majority of the audience preferred the Cornell Vineyards wine from the west slope of the Mayacamas mountains in Sonoma County as their favorite wine of the tasting. My seatmate, an Argentinian, chuckled at the selection and said, “American palate,” referring to the idea that some American wines are picked later in the season, when the sugars rise, to make wines that are perhaps a bit fruity and sweeter. While I did not find that to be the case with the Cornell Cabernet Sauvignon, it was spot-on delicious with firm tannins. His point was valid.

“It was a very informal contest,” Ray said about the results. “And honestly, the audience itself probably split equally between Cornell, Montelena and Don Melchor. The winemakers had Cornell at #1 and #2 between them. I bet if I had polled the audience before the tasting, there’s no way that many people would have said they might pick a Chilean Cabernet over one from Napa Valley, say. Surprising people is part of the fun of doing these seminars; every year I try to pick wines or regions that will leave some people walking out of the tent thinking, ‘Wow — I’ve gotta find some of that wine to drink at home.’”

And that really was the point of “The Judgment of Aspen.” Not to rank or rate wines in a competitive manner, but rather to expose people to the beauty of great Cabernet Sauvignon from across the globe and arouse passion for the wines.

Mission accomplished.

Under the Influence

2013 Zuccardi Family Finca de los Membrillos, Mendoza Argentina

 So, when a show of hands was called for in the voting, mine shot up for wine #4, the Zuccardi entry from the mountains of Mendoza.

I had met with the winemaker, Sebastian Zuccardi, at a tasting of his wines the day before and was blown away, both by his dedication to making wines of substance and purpose, and by the wines themselves. Zuccardi’s wines are fermented in concrete “eggs” (see photo) that impart, in his view, no flavor or substance that will interfere with the natural flavors of the fruit, as it was sourced from the vines. Clarity and precision are a noble goal, but hard to define. Sebastian’s wine do so.  

These concrete eggs are used to make the wines in Sebastian Zuccardi’s modern winery in Mendoza, Argentina.
Courtesy Sebastian Zuccardi
Under the Influence

2013 Zuccardi Family Finca de los Membrillos, Mendoza Argentina

So, when a show of hands was called for in the voting, mine shot up for wine #4, the Zuccardi entry from the mountains of Mendoza.

I had met with the winemaker, Sebastian Zuccardi, at a tasting of his wines the day before and was blown away, both by his dedication to making wines of substance and purpose, and by the wines themselves. Zuccardi’s wines are fermented in concrete “eggs” (see photo) that impart, in his view, no flavor or substance that will interfere with the natural flavors of the fruit, as it was sourced from the vines. Clarity and precision are a noble goal, but hard to define. Sebastian’s wine do so.

 

2013 Zuccardi Family Finca de los Membrillos, Mendoza Argentina
Courtesy Zuccardi Winery
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