The valley’s love affair with wine |

The valley’s love affair with wine

Lauren Glendenning
photo by Theo StroomerSally Slaughter of Evergreen, left, with her mother Carol Slaughter of Houston, laugh during a wine dinner event at Larkspur in Vail. The dinner featured a five-course meal with wine pairings.

Drinking wine in the Vail Valley is sexy.

From social gatherings among local restaurant wine experts to posh winemaker dinners, the valley has no shortage of wine or those who love to savor every drop.

Local restaurants are practically incomplete without their resident sommeliers, or wine experts, on hand to pair luscious wines with decadent dishes. Most of the high-end restaurants in town have at least one sommelier. La Tour in Vail Village has six ” the restaurant wants to make sure that every guest has access to expertise that will make dinner tastier.

“The most fun I have working the floor isn’t necessarily selling the wine, it’s the educational side,” says Steven Teaver, one of La Tour’s sommeliers. “It’s about really being able to open people’s eyes.”

In a valley with restaurant wine menus as thick as novels and private wine cellars as big as some people’s homes, it’s obvious that plenty of eyes are already wide open.

Support Local Journalism

Winemaker dinners and wine-pairing dinners are popular in the valley. Most upscale restaurants host about one a month, and the reservations fill up fast, says Rick Colomitz, wine director at Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail Village. He says the restaurant has a VIP e-mail list, which alerts regulars to the dinners as they come up.

“We usually sell them out pretty quickly just through e-mail,” he says.

Winemaker dinners are usually more intimate than wine pairings, because the winemaker personally attends, sits, eats, and most importantly, drinks with the guests.

Sometimes the valley can attract some big names in the business, too, says Dave Meirowsky, a local wine distributor. Winemakers who typically travel around to big cities to host such dinners almost always stop in Aspen and Vail, he says.

“The percentage of wealth and the applicability of that to our business is extremely efficient (in the valley),” he says. “This is kind of a hub for good vibes.”

Meirowsky recently attended a winemaker dinner at Vin 48, a restaurant and wine bar in Avon. Xavier Monnot, a French winemaker, was there to share his wines with guests who paid $130 a head, not including tax or tip. The room of about 25 people consisted mostly of local wine importers, distributors, sommeliers and restaurateurs ” people with refined palates.

“Mostly I’m just a (wine) geek,” says Dan Mahan, a sommelier at Beaver Liquors. “I’m forever a wine student. There’s so much new stuff constantly coming out. It’s never-ending, and I like it that way.”

Mahan swirled his wine around in his glass and smelled, examined and tasted his wines carefully with each course. That’s part of the sexiness of wine. It’s not about slamming it back like someone would with a beer. Drinking wine is romantic, slow and controlled. Savoring the flavors and aromas are what make it special, especially when the winemaker himself is sitting in the room.

“(Xavier Monnot) is one of the up and coming Burgundy producers,” says David Courtney, owner of Beaver Liquors. “To come and have dinner and taste his wines is pretty cool.”

All the wine drinking that goes on in the service industry is what creates such a knowledable wine town, says Kenny Teague, a local beverage distributor. And since that service industry isn’t made up of places like T.G.I. Friday’s, but rather places like Beano’s Cabin and Sweet Basil, those who work in restaurants can’t help but learn about wine, he says.

At the winemaker dinner at Vin 48, Teague asked about six people at the table where they learned what they know about wine. Every person replied “from working in a restaurant.”

Where there’s a top echelon of money, there’s going to be the top echelon of wine, he says.

“If you want the parade, you’ve got to watch for the big floats,” he says. “And this is where they come.”

The valley’s sommeliers are wine drinkers who have fun. They’re experts who must drink wine to stay on top of their professions. When they’re not working late nights and when the busy seasons die down, they get together to do what they do best: drink more wine.

“We’re a very tight-knit group,” says Kevin Furtado, a sommelier at Larkspur in Vail who is also a winemaker. “We do try to hang out and taste whenever our schedules allow that.”

When sommeliers arrive for work, it’s also their job to taste food, too. If they aren’t sure about the flavors of the chef’s special that evening, they can’t recommend the perfect wine to a guest. They make sure the wine pairing with a particular dish won’t drown the flavors of the dish, but rather enhance them, Teaver of La Tour says.

