There are fine food festivals the world over these days. There's only one in Aspen. The Food & Wine Classic is inextricably linked to this glorious town, to the betterment of both. This is synergy at work.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder. but it's impossible to argue with the splendid scenery here. Those who have been, know. For those who haven't, let me put it this way: if there is a god, (s)he had a hand in designing Aspen. The symphony of colors that are Aspen in summertime - verdant, pine tree greens set against vivid, cerulean blue skies and red mountains still dappled with snow - coalesce to create atmospheric magic. A nature photographer's dream at 8,000 feet above sea level, the alpine terrain is literally breathtaking. You'll need to acclimate and properly hydrate to avoid altitude sickness.
Action, adventure and activity abound. Mid-June temps in the low 80's, without humidity, are ideal to sample more than just food and drink. An outdoorsman's paradise, Aspen offers outstanding hiking trails, bike routes aplenty, fishing streams and exhilarating whitewater rafting. If you're in reasonable shape, I'd recommend the Crater Lake Trail hike up to Maroon Bells in the Aspen Highlands, which culminates in a view that would make Switzerland jealous. For a wet and wild whitewater rafting adventure, call the team at ELK MOUNTAIN EXPEDITIONS. They run a terrific operation in which safety is paramount, equipment is top notch, and the guides are highly experienced. Most of all, it's a serious blast of fun.
It would be understandable if the locals didn't want the whole world to know what they have going here. Yet Aspen still manages to maintain its small town charm in the face of commercial tourism, in part due to prices that match the elevation. Small also means you can walk from one side of town to the other in five minutes. Not only don't you need a car to get around, here's a pro-tip: Aspen will actually pick up the cost of your taxi to your hotel after some late night partying. If you enjoy adventurous driving, however, consider the 180-mile car trip from the Denver airport (rather than flying directly into Aspen) for the intense adrenaline rush and spectacular scenery along Independence Pass. Reaching 12,000 feet of elevation, this historic byway is the highest paved roadway in Colorado. Whereas the Corniche of the French Riviera features dramatic views of the Mediterranean coastline, this narrow, winding road carved out of the mountains presents majestic vistas and awe-inspiring landscapes as far as the eye can see.
Food. Duh. Although it's a challenge to execute the same level of cuisine at a festival setting as in a restaurant space, you will enjoy the tastes. What you might sacrifice by eating from paper plates while standing, you will certainly make up for in the variety and quantity of offerings. The Grand Tasting Tent takes up at least two full blocks and holds 250 tables filled with savories, samplings, and very few tchotchkes. Among many, some of the standouts included award-winning cheeses, Texas barbecue brisket, lobster rolls from the Chatham Bars Inn, pizza topped with Urbani truffles, pistachio crusted lamb chops, suckling pig, seared pork belly with blue corn grits and apple chutney (from local restaurant bb's), meatballs, and all manner of sliders and tacos.
Wine. A lot of wine. So much wine. 150 wineries to be precise. Sip whichever you'd like while chatting up the winemakers. Of the many quality ones, I particularly enjoyed a full bodied 2013 Charles Krug Peter Mondavi 'Family' Reserve ($60) - a blend that would partner perfectly with a charcoal grilled steak - and the fruit-forward, aptly named Cherry Pie Stanly Ranch Napa Pinot Noir 2013 ($47).
Spirits. It ain't just wine, either. I'm a gin guy and I adore the extraordinary Martin Miller's Gin, whether neat, on the rocks, with a splash of tonic and chunk of lime, or highlighted by a drop of French dry vermouth for a proper martini. I often joke that gin is the original flavored vodka. This version, infused with the essence of citrus peels and juniper berries, is no joke; it is the best gin I've ever tasted. Also on hand was Tequila Clase Azul, one of my favorite reposados. I wouldn't adulterate tequila this good in a margarita, but instead sip it straight up. Licor43 is a super sweet, yet delightfully fruity, vanilla tinged liqueur that I dropped into Kings Row Coffee and topped with heavy cream for one killer post meal beverage. (And for beer drinkers, THIS SEASON'S BLONDE from the local Aspen Brewing Company is excellent.)
