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WineInk: There’s a new list in town: Las Montañas Wine Program

Kelly J. Hayes
A selection of wines shines on a summer day on the patio of the newly opened Las Montañas in the space formerly occupied by Jimmy's.
Las Montañas

If you follow the Aspen restaurant scene, then you likely know there is a new kid in town. The much-anticipated opening of Las Montañas, the latest Aspen creation of Austin, Texas-based MML Hospitality, took place last week in the location that formerly, and famously, housed Jimmy’s — An American Restaurant and Bar for nearly a quarter century.

While it’s not quite the same as the long ago beloved La Cocina, which packed them in for enchiladas for 33 years (can it be that it has been 17 years since the Lebbys left town?), just across Hopkins Avenue from where Las Montañas stands now, the Tex-Mex cuisine the Austinites are serving up is a welcome addition. Especially if you have the coin for pricy but prodigious fajitas consisting of, say, lobster and/or rib-eye surf and turf, that flirts with three-digit territory. No, this ain’t 1972.

While LaCo, as locals called it for so many years, was lacking in fine wines, Las Montañas’ predecessor Jimmy’s, under wine director Greg Van Wagner (who is now a part of the PARC Aspen team), had an extraordinary wine program. The wines competed for attention alongside Jimmy’s stellar selections of mezcal and tequila, which generated worldwide buzz long before mezcal and tequila were as buzzworthy as they are today.



Part of the challenge for Van Wagner, even with the wine friendly modern American menu served at Jimmy’s, was ensuring that the wines were as much a part of the draw as the Mexican spirits. He succeeded in spades. For many Food & Wine Classics in Aspen, winemakers and wine connoisseurs from around the globe came to talk tequila while they sipped hand-selected Burgundy from Van Wagner’s artfully curated list.

Now, that challenge has been made even more difficult as the Las Montañas folks try to put together a wine program for Tex-Mex cuisine, which cries out for margaritas, both frozen and fresh, and cerveza.




But as we all know, Aspen is a wine town, and Austin-based Patrick Olds, wine director for the 20-plus restaurants that MML Hospitality operates (including Clark’s Aspen), is proving that he is up for that challenge. Olds plans to create a unique and exciting program featuring wines that will both capture the attention of the well-heeled diners and enhance the wine-and-food-pairing experience.

“We have learned from our time here at Clark’s that Aspen has a degree of wine sophistication that is at a really high level. It’s a wonderland of sorts, with curious wine people who love going on wine journeys,” he said.

He’s got that right, both literally and figuratively, as Aspen’s wine folks travel by both Bombardier and in the glass to global wine regions.

Behind the green door at the newly opened Las Montañas, guests find an upscale Tex Mex dining menu to go with the wines on the evolving list.
Kelly Hayes

“In Austin, we also have an open-minded clientele with people who are really receptive to trying new wines. It’s just so much fun to find new wines and new regions for our guests,” Olds said with enthusiasm as a passionate wine professional.

In his initial foray for the still-evolving wine program at Las Montañas, Olds, a certified level III advanced sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers, has created a fun and enticing list that features well-chosen prestige wines from some of the usual suspects, combined with trip-worthy wines from Spain, Argentina and, yes, Mexico. And it is this element, the “surprise wines,” that look like they could make Las Montañas unique in a town filled with great wine lists.

During the media heavy “soft opening” last week, I had an opportunity to pair, at Olds’ suggestion, a Palafox “Pionero” Chenin Blanc from Baja California, with a bitingly fresh octopus aguachile dish. The wine was as fresh as the food, and the dry blend of chenin blanc and chardonnay could have been an iteration from, say, South Africa, or even the Loire Valley. There are many great palates and educated wine pros in this valley, but I’d bet money not one would have picked “the heart of the Antigua Ruta del Vino, South of Ensenada,” as the source for this Chenin Blanc.

