WineInk: Stories from the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen

Kelly J. Hayes
Randy Ullom, winemaster for all of the Kendall Jackson wines, proudly shows off the newest wine in the Spire Collection, the soon to be released Dakél Pinot Noir from Chile.
Kelly Hayes/Courtesy photo

Anyone who has read this column in the 777 previous weekly editions knows that while it is about wine, it is really about the people, the places and the things that make up the broader world of wine. While wine is the catalyst and jumping off point, what makes everything more interesting are the stories that wine inspires.

To me, the beauty of having the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen each year since 1983 (with the exception of the 2020 hiatus for the pandemic) is not just that there are so many wines to experience, but also that it brings old friends and new winemakers together for an intense three days of storytelling. They say every picture tells a story, but every bottle of wine tells three: the story of its place of origin, the story of the people who produce it and the story of the people who drink it.

The stories I heard from the Classic are too numerous to recount, and, frankly, I likely have forgotten more than I remember. That is part of the problem with an event where prodigious amounts of wine are consumed. But, for three days — and three longer nights — there was an ongoing, never-ending collection of stories to hear about winemakers and their wares from around the globe.

The first of these was shared by Daniel Daou on Thursday afternoon at a house in the West End on a hot day that saw Aspen set an all-time record of 87 degrees. I had come to interview Daniel and taste the wines of Daou Vineyards. Daniel and his brother George spend much time — and are well known — here in the Roaring Fork Valley. They originally grew up in Beirut, before the Lebanese civil war. In 1973, a missile exploded on the sidewalk in front of their home, forcing the family to leave their beloved Lebanon.

They settled in the South of France, where the brothers developed a passion for wine. Twenty-four years ago, after their immigration to California and successful careers in technology, they followed that passion and purchased a mountaintop in the Adelaida District AVA of Paso Robles and began to make wine. The last quarter century has brought enormous success to the brothers, thanks to both their choice of location and the inspiration provided by their father, who told them when they first committed to wine to “go full throttle.” They did just that. To honor him, their flagship wine, a premium Cabernet Sauvignon, is christened “Soul of a Lion.” This was a story rich with history, family, geography and geology. It is a quintessential wine story.

Support Local Journalism

There were so many more to hear. Take Sebastián Zuccardi, the third-generation winemaker from Argentina. In the Uco Valley along the Tunuyán River, in the shadow of the Andes Mountains, Zuccardi Family wines produces some of the most beautiful Malbec wines on the planet. Years ago, his family fermented these wines in concrete tanks, but as time and technology changed, they moved to stainless steel. Today, however, Sebastian, in a quest to focus his wine-making exclusively on the terroir and the essence of the grape varieties he produces, has returned to the practice of fermenting his wines in enormous concrete tanks. The architecturally striking winery itself is also constructed of concrete and merges with the rustic and rocky topography of the land. Sebastian has over 200 concrete tanks. The result? Three of his wines have been rewarded with 100-point rankings.

I met Steve Smith, a master of wine and the legendary leader of Craggy Range in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. He told me about his current projects with Austin, Texas-based entrepreneur Brian Sheth and a label called  Smith + Sheth. He also poured me tastes of the Pyramid Valley wines, an exciting project with an amazing estate vineyard in Central Otago, located on the southern reaches of New Zealand.

James Matwijkow, hospitality specialist at Benovia, stands alongside the 18-liter, 24-bottle, Melchior of Benovia’s 2019 Pinot Noir from the Martaella Estate Vineyard in Sonoma that was specially made for Mark Oldman’s seminar. 
Kelly Hayes/Courtesy photo

At the seminars, Carlin Karr, wine director of the Frasca Hospitality Group in Boulder,  passionately spoke of her love for the “great” (as she termed them), iconic white wines from Italy, ranging from the top of the boot in the foothills of the Dolomite mountains to the rocky, sun-cooked slopes of Mount Etna on Sicily. The diversity of the wines was stunning, and her boss, former Little Nell sommelier Bobby Stuckey, brought each to life with tales of the origin and the winemakers who produced the wines.

Rising star winemaker Jesse Katz, of Aperture Wines, talked about the power of wines as a force for good. His wines have raised $4.8 million for charitable entities through auctions and donations.

Randy Ullom, the head winemaker at Kendall-Jackson, took me to Chile for an introduction and tasting of a new wine that will be released July 1. Called Dakél, which means “to woo romantically,” it captured both my palate and my heart. The single vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines of the Itata Valley wine region will surely elevate the standard for Chilean wines to come.

And the stories were not just from abroad.

I tasted the wines of Steve Gerbac, the talented winemaker for Rusack, located in Santa Barbara. He told me about a 5-acre vineyard the winery owns on Catalina Island, 26 miles across the sea from the coast of California. 

New Zealand wine legend Steve Smith and his team from Pyramid Valley and Smith & Sheth share the love and joy of a Food & Wine Classic in Aspen appearance.
Aspen Times file photo

Here in Colorado, the boys from Carboy Wines, Kevin Weber and Tyzok Wharton, spoke of their love of sparkling wines and their belief that sparklers were the wine wave of the future. 

All great stories. But the tale of the 24-bottle Melchior that was created by the Russian River winery Benovia for the Classic was tough to top.

Mark Oldman, the ever-popular seminar presenter who is constantly “topping off” his previous appearances, approached the folks at Benovia and asked for something special months ago in his preparation for the Classic. What they came up with was an 18-liter bottle with a beautifully etched label on the front. It took months of work to find the bottle, etch the glass and, ultimately, fill it with the critically-acclaimed 2019 Martaella Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir from Benovia.

Alas, it was ready to go, and they shipped the bottle from the winery. Unfortunately, it never made it to Colorado. A note from the shipper said the bottle, with an estimated value of around $5,000, was “damaged and discarded” three weeks before it was supposed to be opened and poured by Oldman at the seminar. But wine folks are ever-resourceful. The Benovia team found a second Melchior, made a paper label, and this time, they FedEx-ed the bottle to Denver, where it was picked up and hand-delivered to the Classic.

And so, all is well that ends well. Thanks for the stories from a classic Classic.

Support Local Journalism