“I get in a few hours before the rest of the staff, when the chefs are creating any specials they might be doing. We’ll have dialogue about what (ingredients) they’re putting in and why,” Teaver says. “I taste all the sauces daily. Maybe the lemons that day are more acidic than the day before.”

Tasting wines constantly is the best form of education for sommeliers, he says. A winery might have a reputation, but flavors can change with each vintage. It’s important, and fun, for sommeliers to continue tasting new wines as they come out.

Ask them what their favorite varietals are, though, and they have trouble narrowing it down.

“My favorite wine is usually the one that I’m having,” Furtado says.

For non-professionals, those of us who just love to drink the wine, some people take it more seriously than others, says Mickey Werner, of Alpine Wine and Spirits in West Vail and a board member for the Taste of Vail, a premier food and wine event in the spring.

While you might not necessarily care to know what kind of barrels the wine was fermented in, other people “get their mental jollies over knowing pretty insignificant facts,” he says.

Some drinkers would rather just drink, though. Dana Hugo, of Avon, likes to head to Vin 48 on occasion to sip on wine at the bar there. She says she’s not a connoisseur, but she knows she likes red wine. She laughs as she describes the book club she’s a part of as being “more about the wine than about books.”

Wine is so much fun because everyone gets something different out of it, Werner says. Some might want to learn how to identify a wine’s region just by tasting it blindly, and others might get just as much satisfaction out of enjoying its flavor with their favorite meal.

Whatever the reason, wine is always memorable, Werner says.

“When people remember special events, they probably don’t remember the food, the people, the date,” he says. “But they remember the wine.”

La Tour’s Teaver is amazed at how diverse the valley’s wine scene is. He says people are eager not just to drink wine, but also to know wine.

“Whether you’re a liftie or whatever, I’m very impressed with the knowledge and desire to learn,” he says. “It’s astounding how many people here will sit down and enjoy a great glass or bottle of wine with their dinners.”

Ceri Agers does just that. She lives in Delaware and has a timeshare in Avon. She says she tries to attend winemaker dinners and wine pairings whenever she’s in town because the valley has so many great ones to offer. She calls herself a bit of a connoisseur, but only when she’s drinking wine with food.

“I love the pairing,” she says.

There are the wine collectors who collect for the prestige and the investment, but it’s not fun if you can’t drink it, says Werner.

Werner has plenty of customers who have private cellars. Some have them because they can, but he says most have them because they love to drink wine.

Lucas Jones, of Jones Wine Cellar Management, has seen some pretty extensive wine cellars in Vail Valley homes. He began his business last October after realizing he’d be filling an important niche here, he says.

He knew there were wine cellars in the massive homes in Vail, Beaver Creek and Cordillera, and he wondered who was servicing those cellars.

When you’ve got a walk-in cellar with 1,000-plus bottles of wine, it can get out of hand pretty quickly, he says. It’s Jones’s job to keep the cellar organized. He makes sure the temperature is right and that bottles are classified under specific categories.

Steve Nagelberg, one of Jones’s clients, knows all too well how hundreds of bottles of wine need precise organization. We’re not talking alphabetical ” wine needs a little more attention than that.

Nagelberg, a Southern California orthopedic surgeon who owns a home in Bachelor Gulch, has about 3,000 bottles in the cellars in his two homes. Wine deliveries would come in and the boxes began to stack up. It got to the point where Nagelberg didn’t even know what he had.

Jones’s company organizes the wine down to the vintage, region, varietals, market value and peak drinking time. The bottles get their own bar code so when Nagelberg types in what he’s looking for, such as California cabernet sauvignons that are ready for drinking right now, the system tells him where those bottles are in his cellar. When he picks one, he scans it and the bottle is deleted from the system.

“You can come home and say, ‘Hmm, what do I want to drink tonight?” Nagelberg says. “It’s a spectacular system.”

Jones has five clients right now, all with impressive collections, he says. Michael Dunkel, owner of Wine Cellars and Storage of Colorado in Parker, says his company has built about 20 cellars in the valley averaging about 1,500 bottles per cellar.

Dunkel says so many cellars are built as part of the homes, though, by carpenters and general contractors, so it’s hard to estimate just how many homes up here have them. He suspects there are many.

“(A wine cellar is) just kind of a sexy thing to have,” he says.

Lauren Glendenning can be reached for comment at 970.748.2983 or

Support Local Journalism