One Great Wine Town
“Where can I get a good glass of wine around here?”
Well, this week, the answer to that question is “Just about anywhere!”
With the arrival of the 40th anniversary edition of the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, it will be nearly impossible not to partake in the pleasure of a good glass of wine. From the tents, hosting over 30 wine centric seminars led by some the most learned and engaging wine pros on the planet, to the Grand Tasting Pavilion in Wagner Park, where you will find over 1,000 selections to fill your glass, quality wine will be available in prodigious proportions.
But what you may not know is that for the other 51 weeks of the year, it is just as easy to get a good glass, or bottle, of wine in Aspen. Though comparatively small, Aspen is one of the great wine towns in all of America. In an area encompassing six blocks, you’ll find any number of outstanding wine lists, and more importantly, a collection of passionate world-class sommeliers who have built a legacy in this town. They cater to a sophisticated community of collectors and wine aficionados who share their passion for great juice.
If you have been to the Classic before, you likely have experienced some of the great wine opportunities available. But if you are new to this, there are a few places — and people — you should know.
Let’s start with the venerable wine shop, Of Grape and Grain. Located in a cozy, compact nook on South Monarch Street opposite Matsuhisa, the shop has been serving the Aspen community since it was founded by Gary Plumley in 1975. Oh, and he was also the co-founder of the Aspen/Snowmass Food & Wine Festival 40 years ago, the predecessor of the Classic as we know it. The shop is a gem with an eclectic collection of fine wines, spirits, and beers, many of them sourced from limited allocations. It is akin to walking into a small bespoke bookstore and stumbling across that one book you have heard of but never found. Plumley is still around. If you spot the diminutive, bearded wine lifer, be sure to say hello and thank him for his contribution to Aspen and the Classic.
Just across the street, down under in Matsuhisa, another Aspen wine legend holds court. Jay Fletcher is one of this town’s and American wine’s most well regarded sommeliers. (As if you really needed another reason to stop into the Aspen outpost of Nobu Matsuhisa’s famed Japanese culinary empire, the presence of Fletcher is it.) Arriving in Aspen in the early 1990s with a pool cue and a lust for the outdoors, he found wine was his calling and passed the Court of Master Sommelier exam in 1996 at London’s Dorchester Hotel. He has since had a storied career that included on-the-floor stints at some of Aspen’s most revered restaurants and a position as executive director of fine wines for Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits.
But it is Fletcher’s role as a mentor that has cemented his status. “The Wizard of Juan Street,” as he has been called, has tutored countless young sommeliers who have traveled far and wide to taste with him and hone their skills in preparation for their own master’s exams. Take a seat at a table or at the sushi bar at Matsu, as locals call it, and you’ll likely be greeted by him. Get ready for world–class wine service.
One of those young sommeliers who tasted with Fletcher before passing the rigorous masters exam is Wine Director Maddy Jimerson, who runs the outstanding wine program at Casa Tua. For those who love the wines of Italy, there few places anywhere that offer a selection like that found in the rustic alpine chalet on the Galena Street Mall. She is a true Italo-phile with a broad palate and a deep knowledge of Italy’s vast wine landscape.
“While my first love is Nebbiolo, I have a soft spot for Frappato and Zibibbo,” she writes in her bio referencing the great grape of Piedmont and more obscure wines from Sicily.
Prior to taking her talents to Casa Tua, Jimmerson spent quality time working the floor at Cache-Cache with Wine Director Alex Harvier. A native Parisian, he has overseen a stellar cellar that features over 7,000 bottles and 1,300 individual selections on a 100+ page list. The garden level bistro has not just survived, but thrived for over 35 years as the wine program evolved, carrying a broad selection of classic wines from the world’s most acclaimed vintners and hosting a dynamic by-the-glass program. If bubbles float your boat, he has one of the best Champagne lists anywhere.
Also below street level is the relatively new (It opened last fall), locally-owned Parc Aspen in the space formerly occupied by L’Hostaria on Hyman Avenue. Aspen wine afficionados have responded enthusiastically to the beverage program curated by Wine and Beverage Director Greg Van Wagner, who has a long history with wine in Aspen, having led the program at the late lamented Jimmy’s for years. His new wine list features an extraordinary selection of Bordeaux and bubbles, as well as many global gems. Ask for a glass of the Ajax Cellars Chardonnay Van Wagner makes in Oregon’s Willamette Valley with partner Evan Martin of Martin Woods Wines.
And let’s not forget the hotels. This month, Wine Spectator featured a cover story on the burgeoning Auberge Resorts, which is the managing company of Aspen’s historic Hotel Jerome. Founded in 1889, the hotel is a must stop for any visitor for a glass of wine in The Living Room or the Prospect Restaurant, a cocktail in the Bad Harriet speakeasy and/or a beer in the famed J-Bar. The wine list is operated under the auspices of the talented Christel Stiver, who has spent a decade crafting and creating a selection of wines that has been awarded a Best of Award of Excellence by the aforementioned Wine Spectator.
Of course, the most storied wine program in the Rockies is found across town at The Little Nell hotel, which has seen 13 of its staff achieve master sommelier status over the years. The Element 47 restaurant’s wine list is a veritable encyclopedia for those who are interested in the top vintages of the world’s most esteemed wines. The cellar features 20,000+ wines from classic producers and regions with multiple vintages from many of the world’s most prestigious names, such as Roulot and Romanée-Conti in Burgundy and Ridge and Screaming Eagle in California. Element 47 is often the setting for winemaker dinners with iconic wine personalities. This weekend, Wine Director Chris Dunaway and his team will host Gaia Gaja of the iconic GAJA winery family for just one of many exceptional wine dinners that will take place in Aspen during the Classic.
That’s just a taste of the talent in this town. Raise a glass to Jill Carnevale at her Ellina, or savor a Barolo at Duemani or Acquolina with one of the two Carloses (Solorzano-Smith and Valenzuela), ask Tim Bean for a recommendation from the Casa d’Angelo list, or sip a Pét-nat at Wendy Mitchell’s beloved Meat & Cheese. And be sure to toast Oliver Jaderko if you make the pilgrimage to the Caribou Club. All will serve you well.
Yes, it is a small town, but Aspen drinks much bigger than its size. Enjoy. You won’t have any trouble finding a great glass of wine.
Jonata “Todos” 2018
Oh, another thing that makes Aspen a great wine town are the collectors and clientele who have homes here. Some collect wineries. Such is the case with Stan Kroenke, who owns Jonata in California. He also owns Screaming Eagle. And this week, he became the first person ever to hoist an O’Brien Trophy, a Stanley Cup, and a Lombardi Trophy when his Denver Nuggets won the NBA Championship. Like his Nuggets, this wine is the sum of its parts. Made by Matt Dees, it includes over a half a dozen grape varieties led by Syrah in what they call a “Vineyard blend.” Rustic, earthy, and thought-provoking, this wine is a winner. Just like the Nuggets.
On a recent September Saturday morning, I awoke with an intense yearning to lose myself in the mountains, disconnect from cell service, and rediscover why I decided to call Aspen home in the first place. Standing there, at the Cathedral Lake trailhead, I knew I was right where I needed to be.