Earlier this year I received a rather cool email from Ray Isle, esteemed writer and Executive Editor for Food & Wine Magazine, inviting me to the Aspen Food and Wine Classic. I was stoked as it was always something I wanted to do. Each year, foodies, wineos, chefs and winemakers arrive in Aspen to frolic in the mountains for a long summer weekend in-between tastings and seminars. The really kickass part for me was getting to be one of the select few sommeliers invited to the “Somm Talks” part of the weekend. More on that later.
I bought my rather tricky plane ticket and packed a couple of killer bottles from my cellar to share. It’s Aspen after all- important to “bring the heat.” I flew into Denver and drove up to Aspen with two close friends. On the ride up, we made a pit stop at the Kum n Go convenience store for snacks. I was immediately aware of my New Yorkerness. Employees and patrons alike said their extended hellos and were all too eager to chat which made me immediately suspicious. I had to take a deep breath in the thin air and remember that people are friendly in Colorado.
Speaking of thin air… We arrived in Aspen to witness the dramatic scenery and inhale the crispy clean mountain air. I’ve never felt great at high altitude, but after a few extra glasses of water, I adjusted quite quickly this time.
Champagne & Connection
Later that evening, we dove into a blind tasting of Champagne smartly organized by professor Abe Schoener. We were a tight group of experienced tasters and lovers of the subject. Wines were poured blind one at a time, and we silently wrote our notes and thoughts on each glass. The purpose of the tasting wasn’t so much to guess the correct wine, but to ignite a conversation about personal preferences within each producer’s particular style of winemaking and terroir expression. Ultra-geeky!
As I was going through the blind exercise, I felt unusually focused with loads of detail flooding my scrap paper. I would have assumed the opposite would be the case considering the long flight, drive, and recent exposure to the high altitude of the Rocky Mountains. Champagne usually brightens my day, but this was extra curious.
The conversation amongst our group was rich in detail and diverse in opinions. I was so focused on the serious business of tasting champagne that I hardly noticed there were three rockstar chefs hanging out in the kitchen patiently observing our wine minutia. Little did I know I was about to have one of the most memorable bites in recent memory.
The three chefs were from the breakthrough restaurant group, Edo Kobayashi, in Mexico City. Proprietor Edo Lopez has triumphantly opened several Japanese inspired hotspots throughout Mexico City and beyond. Abe outdid himself assembling these three. What a joyful moment to casually be in the room with them as they fed us that unforgettable bite of caviar-topped salsa verde tostadas. The flavor was explosive. Again, auspicious how toned my palate was considering the altitude.
The Food and Wine Classic in Aspen is as much about the outside events and parties as it is the official event. That first night continued on with party-hopping and re-connecting with industry friends at The Little Nell, a magical oasis of a restaurant for lovers of warm hospitality and great wine in a luxurious hotel. The Little Nell has a storied reputation for producing world-class sommeliers, so naturally, I was excited to visit. Everything about “The Nell” over-delivered. I was totally hooked. The abundance of rare bottles of free-flowing wine may have had something to do with my new crush.
Caviar, Champagne, and Bloody Mary’s were the theme for the next morning’s brunch. The day did sharpen with some studious moments as I attended some seminars and the first of the “Somm Talks” series. There were three Somm Talks seminars over the course of the long weekend, all designed for the sommelier community covering highly specific topics. They included a tasting element and a panel of top wine professionals to guide the discussion.
The first seminar was titled, “What’s Next When You’re a Sommelier?”, a discussion of next career steps after working the floor of a restaurant. It turned into a highly charged group therapy session as the panelist and audience members spoke about their transitions out of restaurant life, many due to burnout. The attendees played a huge role in the conversation, which was interesting to witness as there were sommeliers from many different markets in attendance. Each market fueling different discussions. I enjoyed the back and forth because it’s a way to see what sommeliers from other markets are focused on and how it differs from my NYC bubble of late nights and endless hustle.
The day and evening moved along with more tastings and a fair amount of alcohol consumption at The Nell again. At some point, it became clear to me that Aspen is an incredible place to taste wine. Everything was firing on all cylinders all weekend long. Each tasting for me was an experience of clarity and an incredible sense of pleasure. I started asking myself why Aspen had this magic touch.
Was it associated with the altitude? Scientifically speaking, it should be a lesser experience to taste wine at altitude. The ultra-low humidity of high-altitude air tends to dry out the nose and palate which could make aromas and flavors harder to pinpoint. There are also some who theorize that high altitude sharpens tannin and acid levels in the wine to the extreme. Even JetBlue has a blog about tasting food and beverages at high altitude dulling the ability to perceive sweet and salt. Their whole food and beverage program is designed with this in mind. Air pressure factors into this as well, but an airplane has many other variables here that we’ll leave for another time.
All the science aside, I still can’t help but wonder why my tasting experiences of both food and wine were so sublime during this elated weekend. I started asking my colleagues what they thought, and many agreed that there is no better place to enjoy wine than Aspen. Rajat Parr said says, “I think all wines taste better in altitude. It’s the opposite of drinking wine on a humid and warm beach”. That made a lot of sense to me as beach or boat wine lends itself for a less scholarly kind of enjoyment. More thirst-quenching and less contemplative.
The problem with my gut instinct about the pleasures of tasting wine in Aspen is that there is hardly a way to control the experiment. I’ve gone through various scenarios in my head of how to limit the variables of tasting the same wine at high and low elevation, and it’s quite complicated given airline restrictions, oxidation, and perhaps the biodynamic calendar.
The whole theory is entirely mysterious, which leads me to believe I may never completely understand. After a wonderful weekend in Aspen, I do know that it is truly a magical place for food and wine. Perchance it’s the altitude, or the warm hospitality of the exemplary Little Nell, or the camaraderie of food and wine professionals. I’m open to how these factors positively affect my tasting experiences. All the more reason to go back next year.
Sabra Lewis is the Wine Director at The Standard, High Line, and wine consultant living in New York City. She has a background in performing as a dancer on Broadway and retired to drink wine for a living! Working as a sommelier in Michelin-starred restaurants, penning her own beverage programs, and traveling the world has given her the voice that she has today. She writes with a sommelier lens and insider view on all things beverage, food, travel and hospitality. Travel is her continuing education and she is delighted to share her adventures with you.