Report from the 2009 Aspen Food & Wine Classic

Food & WineThe Aspen Food & Wine Classic last week was once again one of the most promiscuously flavorful weekends of the year.

I also had the good fortune to visit with other illustrious speakers, including cheese-goddess Laura Werlin, wine-goddess Lettie Teague, the perfectly pocket-squared Brian Duncan, and the smartly-sweatered Tony Giglio. There truly is no better pairing than food & wine.

Another highlight of the weekend was the Best New Chefs Dinner, which featured delectable creations such as the a crab cocktail shooter from Bryan Caswell of Houston’s Reef, pork meatballs from Nate Appleman of San Francisco’s A16, and a grilled pimento cheese and bacon sandwich from Linton Hopkins of Atlanta’s Holeman & Finch.  I practically feel to my knees in bliss sampling the succulent pork belly sandwich topped with kimchi from Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook of LA’s Animal.

My own seminars at Food & Wine this year were entitled “Hard to Say, Easy to Drink” and “Outsmarting Wine 101”.  To select the final twelve wines from 186 contenders, I once again employed a tasting panel of wine-passionate friends.   On a mild Saturday night this March, we diligently swirled and spit around a table in the techno-cool offices of my pal Mark Hernandez’s electronic interior design company, Cliqk.   After the evaluative part of the tasting, the evening somehow transformed into a raucous rager with dozens of thirsty friends somehow finding the stamina to help us drain those 186 bottles.

Food & Wine

The twelve winning selections that I included in my Aspen Classic seminars were:

“Hard to Say, Easy to Drink”
Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru NV ($70, France)
(Egg-lee Oo-ree-ay)
Txomin Etxaniz Txakoli 2008 (Spain, $22)
(Sho-MEEN Ex-TAN-ess Choc-oh-lee)
Boutari Moschofilero 2007 (Greece, $11)
Feudi di San Gregorio Aglianico “Rubrato” 2006 (Italy, $17)
(Ah-LYAH-nee-koe )
Quinta do Crasto Touriga Nacional 2005 (Portugal, $65)
(Tou-REEGA Nah-shu-nal)
The Black Chook Sparkling Shiraz NV  (Australia, $15)
(hard Ch, rhymes with “hook”)

“Outsmarting Wine 101”:
Adriano Adami Prosecco di Valdobbiadene 2007 (Italy, $23)
Te Kairanga Sauvignon Blanc Martinborough 2008 (New Zealand, $19)
Plantagenet Unoaked Chardonnay 2007 (Australia, $18)
Erath Pinot Noir Dundee Hills Estate Selection 2006 (Oregon, $32)
Gundlach Bundschu Merlot Rhinefarm Vineyard 2005 (California, $30)
Justin “Isosceles” Paso Robles 2006 (California, $55)

Pride of Paso

Paso Robles Pride:

“Cut! It’s pronounced ‘Pah-Soe Roh-Bulls.’”

I was in California’s Paso Robles, serving as a lead judge for the new PBS television series, “The Winemakers,” when the filming came to abrupt halt after I mangled the pronunciation of the very wine region where we were. I had assumed it was uttered as the elegant, Spanish-inflected “Rrroh-blays,” not the clunky, Americanized “Roh-bulls,” which sounds more like a piece of farm equipment than it does a vinous appellation. But when several locals on the set rushed to correct the errors of my tongue, I got the message.

My inability to pronounce it notwithstanding, Paso Robles – located on California’s Central Coast about midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles – is one of world’s most promising wine regions. The last twenty or so years have seen a dramatic infusion of winemaking talent there, with wineries like Saxon, Alban, and Linne Calod–o leveraging the region’s sunny-but-cool climate and limestone-rich soil to produce wine of first rank. Europeans are also plumbing the potential of Paso, with Frenchmen behind superlative local labels such as L’Aventure and Tablas Creek, the latter of which is co-owned by François Perrin of the Rhône Valley’s legendary Château Beaucastel.

If one were to single out the eminence grise of Paso, it would be Justin Winery, which was founded in 1981 by former banker Justin Baldwin and his wife Deborah. Over the years Justin has made consistently exceptional wine, the zenith of which is a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated blend called Isosceles Reserve. Though it is comprised of Bordeaux grapes, don’t expect the Isosceles Reserve to have the fragile finesse of an aged red Bordeaux; rather, like many top pours from these sunny Californian climes, the Isosceles Reserve arrives on the scene ready to rumble, typically showing ripe, flamboyant fruit, a generous dose of alcohol, and tannins that are often pronounced but not out-of-proportion.

These qualities mean that the Isosceles Reserve can often benefit from a few years of bottle aging as well as aeration in a decanter for about an hour before serving. The current release, the 2005 Isosceles Reserve ($95), sports mega-ripe plummy fruit, notes of tobacco and coffee, and muscular tannins that should integrate beautifully in a few years. Another pick is the 2002 Isosceles Reserve ($100), which is built for immediate pleasure with irresistible layers of blackcurrants and cassis, hints of chocolate and mocha, and a rich, velvety finish that lasts for an eternity – or at least for as long as it would take to pronounce “Paso Robles” a few dozen times.