High Points: Roots remembered

Paul E. Anna
High Points

Summer has begun. We know it because the slopes are green, the skies are blue and the heat is on. Yesterday flirted with the record high temperature of 83 degrees.

But we also know that summer has started because the tents are up in Wagner and Paepcke parks and the first major event of the season is about to begin. The crowds are arriving for the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

This is the 39th rendition of the event and it is a good time, once again, to remember how it all started. Gary Plumley, an Aspen original and iconic figure in this town, was there when the idea was hatched for what has become the kickoff event for Aspen’s summers since. In 2017 he spoke with The Aspen Times about the origins of the event.

Back in 1982, America was just waking up to a food and wine revolution. Wolfgang Puck had recently opened the first Spago on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, “Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pepin” had just been released and, in Bordeaux, the negociants were buoyed by one of the epic vintages of the century.

But in the Rockies, things were pretty quiet once the ski lifts shut down. Aspen wine shop owner Plumley and his friends, Snowmass restaurateurs Bob and Ruth Kevan of Chez Grand’mere, thought a cozy, local wine festival might bring some folks to town during those then-long shoulder seasons.

“We had done some dinners pairing food with French wines and they had gone over well,” Gary remembered. “One night over a glass of wine after one of the dinners, I shared my idea with Bob and Ruth: ‘What if we had an early summer wine-tasting festival?’”

In June 1983 the Aspen/Snowmass International Wine Classic made its debut, with 50 winemakers pouring wines for just over 300 guests.

“We put up a tent in the parking lot near Snowmass Village, had a tasting in the covered tennis court where the Maroon Creek Club is and also a dessert and wine pairing on the Roaring Fork River under a tent below the Meadows,” he recalled. “We did it all with the help of the volunteers. There were no consultants, no studies. The guests were our focus groups.”

The festival was instantly loved, though it struggled financially. In 1987, Food & Wine Magazine, which had become the sponsor a year earlier, rebranded the festival as Aspen/Snowmass Food & Wine Classic. And, as they say, the rest is history.

The magazine began bringing the first generation of celebrity chefs like Puck, Dean Fearing and Jasper White to the tents, along with wine experts like Joshua Wesson, Kevin Zraly and Robert Parker Jr.

“It really opened a whole realm of possibility,” Plumley said. “Suddenly the event was working with these professionals in Manhattan, and we were these country bumpkins. But we both brought good ideas.”

One of the best ideas was the volunteer program. “That goes back to the very first festival and is still a thing that people love to be a part of.” This year there will be upward of 500 volunteers working the Classic.

This weekend take a moment to acknowledge those volunteers along with all the chefs, winemakers, editors, presenters and folks who help make this event such a success.

And raise a glass to Gary Plumley. The Founder.