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)
(Mosque-oh-FEEL-arrow)
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.

The Biggie Show: Aspen ’08

Once again, the Aspen FOOD & WINE Classic proved itself a gastronomic Shangri-La — a confluence of sips, sustenance, and setting of Mr. Roarkian wondrousness.

aspen

My seminars this year were “Rosé Renaissance” and “ABC’s of Wine”.  To ensure that each wine was worthy of the Classic’s illustrious attendees (including my sister), I again enlisted the palates of my Manhattan-based “Civilian Tasting Panel,” a circle of discerning but non-professional tasters organized by my buddies Mark Hernandez and Judge Kirby.  After sampling close to 90 wines this winter, these winners emerged:

Rosé Renaissance:
1) Delamotte Rosé Brut NV (France, $90)
2) Domaines Ott, Chateau de Selles, Rosé 2006 (France, $38)
3) Domaine de la Mordorée, “Dame Rousse,” Tavel Rosé 2007 (France, $28)
4) Tablas Creek Rosé Paso Robles 2007 (California, $22)
5) Crios de Susana Balbo Rosé Of Malbec 2007 (Argentina, $12)
6) Bodegas R. Lopez de Heredia, Vina Tondonia, Rosado 1997 (Spain, $28)

ABC’s of Wine:
1) Mionetto “Sergio MO ” NV (Italy, $22)
2) Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2007 (New Zealand, $20)
3) Beringer Chardonnay Private Reserve 2006 (California, $35)
4) A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir 2006 (Oregon, $19)
5) Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder 2004 (California, $50)
6) Peachy Canyon Zinfandel Paso Robles Westside 2006 (California, $29)

Being at the Aspen Classic also affords the opportunity to visit with various superheroes of food and wine, including, this year, Gail Simmons, the irresistible judge from Bravo’s “Top Chef.”

Finally, I offer a grateful knuckle-knock to the Aspen Daily News for their kind words in this Monday’s issue:

“Mark Oldman had to be the most entertaining wine speaker of the weekend.  In his seminar, Rosé Renaissance, the wine author managed to incorporate some Biggie Smalls lyrics while discussing a $90 bottle of French champagne; led a little chant and dance on how to taste wine; and shared his method of pouring undrunk rosé into a Gatorade bottle when unable to finish a bottle of the pink stuff in a restaurant.  While his seminar slightly overlapped the Saturday Grand Tasting, very few looked as though they wanted to leave as the volunteers signaled that his time was up.”

Where Cortisone Fails, (Romanée) Conti Conquers

Where Cortisone Fails, (Romanée) Conti Conquers: Dagger-like nerve-shocks pierced my ankle as the jet touched down at SFO, the pain from these Shining-esque hatchet-hacks enveloping my ankle as if it swelled forth from Phlegethon, the river of blood in Dante’s Inferno. I was in the Bay Area for a dinner which featured offerings of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s — among the most treasured pleasures extant on the planet, even for the merry circle of illustrious collectors hosting the dinner. But all I could think about was my acutely inflamed ankle — a product of some reckless play in New Orleans the day before and even more reckless play the weeks leading up to this trip.

cortisone wine medications pain

Since my sprained-and-bruised high-school wrestling days, I have taken pride in an elevated threshold for pain, but my normal resiliency was now being supplanted by darker thoughts.  While flying, the specter of an air disaster seemed no longer so horrible – at least the daggers would be done.  Low-altitude wind shear?  Sure, go ahead.  Spark in the fuel tank?  Not so bad.  A Valujet plunge?  I’m ready.

The next day found me doing everything I could to contain this gangrene before the dinner that night.  I became a limping trashcan of treatments — stomach-curdling-doses of naproxen, a Snoop-Dog cane, Bio-Freeze, Lidocaine patches, oral doses of notoriously potent cortisone — none of which made even a dent in the agony. Isn’t Cortisone supposed to offset this pain?

“Bite the bullet, boy,” my inner-Louis Gossett, Jr. chided me like I was Mayo on the roof in An Officer and a Gentleman.  But I didn’t really need the extra motivation: I’d have to be in a coma and shackled to my bed to miss this tasting.

When night fell, I pried on my tuxedo and hobbled from my hotel to the dinner. Effective Cortisone or not, I couldn’t miss this. Thankfully, distractions awaited. The evening commenced with Dom Perignon Oenotheque 1973, a 33-year-old sparkler that still tasted fresh because it had been recently “disgorged” — that is, recently removed from its lees (i.e., the sediment resulting from the bubbles-creating secondary fermentation induced in each bottle of Champagne). The DP indeed had a sprightly citrus quality and a chimney of pinpoint bubbles, while also showing the richness and depth you’d expect from bubbly that has had so many years of contact with its lees.

We then sat for dinner and the featured attraction: thirteen red Burgundies, three from the fabled Domaine Leroy and the rest out of DRC.  Except for one corked bottle, there were no disappointments, just a succession of peaks, with certain bottles — namely, the 1952 and 1978 DRC Richebourg and the 1959 and 1978 DRC Grands-Echezeaux and Echezeaux — exemplars of complexity, length, and texture.

Sounds great, you might say — but what is the take-away for the budding enthusiast?  To the extent that it is even possible to describe commonalities among night’s favorites (and also other fine, aged Burgundies), this is what I noticed:

* hints of what I call “glowing licorice” — a kind of incandescence of minty fruit that for some might seem more like some combination of Asian spices or raspberries or violets or roses

* a fascinating earthiness evocative of smoky autumn leaf piles or mushrooms or even cooking cabbage.  Those hopelessly infected with oenophilia have been known to call this quality “sous-bois” — French for undergrowth or forest floor.

* other crazy nuances that sometimes emerge as the wine wakes up — leather, tea, musk, bullion, wax, green beans, oats, or even soy sauce.  At its best, Burgundy portals you to exotic locales.

* flavors more intense and long-lasting than its agile, light-to-medium bodied frame would suggest

* a velvety texture that coats your tongue and throat like nothing else

So the night went.  And somewhere in the middle of our feast it dawned on me: the veil of intense pain had finally lifted — the daggers had melted into a tourniquet stitched from the rarest Burgundian silk.  As I ambled back to my hotel, pain-free and happily under the influence of DRC, it became apparent: where cortisone fails, (Romanée) Conti conquers.

THE NIGHT’S LINE-UP:

Dom Perignon Oenotheque 1973
Domaine Leroy Le Corton 1966
Domaine Leroy La Romanee 1953
Domaine Leroy La Romanee 1962
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Echezeaux 1959
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Echezeaux 1966
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Echezeaux 1978
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grands-Echezeaux 1957
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grands-Echezeaux 1959
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grands-Echezeaux 1966
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grands-Echezeaux 1978
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg 1952
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg 1966
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg 1978