WineInk: Aspen — A Wine Spectator destination

Sommelier Chris Dunaway, courtesy The Little Nell.
Sommelier Chris Dunaway

It’s the first week in November, and things are pretty quiet around here in Aspen.

The first storm of the season has coated the mountains with a reported two feet or so of pre-season snow. The airport parking lots are full, as locals take to their off-season getaways. And many of the valley’s restaurants and bars are either shuttered or close to empty. For most, the quiet is a welcome respite between seasons.

If you follow social media — X and Instagram and the like — you can read posts from many of your favorite local wine pros, sellers, buyers, and servers as they travel the globe to wine destinations exploring the vineyards and meeting the producers whose names are prominent on our local lists. For many, this is the best time of year — the end of harvest and just before the ski season starts — to get out amongst it and taste some fine wines. There may be no better place to travel right now than the great wine regions of the world in the late fall.

Of course, for wine lovers, Aspen itself is one of the great travel destinations, as well. This month, Wine Spectator magazine, still the wine industry’s most authoritative publication, just published a current cover story that highlights 10 cities and towns it considers to be must-dos for food and wine right now. Interestingly, the 10 destinations include a number of tourist towns, such as Santa Fe and The Hamptons along with Santa Barbara, Seattle, and Nashville. It also included the town that is becoming our sort of, kind of, sister city: Austin, Texas.

The story, which appears in the Nov. 30 edition of Wine Spectator (on newsstands now), opens with a great teaser photo of a couple sitting at the J-Bar; it’s an excellent start to the section and one of the totally iconic places in Aspen to have a glass of wine. The feature itself, written by Spectator Senior Editor Kristen Bieler, shines a spotlight on The Little Nell, Casa Tua, French Alpine Bistro, Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar, and, of course, the J-Bar at the Hotel Jerome. There is also a graph or two recommending Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) and the Pine Creek Cookhouse as destinations for outdoor adventure.

Bartender William McAlpine pours a glass of champagne for a patron at the J-Bar.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |

The piece provides a nice overview for those who have not been to Aspen or who might perhaps be first-time visitors, but I wish there had been more room to name names and highlight a few more places in town. There is a well-deserved shout out in the Casa Tua write up for Master Sommelier Maddy Jimerson, and it would have been nice to include Sommelier Christel Stiver in recognition of her great list at Prospect at Hotel Jerome and the fine wines that are available in the venerable J-Bar. But I understand the limitations of space in a roundup story that includes 10 destinations.

This column has often noted that Aspen is one of the great wine towns in all of America and what has made that so are the passionate people who work in the trade here, supporting each other in what is an often-competitive environment. Many of places in the community have already been recognized this year by Wine Spectator in its annual Restaurant Awards issue.

For example, The Monarch, Samantha Cordts-Pearce, and Craig Cordts-Pearce’s posh steakhouse has received a Best of Award of Excellence for four straight years. The bar is elegant and professionally run and a perfect place to pair a glass of Heitz Cellar Lot C-91 Napa 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon with a Kansas City Strip. It is the closest thing one will find to an elegant Parisian bistro in Aspen.

And having a glass of wine while sitting at one of the little round tabletops in the bar at Element 47, or while reclining on a sofa and thumbing through a book on mountaineering in the Lounge, or après skiing on the patio at the Ajax Tavern is about more than just awards and numbers of bottles. Each is a quintessential Aspen experience — enhanced by the presence of a knowledgeable wine team under Wine Director Chris Dunaway — that includes sommeliers Jesse Libby, Rachel Ligget-Draper, and Jonathan Koch – all of whom are happy to take guests on a wine journey through the Nell’s extensive list.

Other spots in Aspen honored by Wine Spectator with Restaurant Awards this past year include the French-inspired Betula, Mawa McQueen and husband Daniel Liesener’s Mawa’s Kitchen in the ABC, and Catch Steak. Oh, and Tim Bean, who has continued a long tradition as sommelier at Casa D’Angelo after years of service at Piñons, also is pouring wines from a Best of Award of Excellence list at Angelo Elia’s Italian outpost. All beckon for a stop when you are looking for a great glass of wine and a satiating nibble.

Several of Betula’s hospitable staff – John, Mauro, Justin, and George.
May Selby

But Aspen’s great wine programs and professionals run much deeper than just those that have been bestowed awards. Locals have long known that one of the great Aspen dining experiences can be found at the bar at Ellina on the Hyman Avenue Mall. Longtime Aspen wine superstar Jill Carnevale, who grew up in an Italian family in New York City, continues to provide locals and visitors with the authentic Italian wines that are her passion. A cellar with over 2,000 bottles, heavily populated by her go-to Brunello and Barolo, is a treat to behold.

For a special occasion, the Cache Cache wine program under director Alexandre Harvier FWS and his team presents a well-honed list of the finest wines from the most acclaimed producers in the world’s most significant regions. The list is a veritable who’s who of the wine world’s greats, and the eclectic modern bar is a fine place to post up and indulge.

Of course, when in the mountains, we all should take advantage of the opportunity to sip and savor as we absorb the spectacular views surrounding us. This year, four on-mountain restaurants of the Aspen Skiing Company were also named for Best of Awards by Wine Spectator. Ski-in and take in the views at Sam’s with a glass of Pinot Grigio and a plate of warm ricotta cheese, and you will have a virtual trip to the Dolomites.

Yes, it is the off-season, and the rewards are great. Any publicity for our little wine town is welcomed. But as we all know, there is nothing like a little local knowledge.

Under the Influence: Kermit Lynch 2021 Côtes du Rhône

I may have Under the Influence-d this before, so forgive me – but it is such a comforting wine with a crock pot stew and a crusty hunk of French bread on a cool cloudy eve.
A GSM blend of Grenache, Syrah and plus and Mourvèdre, plus a smidge of a couple more Rhône varieties, the wine is like a book you’ve read before but look forward to picking up again. There may not be a better less-than-$20 wine in the entire shop. Oh, and the photo represents our first “snow shot” of the season. I think they may stay that way for a few months.

More Like This, Tap A Topic
Activities & Events