I was schooled. I had been in Las Montañas for less than an hour (OK, I did have a Maudie’s Famous Frozen Margarita with a tamarind sangrita and house tajin salt rim before dining), and I was already learning a lesson in wine from Olds, in a place where I had been taught a lot of lessons by both Greg Van Wagner and Jimmy Yeager in the past. It was fun. There were four other wines from Mexico on the list, and I look forward to trying all and learning about the emerging new region.

“We will be trying other wines from Mexico and hopefully adding them as we move forward,” Olds said.

It fits the old wine proverb about drinking the wines of a region with the cuisine of the region.

The next hour or so was spent perusing the wine list that, as I mentioned, was peppered with familiar wines. Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from the likes of Heitz Cellar and Mathiason were both under the $200 price point, while a 2017 Harlan Estate Red Blend topped the price list at $3,400 for the mega spenders. The Alden Alli, Hitching Post and Tyler Pinot Noirs all resonated as inspired choices, as did a pair of whites, a Martin Woods Gruner Veltliner from Oregon and a Godello from the Columbia River Gorge produced by Analemma.

Also impressive is the compact but diverse “By the Glass” offerings that Olds selected, which includes 19 wines from six nations.

“One of the things I love most about this job is that I get to select wines by the glass for over 20 outlets. We have over 600 by-the-glass selections at our various restaurants,” Olds noted.

It was good to see, and taste, the “Barda” Pinot Noir from Bodegas Chacra in Rio Negro, Patagonia, Argentina. This is a project with local participation (Aspenite Tony Mazza is a partner) and an outstanding example of the versatility that is possible in the global production of Pinot Noir.

The Palafox Winery, just south of Ensenada in Baja California, is a modern winery in an exciting new Mexican wine region. Its Chenin Blanc is on the “by the glass” list at the new Las Montañas in Aspen. Courtesy Palafox.
Palafox

Olds said that this list is just the first step in an evolving process, and while he will be coming back regularly, he is counting on longtime Aspen wine pro Pete Cheroske, who is MML’s wine director at both Las Montañas and Clark’s Aspen, to introduce the community to the new wines.

“First and foremost, we want people to drink great wine,” Olds said about putting together a wine program that works with both the unique high-end Mexican cuisine that is the calling card of Las Montañas and the expectations of the Aspen wine market. “Trust is key to that, and we want people to be able to pick two or three dishes and then ask our staff to recommend wines that pair well with those dishes.”

Yes, it is a challenge to find wines that seamlessly pair with spicy and complex Mexican dishes that typically include chilies, beans, avocados and cilantro. But by searching for wines from countries and regions that are indigenous to that kind of cuisine, the pairings become not just easier, but also robust and exciting. Las Montañas and Olds are well on their way to providing a new wining and dining experience for Aspen.

Even if it’s not LaCo.

Under the Influence

Ver Sacrum Gloria “Los Chacayos”

I have included a number of wines from Argentina in this space lately (maybe it’s time for a southern sojourn?), but the majority of them feature Bordeaux grapes like Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon.

But this one from the Uco Valley of Mendoza is from a producer, Ver Sacrum, that is producing wines from traditional Rhône varieties. This wine, made from Grenache grapes or Garnacha, as they call it in Spain, is rich, jammy and just a touch sweet. I found it a perfect accompaniment to my grilled steak fajitas. And there is an Aspen connection here, as well, as the founder of Ver Sacrum, Eduardo Soler, is a noted climber and skier who has spent seasons patrolling on las montañas of Aspen. Oh, and Ver Sacrum translates to “sacred spring” in English, and the wine features a photo of Gloria Swanson, namesake of the wine, taken in 1924.

So now you know.

 

 

Ver Sacrum Gloria “Los Chacayos.” Photo courtesy of Palafox.
Courtesy Palafox
Inside Las Montañas.
Las Montañas
Las Montañas’ bar.
Las Montañas
A portal allows diners to get a glimpse inside the kitchen at Las Montañas where the chefs prepare high-end Tex Mex cuisine and homemade tortillas.
Las Montañas
The menu at Las Montañas highlights Tex Mex specialities sourced from the freshest ingredients that pair perfectly with wines from Spain, South America and Mexico.
Las Montañas
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