Live and learn. It's not all eating and drinking all of the time. With everything from live food porn to serious instruction, the Classic offers up 79 different programs from which to choose over three days of the event. For example, you might check out America's preeminent chef of offal, the ebullient Chris Cosentino, preparing "New Style Surf and Turf." Or watch wine expert Joshua Wesson deliver a masterful presentation entitled, "Super Salumi Tips." You are seated in front of your very own overflowing plate of mortadella, prosciutto, coppa and bresaola, as well as six - that's right, six- glasses of wines from around the globe. Wesson, an erudite and hilarious 30-year veteran of this event, proffered a thoroughly engaging lesson in pairing various varietals with these luscious meats. Referring to the barrels in which a delectable Vouvray was aged, Wesson observed, "Neutral wood is good for making wine, but not for making love."
Eat and meet. It's about the people, people. Say hey to Top Chef's Gail Simmons or Bizarre Foods Andrew Zimmern; grab a selfie with the legendary Jacques Pepín; or perhaps enjoy a chat with NBC Correspondent Tamron Hall, as whip smart and charming as she is gorgeous. It's not just the celebrity quotient either. There are a grand total of 5,000 pleasant attendees. How can they not be? The vast amount of time here is spent pursuing two of life's three great pleasures: eating and drinking. In fact, by midday, most everyone is already plenty happy and full.
This festival is done right. "Mise en place" is the French cooking term meaning to put in place, i.e., to have your ingredients ready to go when it's time to cook. This Classic is a masterwork of organizational discipline. Which is to say, seamless. No lines too long. No wait too annoying. No cash changing hands. No overcrowding. Comfortable seating. Every venue clearly mapped out and in close proximity. Volunteers at the ready keeping the place clean and organized. Extremely well done.
Try it, you'll like it. The Classic also affords the opportunity to sample tools, experiences and tidbits. I was very impressed with the high carbon steel knives from Hammer Stahl. (Note to self: perhaps best not to practice slicing technique AFTER an hour of wine sampling.) Virtual reality has come to destination marketing, meaning that you can simulate a vacation experience through a funky ocular headset. As for taste sensations, there are no better peanuts in the world than the fat and crunchy Virginia Cocktail Peanuts. I'm also a fan of Manuka Honey, and the Iberico ham wrapped in caramel and covered with chocolate from Cacao Chemistry brought me a renewed appreciation for chemistry.
Speaking of chemicals, or at least medicinal biology, there was nary a sign, sniff or mention of cannabis all weekend long. Actually, the closest it came was a sign that read: No Smoking/No Vaping. So your intrepid reporter had to take it upon himself to explore the neighborhood on your behalf in search of a cannabis dispensary. It turns out there are seven in Aspen, remarkable for a town with a population of less than 7,000 people. (By contrast, there are two such facilities in NYC to serve a neurotic population of 8.4 million.) Do the math, there's only one possible conclusion: Rocky Mountain (is) High. The Silverpeak apothecary is an upscale emporium selling cannabis in myriad forms, from edibles to lotions to a dozen different strains of pot. Totally legal to buy and to use, and yet it still feels slightly sinister to indulge, I'm told. That said, the Purple Trainwreck is recommended...by a friend. I'm not advocating, I'm just sayin'.
Oh, and if you do make it to next year's 35th Classic, you will notice a full box of perfectly ripe grapes situated on a table in the middle of the giant tasting tent. They will remain untouched. The only grapes being consumed at this event must first be converted into alcohol. The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen is truly classic.
Having eaten at over 3,000 restaurants on six continents and reporting on food festivals the world over, Robert Rosenthal is is an expert in culinary tourism. He is also the author of Short Order Dad - One Guy's Guide to Making Food Fun and Hassle-Free.