WineInk: The magic of the Classic |

WineInk: The magic of the Classic

A look forward ... and behind

Kelly J. Hayes
People walk about outside the Grand Tasting tent at the Food & Wine Classic in 2022, at Wagner Park in downtown Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

As it is the middle of the offseason here in the Rockies, it is a perfect time to consider the coming summer of wine and to glance back at some summer memories gone by.

Summer is the best of seasons in Wine Country. It is the time when the grapes do all the work. Hopes are high for a bountiful harvest, and there is a little time to rest a bit and let nature do its thing. For wine drinkers, it is the season for sipping lighter-style wines. Rosé rules under the summer sun, and this year, it seems that Sauvignon Blanc will also have a moment. Bucket-cooled sparkling wines always refresh in the heat of the day or for sunset contemplation and celebration. For those who just want to keep drinking red wine, the lighter style, cool-climate Pinot Noirs from the Sonoma Coast or the fresh and fruity Gamay wines from Beaujolais can do the trick.

I have a couple of West Coast wine trips coming up — to the Pacific Northwest and to California’s Central Coast — and will be looking to indulge and report back on wines that are new to me and hopefully of interest to you. Summer wine travel is a blessing, as the days are long and the vibe is mellow.

But it is the 40th anniversary edition of the Food & Wine Classic that is circled in red on my calendar. Yes, that circle around June 16-18 came from the stained foot of a glass. I have been attending the Classic for three decades of those years, and I doubt that without it being such an integral part of the Aspen summer season this column would exist.

Donald Ziraldo and Gianluca Bisol toast the Classic.
Courtesy photo

When WineInk debuted in 2007, an initiative offered up by then-Aspen Times Editor Bob Ward, it was based on the correct premise that Aspen is a significant wine town. Much of that thinking had to do with the annual presence of America’s foremost culinary and wine event. He knew that Aspen had a world-class collection of sommeliers, collectors, and wine lists, but he also recognized the importance of the Food & Wine Classic to the community. The Aspen Daily News at that time already had a wine column written by Brenda Francis, and it was an honor to begin the process of chronicling the wine scene in this town and writing more broadly about all things wine.

Since that time, I have not have missed a Classic and have embraced the opportunities it provides each summer. You see, instead of having to actually travel to visit winemakers and taste their wines on their turf, the most esteemed wine producers in the world come here for three days each year and bring their best stuff to, well, my turf. It has always been a compressed and challenging three days in many ways, but the chance to meet so many legends and taste and talk through their wines has been a privilege and an education.

So many people and so many wines, it is actually hard to know where to begin. I guess the tents may be the best place. I have never toured the great wine regions of Spain, something on the must-do list; but thanks to the annual Wines of Spain activation that is a staple in the Grand Tasting Pavilion, I can tell my Albariño from my Mencía. That’s pronounced “Men-thee-ah” and is an aromatic red wine that comes from the northwest corner of Spain. Each year, I try to spend the best part of an hour tasting the top and absorbing as much knowledge as I can from those who pour the wines in my glass.

Randy Ullom and the Kendall Jackson team ski during the Classic.
Courtesy photo

For many summers, I have been lucky to spend time at the Classic with winemakers who became not just friends, but also in some cases, ski buddies as well.

Donald Ziraldo is a Canadian winemaker who produced what is arguably the most famous wines ever to come from up north. The Inniskillin late-harvest Ice wines that he founded were my first experience with Canadian juice. Well, other than Labbats. And tasting the wines made me think different, as the saying goes, about the passion winemakers can have for producing niche wines. I have spent many hours since with the Donald on chairlifts talking about the extraordinary nectar that are Canadian Ice wines.

I’ve also had the chance, during the Classic in 2019, to make turns on Aspen Mountain with the team from Jackson Family Wines, headed by their illustrious and esteemed winemaker Randy Ullom. Ullom, one of the most recognizable personalities in wine, has a big job overseeing the production of the global vineyards of Kendall Jackson, but that didn’t keep him away from the slopes of Aspen mountain that June Sunday after it opened for the Classic weekend, thanks to prodigious snowfall. Ullom has been coming to pour wines at the Classic for close to 30 years and is an example of a winemaker who has become part of the fabric of the Classic.

The late, great Terry Leighton was a fixture at the Food & Wine Classic.
Courtesy photo

And then there are the characters. The story of Charles Bieler taking a tour of the country in a 1966 Pink Cadillac de Ville to promote his Rosé was priceless — even if the car burned before it could make it down Aspen’s Main Street. And how about Italy’s Gianluca Bisol, the best-dressed man in any and every tent, who produces some of the finest Prosecco on the planet? He brought his Venissa wines produced from an ancient and nearly extinct grape called Dorona to Aspen for an epic debut. He makes this wine on an island off of Venice and labels it with a sheet of gold leaf. Amazing stuff.

I’ll never forget time spent sipping aged wines with Marin County winemaker Terry Leighton of Kalin Cellars. For years, he came to the Classic with his wife, Frances, to pour their minuscule production of white wines that spent years aging before release, as they believed that time made better wine. “Wine is a journey,” Terry liked to say as he poured just a bit of a 20-year-old Chardonnay into a glass of a novice taster. He passed away this past February, but his spirit will hover over the Grand Pavilion.

­­­And that’s just from the Grand Tasting. There have been extraordinary seminars and wine dinners and visits to the Mine and pig pulls … I could go on and may well do so in a future column. But as we sit here in the middle of offseason, I reflect back on the first line in that first WineInk in 2007 that read: “I’m a lucky guy.” And I am, especially during the summer.  


Whispering Angel

It was around 2009 that I first remember seeing the pink-hued wines behind the labels that featured cherubic angels. Of all the things that I have witnessed in my time attending the Classic, nothing has been as amazing as the rise of Whispering Angel and other Rosé wines in the public consciousness.

“I used to have to beg people to try Rosé at the Food & Wine Classic,” said Paul Chevalier, then with a company called Shaw-Ross Imports, who represented the wines. “Now we are amongst the most popular wines under the tent.”

Make that the world. Whispering Angel literally came of age over successive summers at the Classic.

Paul Chevalier launched Whispering Angel at Food & Wine.
Courtesy photo
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