By J James McTigue
I love geeks; therefore I love Telluride Wine Fest. This year’s 30th festival was full of wine geeks and foodies, all intent on enthusiastically sharing the intricate technicalities and personal stories behind their artfully crafted creations.
It’s hard not to listen to a geek, because their passion carries their stories. Before you know it, you’re fully engaged, tasting their, let’s say… mezcals…noting hints of smoke in one and earthy minerals in the other.
This past weekend’s Wine Festival was nothing short of a geek-fest, celebrating some of the best food and wine in the country, and possibly the world. Keeping true to the spirit of Telluride, it was an anything goes affair, colored by educational seminars, blowout tastings and intimate meals carefully paired with specialty wines in chosen venues.
My Wine Festival began with lunch Thursday at the Sheridan Chop House prepared by the restaurant’s executive chef, Erich Owen. The food was paired with Greek Wines presented and chosen by wine and spirit consultant, Steve Olson, and Master Sommelier, Doug Frost. I continued to the Grand Tasting Friday, at The Peaks Resort and Spa, and ended with brunch on Sunday at the same venue.
Chop House expert team paired exquisite cuisine with unique Greek wines:
I don’t know if Erich Owen, the executive chef at the Sheridan Chop House is a geek, but there were genius accusations thrown his way at Thursday’s lunch. It is customary at Wine Fest, to match local and guest chefs together to prepare the food for a food and wine pairing, however at Thursday’s lunch, the food was all Owen.
For Thursday’s lunch, Owen skillfully crafted dishes like seared Maine sea scallops with cauliflower mousseline, amarnath, micro arugula salad and balsamic-vanilla molasses. For me, his Burgundy braised short ribs, with brown butter braised French carrots, heirloom grape tomatoes and confit garlic yogurt stole the meal.
As the dishes came out, Olson and Frost kept the audience captivated by telling the details about the wines they had selected. With Owen’s blue fin sashimi they selected three whites. The third, a 2010 Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko from Santorini, got the most “wows”. A summer, white, the Assyrtiko is crisp and dry with a hint of citrus, reminiscent of easygoing champagne.
To a non-wine geek (although admittedly a geek in other areas), perhaps as interesting as the wine descriptions, was the Greek history Olson and Frost intertwined in their narrative. They told stories of Venetian sailors, Hercules, sea nymphs and most applicable to the character of the wine, the geographic history of places like Santorini. The two wove its volcanic history to the earthy, mineral subtleties apparent in wines from that region.
According to the two experts, the must-have Greek wines from the tasting were the Assyrtiko, Domaine Sigalas, Santorini 2010 (already mentioned), Alpha Estate, Macedonia 2006 and the Vinsanto, Domaine Sigalas, Santorini 2003.
The Vinsanto was a clear show stopper; a perfect desert wine – just sweet enough to remind the taster that, yes it’s for desert, but with a lighter and smoother finish than expected. We felt lucky to taste it as Frost informed that there were 100 bottles allocated for the entire US, of which we had consumed eight. Paired with Owen’s exquisite desert of tarragon and lemon semifreddo with pistachios, topped with chocolate, caramel sauce and fresh berries, it was a perfect finish – and a perfect prologue to an afternoon nap.
Peak's Venue set the tone for a fun and intimate Grand Tasting:
There was something different about the Grand Tasting. Perhaps it was the 180-degree views of the Wilson, San Sofia and Sneffels Mountain Ranges, or the scenic Gondola ride to get there. Or perhaps, The Peaks venue is what made it more intimate and romantic than years past.
Local, art gallery owner, Amy Schilling said, “I loved the Grand Tasting at the Peaks–the view, the intimate feel–it added a formal element to it.”
The formal element was most noted in the permission it gave its attendees to wear wine-tasting attire, but the atmosphere was anything but formal. Tasting wine on a beautiful sunny day at 9,000 feet lends itself to an element of silliness, then add vodka, tequila and gin vendors….well, you have yourself a lot of people in a good mood.
Overhearing one gentleman say to his female companion, “We have the best jobs,” I decided to inquire. Ends up, I had overheard business partners Peggy McKinley and Jim Little, owners of Coltrain and Little’s Wine and Liquor Stores in Colorado Springs and Denver respectively.
Unlike me, McKinley was taking copious notes on the wines she tasted, so I figured I better ask the professional where to venture next.
“The Italians,” she advised. Her favorites were Cennatoio’s Chianti Classico, which she called, “really smooth” and La Cappucinna’s whites, which she described as “summer whites with nice acidity.”
I did make it to the Italians, but not before visiting a few of the folks representing the spirits. Steve Olson and Doug Frost had warned the Thursday, Chop House, lunch participants that there was a “cocktail movement” occurring in the US and some of the best bartenders and “mixtologists” would be in Telluride.
Many of these folks were appropriately donning black t-shirts with the word “geek” spread across their chests as they poured and shook their spirits and concoctions. I met Michael Flannery, who was pouring for Ron Cooper’s Del Maguey single village mezcals, and explaining the production process.
Flannery explained that each mezcal is named for the village where it was made, and each, of course, has a distinct taste. The agaves for Del Maguey mezcals are grown for 8-10 years and roasted for a week. Village farmers roast the agaves in a hole, placing palm fronds and earth over them — thus the evident notes of smoke or minerals. The farmers will also place crosses on top of their agave pits, he explained, to signify their sanctity and secure a good roast.
When asked why he was at a wine festival, Del Maguey owner, Ron Cooper, answered, with a grin, “All spirits are spiritual. It has taken a while for people to catch on, but now we’re in a great place where all spirits are equal.”
And this was certainly the attitude of the Grand Tasting. On display were select, hand-crafted spirits and a large variety of wines including The Clif Family (of Clif Bar fame) Climber Chardonnay, packaged in an environmental astra-pack; familiar and quality wine shop varieties like Cline and Catena; and smaller eclectic brands like the Bordeaux-inspired, Sonoma Valley, Hamel Family wines, to name just a few.
Low-key, big Peaks buffet harmoniously ends Festival:
Surrounded by the same spectacular views as the Grand Tasting, the Peaks hosted the Wine Festival’s closing brunch on their Wilson Deck. Instead of a variety of vendors offering a spectacular array of spirits and wines, this time the Peaks offered a spectacular array of food.
Guests strategically filled their plates, choosing from eggs, blueberry crepes, parmesan crusted chicken, bacon, roasted vegetables, garlic potatoes, muffins, miniature croissants and much more. For the first time during the festival, and for good reason, the drinks were limited: coffee, juice, champagne or spicy Bloody Mary’s.
Although the Peaks brunch was the ending event for Wine Festival, it was the first of regular weekend brunches that they will offer to hotel guests, as well as visitors, all summer on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm.
People ate leisurely, gazed at the mountains and enjoyed one last drink before thinking about reentering their real lives. John Pine harmoniously played guitar and sang in the background as if easing the Sunday transition from weekend bliss to weekday reality, allowing Wine Festival guests, and geeks, to prolong the enjoyment of the weekend a few more hours.