Five Days @ The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen

Guest post from Gary Obligacion, Resort Manager at The Sebastian – Vail, who spent five days in Aspen as the Director of Reserve Tastings for the 29th annual Food & Wine Classic. He shares a firsthand perspective from his gastronomic experience below:

The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen is an exercise in both excess and restraint. The weekend is filled with so many parties, mixers, receptions and events that just choosing what to attend is a challenge.  Attendees are surrounded by the natural beauty of the Rockies and the unique charm of the city of Aspen while hobnobbing with celebrity chefs, award-winning restaurateurs, acclaimed winemakers and famous journalists. My weekend was no different. Each day had a standout moment that was singular. Unique. Unforgettable.
Wednesday – Just getting into town about 8 pm. Checked into the hotel and looking for a bite to eat. The actual festival doesn’t start until Friday morning, so there really aren’t that many people around. The construction of the Grand Tasting Pavilion at Wagner Park is almost complete. Banners are hung all around town and the telltale beeping of trucks backing up to unload is heard from every corner of the town.

Lance Thompson, Director of Resort Operations and General Manager of The Sebastian - Vail, is with me as we wander the town. We’re hungry.  Called a friend to ask for a dinner suggestion. Instant response – Zocalito Latin Bistro. Wait. Is that Mario Batali, the famous chef known for bringing Italian cuisine to its knees at his NYC restaurants, at one of the outdoor tables with his family?  Must be the right place. Not crowded, but delicious. Our server/bartender makes us a solid Margarita, an excellent Mojito and the best Caipirinha ever (not familiar with the latter elixir - ask your Brazilian friends)! He talks to us for a few minutes and convinces us that with the couple of points we've exchanged, that he will bring all the right things to the table. He’s right. Yerba Santa may be my new favorite ingredient. Great way to start the trip.

– Load-in day. My focus is the Reserve Wine Tastings. I go to the Gondola Plaza by The Little Nell Hotel to get the lay of the land. We set up tables and chairs then prepare the room for the next day. Placemats, buckets, glasses, pencils, baskets for crackers and other details are laid out just so. I have a brief meeting with Master Sommelier Richard Betts to make sure everything is under control. Richard is talking more about visiting The Sebastian this winter than the wine tastings tomorrow. No big deal. We inventory the wine and wonder, “Where is the Hundred Acre?”
This is the night of the Big Bottle Party. One of the executives of Food & Wine Magazine throws a party on the Thursday before the grand event begins each year. It’s invitation only and the admission is a bottle of wine to share (Magnum or larger only).  Jeff Knowles, Residence Club Manager for The Sebastian, has come to town for the night with a few friends. They don’t have big bottles, but they’re welcomed at the door despite this potential obstacle. It’s packed…again. Hey, that’s Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb from the Today Show!  And that’s a REALLY Big Bottle of Hundred Acre! They say that 9L bottle is one-of-a-kind and worth $500,000. It’s delicious.

– Champagne for breakfast? The Reserve Wine Tastings begin today with three separate sessions – Three Decades of Champagnes Salon & Delamotte, Cult Cabernet Favorite: Colgin Cellars, and Coulée de Serrant: Eight Vintages with Nicolas Joly. The morning beginswith 5 vintages of Champagne Salon (1999, 1997, 1995, 1990 and 1988)!  After that, I don’t really care what happens next!

The Publisher’s Party on top of Aspen Mountain is as great as ever. This year, the Sundeck Restaurant and Aspen Mountain Club are transformed into a little slice of Havana. The music is Buena Vista Social Club, et al, the Mojitos are free-flowing and the food…WOW!  Every single person from Food & Wine, the chefs, winemakers and guest speakers are in attendance. Not sure how they let me in, but I’m loving it anyway.  The highlight? Cuban Sandwiches with Chef José Andres.  Hmmm, great idea for the Market menu at The Sebastian.

Dinner at Cache Cache, a French bistro in the center of town, with a group of Wine Directors, Collectors and Salespeople hosted by Synergy Fine Wine. The wait staff couldn’t be busier, but food, wine, company and service are great. Ridiculous wines all over the place highlighted by the 1989 J.L. Chave Hermitage.
We end up at Access House for tonight’s After Party. This may be the hardest invitation to get in town - Chef and VIP access only. It’s a 10,000-sq-ft residence about 10 minutes outside of town for the chefs to play.  Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, Ming Tsai, and many others are there just enjoying themselves. Are those chefs dancing? Yup.

Has anyone seen the Hundred Acre wines for the tasting tomorrow yet?
Saturday – The festival is almost over. There is no morning Reserve Tasting, but the afternoon is stacked with two powerhouses. First there’s The Extraordinary Wines of Sassicaia followed by A Napa Valley Superstar: Hundred Acre (this may be my chance to finally see the wines for the tasting, right?). Sassicaia's Piero Incisa della Rocchetta is a prince during the tasting.  Actually, being from a family that’s been producing wines in Piedmont and Bolgheri since the mid 1800’s, Piero is actually a Prince all of the time!  (And also the winemaker of the 2008 Dodici, the estate wine from Castello di Casole, Timbers Resorts' Tuscan resort.)

Jayson Woodbridge of Hundred Acre is the opposite of regal. He is the Guy Fieri of the wine world – unabashedly egotistical, but accessible nonetheless. He looks like he just wrestled a bear then rode in on his Harley, but tells stories about why he spends more money to produce his wine because, one, he can, and two, he knows Hundred Acre is the best wine made – anywhere.  Period. The wine professionals are mortified but the consumers want to throw him a parade. The wines show up literally 15 minutes before the tasting, the staff is beyond stressed to make sure everything goes off smoothly, but this is the favorite tasting for the masses by far!
The evening brings a Timbers Resorts fête at the renowned Baldwin Gallery. I’ve been handing out business cards all weekend and it’s great to see many of the people I've recently met in attendance. What a great party! Incredible wines from Italian Wine Merchants, Sentient Jet representatives explaining how guests can travel with them to each of Timbers Resorts’ destinations, and Timbers Resorts’ CEO/Founder David Burden connecting one-on-one with individuals, all in a spectacular venue.  This very well may be the most civilized function of the weekend with lots of familiar faces and new friends as well.  Great times.
After the function, the Timbers Team decides it’s time for dinner – at 11 pm!  Ten people wandering Aspen looking for a table. We end up at BB’s Kitchen, a relatively new restaurant on the scene. Hey!  There’s Mario Batali again having dinner with his family.  It's a small world in Aspen this weekend.

Sunday – Nothing on the calendar today. It’s time to make sure all the wines from the Reserve Wine Tastings are secured and the venue next to the Gondola is ready for tear-down.  As I walk through town, signs are being taken down, tents are being struck and many people are leaving.  The work day is over.

A group of sommeliers are throwing a Sunday Brunch get-together. Champagne, Rose and Heirloom Pork Bacon BLTs! Great conversation and phenomenal food and wines.  A perfect closing chapter to a stellar few days.

After returning home to The Sebastian with new ideas and contacts to enhance the food & wine experience at our resort, I’m honored to receive an invitation from Food & Wine Magazine – they’ve invited me back as the Director of Reserve Tastings for the 2012 edition, an offer I delightedly accept!