WineInk: Welcome wine lovers |

WineInk: Welcome wine lovers

Aspen’s cellars are stocked for you

Kelly J. Hayes
Little Nell Wine Director Chris Dunaway will pair complementary wines with each course.
The Little Nell/Courtesy photo

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

The holidays in Aspen are magical, which is why we have so many newcomers and visitors arriving this week for a few days of skiing, shopping, and revelry. It is the revelry part that this column is concerned with.

While Aspen is known globally as a great ski town, it is equally regarded by the world’s wine cognoscenti as one of the great wine towns. The confluence of collectors, outstanding restaurant wine lists, specialized wine shops, and, most importantly, the professionalism and passion of the local wine community combine to make this mountain village a paradise for oenophiles and those who simply enjoy fine wine.

You may know that the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen — America’s premier culinary and wine festival — is held here each summer, but it is the winter season that the best wines are placed on offer for the ski crowd to enjoy. The off-season, that shoulder season between summer and winter, is when our local sommeliers and wine professionals restock and refresh with travels to wine regions around the world, where they meet with vintners and expand their  wine knowledge. Meanwhile, back home, fall is the time of year when importers and distributors are bringing their wines to Aspen for tasting events where they sell the best of their wares for the upcoming winter season.

The easiest way to begin talking about wine is take note of what your senses tell you about what is in the glass.
Getty Images / iStockphoto | iStockphoto

So now, this week, Aspen’s wine community is ready for prime time as they greet guests with the world’s finest wines. And, if you are here for the holidays, it is the best time to not only treat yourself to some fresh powder and fine wine, but also to engage with some of the people who make Aspen such a special wine town.

The dean of the Aspen wine community can be found in the little Victorian house on Main Street that is home to Matsuhisa. Jay Fletcher is a legend throughout the world of wine as an educator and a mentor to a number of Aspen sommeliers who have gone on to achieve success. He came to town 45 years ago with a pool cue and a taste for adventure. He used the cue to make a living as a hustler and learned about wine while working as a sommelier at legendary restaurants like Krabloonik on the back of Snowmass Mountain and the late lamented fine dining establishment, Syzygy. In 1996, he passed his exam at the Dorchester Hotel in London, becoming an early member of the now widely-renowned Court of Master Sommeliers.

Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher tastes a glass of wine at his home on Juan Street in Aspen.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Following a career that included a long stint as director of fine wines for Southern Glazier Wines and Spirits, Jay returned to his love of working the floor and pouring wine finds for customers at Matsuhisa, bringing gravitas and experience to the famed Aspen outpost of founder Nobu Matsuhisa’s empire.

“The red and white Burgundy offerings, the cocktail program, and the sake program are as complete as any in the world. But, I want to make sure we have a cellar with the best wines, the best vintages from France, Italy, and Spain,” said Fletcher when he returned to Matsu to pour wines. Aside from his own chops as a sommelier, he is also regarded by young wine professionals as one of the best teachers of wine in the world.

Aspen’s most recent master sommelier is also the youngest. Maddie Jimerson, the wine director at Aspen’s Casa Tua, passed the rigorous masters’ exam this past August in Portland, Oregon. She is just the 30th woman to do so, and, at 32 years of age, she is the youngest current member of the 300-person organization. She told the online wine-and-spirits blog Seven-Fifty that her priority upon achieving the honor was to seek out Fletcher.

“As soon as I landed in Aspen, I went straight to Matsuhisa to have a Gardener (Matsuhisa’s signature tequila cocktail) with my mentor and friend, Jay Fletcher,” she said. “Being able to share that moment of success with someone who has believed in me all along was really special.”

Casa Tua

At Casa Tua, Jimerson is in charge of a wine program that reflects her passion for the wines of Italy and perfectly complements the rustic yet elegant menu. Consider a fettuccine ai funghi with wild mushrooms and black truffle paired with a fine Barolo on a cold winter eve.

And, there are other new opportunities in Aspen to taste fine wines. Just two weeks ago, we saw the opening of the much-anticipated, locally-owned Parc Aspen in the space that was formerly occupied by L’Hostaria. Wine lovers have been looking forward to the debut of the restaurant and the beverage program that is being put together under the auspices of Wine & Beverage Director Greg Van Wagner. Van Wagner is well-known in Aspen for his long tenure at Jimmy’s. His new wine list features an extraordinary selection of Bordeaux, as well as other global gems. Ask for a glass of the Ajax Cellars Chardonnay he makes in Oregon’s Willamette Valley with partner Evan Martin of Martin Woods Wines.

Greg Van Wagner pairs food and wine at Parc Aspen.
Courtesy photo

If you have not been to Duemani lately — the Mediterranean creation of former Matsuhisa Wine Director Carlos Solorzano-Smith and the Aspen Hospitality Group — this is the perfect week to discover the treasures of the stunning wine wall off the bar on the main level. Burgundy and the best of Piedmonte top the list at Duemani with wines that pair perfectly with the cuisines of the sun as prepared by Chef Jesus Alvarado. Solorzano-Smith and General Manager Darko Petrov bring vast experience to the program, and they have put together a young and enthusiastic team of sommeliers to up the wine experience.  

Also new this year are the five Aspen restaurants that are first time honorees by Wine Spectator magazine with prestigious designations for their outstanding wine programs.

Mawa McQueen.

Mawa McQueen and her husband, Daniel, lovers of bubbles and proprietors of Mawa’s Kitchen Aspen in the Aspen Business Center, achieved the magazine’s Award of Excellence for their well-curated list. Also, Laurent Cantineaux’s French-inspired Betula above Ralph Lauren, the Italian classic Casa de Angelo in the space once occupied by Pinons, Prospect in the historic Hotel Jerome, and Catch Steak all were cited by Spectator for the first time as receiving Best of Award of Excellence for their programs. And, Samantha Cordts-Pearce and Craig Cordts-Pearce’s elegant steakhouse, The Monarch, continued its four-year run as a Best Of award winner.


Of course, the grande dame of Aspen wine programs is housed in The Little Nell hotel, where Wine Director Chris Dunaway oversees a list that has been a Spectator Grand Award winner since the last century, 1997 to be exact. He and his team oversee a cellar that boasts over 20,000 bottles. For wine lovers, The Nell is a must stop this season.

Have a great holiday. And, don’t forget to tip your sommeliers.


Domaine Jean-Louis Chave L’Hermitage 2018

Everyone deserves something special for the holidays, and my “something special” came earlier this month in the form of a wine from Jean-Louis Chave, accompanied by four of the most succulent lamb chops possible. The pairing was perfection, and the Syrah sublime. This wine, from a veritable hill of heaven, made by one of the premier winemakers on the planet, now or ever, embodied the balance, power, and complexity that defines fine wines. It is not just the flavor components that make a wine like this memorable; it is the way the wine feels in your mouth. I need to thank Santa, in this case the aforementioned Carlos Solorzano-Smith, for the opportunity to sip Chave and eat the chops with my fingers. A primal experience.


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