Drinking Wine with the Sommeliers of Aspen

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Celebrating La Paulee in Aspen, CO.
Drinking Wine with the Sommeliers of Aspen

To many, the heart of Aspen lies within its food and wine industry. This weekend I barely skimmed the surface of this sub-culture by being privy to a weekend where The Little Nell, Aspen’s Five Star/Five Diamond destination hotel, and Daniel Johnnes, wine director for Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group and producer of La Paulée de New York, hosted a return engagement of one of the most intimate and exclusive epicurean events of the season: La Paulée des Neiges, “Sauté Pan of the Snows”.

Pairing some of Burgundy’s most sought-after winemakers with celebrated chefs, La Paulée des Neiges is an homage to La Paulée de Meursault, the traditional Burgundian fête shared by wine growers and their guests in celebration of the harvest. As written by Kelly J. Hayes, writer of the wine column for the Aspen Times, “Johnnes wanted to pay homage to the famed La Paulée de Meursault, part of the three-day festival known as “Les Trois Glorieuses” that takes place around the city of Beaune on the third weekend of each November to celebrate the harvest.

In 2000, he inaugurated the initial La Paulée New York. Since then, the event has grown to become one of the most exclusive, most revered and most expensive wine events in America. Alternating each year between New York and San Francisco, it attracts hundreds who pay thousands to attend dinners, tastings and seminars all dedicated to the love of Burgundy.”

“La Paulée des Neiges is like camp for Burgundy lovers,” says Master Sommelier, Sabato Sagaria, food and beverage director at The Little Nell. “In Aspen, we take the traditional elements of amazing wine and delicious food, and we pair it with incredible skiing, breathtaking scenery and the legendary service of The Little Nell.”

Master Sommelier Sabato Sagaria
Master Sommelier Sabato Sagaria. Photo by: Jillian Livingston

A lover, but not a connoisseur, of wine and food, I was excited to get behind the scenes of this event, beginning with The Collectors Dinner held this past Friday evening at Element 47, The Little Nell’s newly remodeled and re-named restaurant.


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Decanting the wine with the Aspen 82 Crew
Decanting the wine

I will say that it was a bit unnerving to walk into a private room filled with well dressed men with a purpose, but my insatiable curiosity, and desire to capture the essence of the evening, urged me to sidle up to the Sommeliers in the room, and cozy on in. The first man I met was Tim Baldwin, Assistant Food and Beverage Director at the restaurant, acknowledged by Restaurant Hospitality Magazine as being one of the “top 30 under 30” for restaurant professionals in the USA (he spent his previous 12 years at the five-star, five-diamond Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs).

Tim walked me around giving me the low down on the preparation for the event: There were thirty wine lovers and six French winemakers and with 13 wines to be served, over 390 glasses were washed then steamed and finally hand polished. There were thirteen Sommeliers at the event from all over the world and six of them were masters. The Sommeliers were to be decanting and serving the wine to winemakers that included Dominique Lafon of Domaine des Comtes Lafon; Etienne Grivot of Domaine Jean Grivot; Jean-Pierre de Smet of Domaine de L’Arlot; Christophe Roumier of Domaine Georges Roumier; Pierre Meurgey of Maison Champy; and Alain Graillot from Crozes-Hermitage.

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An intimate, multi-course feast was designed to complement the rare wines sourced directly from the winemakers’ private cellars by two Chefs reuniting for this special occasion, Robert McCormick and Daniel Boulud. Robert McCormick worked for Daniel Boulud for five years as his corporate sous chef and now is at the helm of culinary operations at The Little Nell.  At $2,000 per person, I was unable to stay, but was tempted by the beautiful wine being decanted and the menu of Kataifi Crusted Red Mullet on Saffron Rye Berries, Maine Sea Scallops in “Black Tie”, Spiced Squab Breast, Hay-Baked T-Bone “Rossini”, Avalanche Creamery Cabra Blanca and Cardamom-Orange Cigar.

The second man I met was Bobby Stuckey, Head sommelier of The Little Nell from 1995-2000. During his five-year tenure, the restaurant received numerous awards for wine and service:

• Gourmet’s “Best Wine Service” Award
• Mobile Travel Guide’s Five Star Hotel and Restaurant Rating
• Wine Spectator’s Grand Award
• A nomination from The James Beard Foundation for “Best Wine Service”.

In 2000, Bobby joined world-renowned chef Thomas Keller at The French Laundry in Yountville, California. Within his first year, Bobby received The James Beard Foundation’s “Outstanding Wine Service” Award and San Francisco Magazine recognized him as “Wine Director of the Year”. He also met his future business partner, Chef de partie Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson. Before leaving The French Laundry in May 2003, the restaurant received The James Beard Foundation’s award for “Outstanding Restaurant Service”.

Bobby then moved to Boulder, Colorado to opened his own restaurant, Frasca, a neighborhood restaurant inspired by the cuisine and culture of Friuli, Italy, where he owns a vineyard. He told me how he takes his staff to the vineyard every year, even his dish washer who had never been on airplane before.

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Bobby Stuckey decanting a bottle of vino

As I met each Sommelier I learned that most of them started their love for wine and food at an early age, either by working in the kitchen of a restaurant or by getting introduced to it by a family member. What they loved the most about holding La Paulee in Aspen is the intimate setting and the magical energy of  a town where the people in the food and wine industry who live here are good at the balance of drinking and exercising to keep up the pace and sustaining their profession through a healthy lifestyle.

When I mentioned to Rajat Parr, the wine director for Michael Mina’s restaurants, that I have always had an interest in learning about wine, he said it was not too late and encouragingly told me that, “You learn from tasting, reading, talking wine and going to each region.” Mon Dieu, what am I waiting for?

Another Master Sommelier, Eric Railsback, who worked with Rajat and who is now opening up his own place in Santa Barbara, spoke to me of how the wine industry is dynamic in that you are constantly learning about wine, meeting new people and traveling to new places. He also spoke of the spirit of Bergundy and how it is one of the last famous regions with small farmers, “The farmers are still very down to earth. It’s all about the wine and not so much about the money and the property. These people are still working in the soil with their family.”

While I knew that a Master Sommelier Diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers was a prestigious distinction and the ultimate professional credential in the wine and spirits services industry, I didn’t realize how difficult the test actually is. There are now only 129 professionals who have earned the title Master Sommelier in North America.  Of those, 111 are men and 18 are women (why is that?).  There are 197 professionals worldwide who have received the title of Master Sommelier since the first Master Sommelier Diploma Exam.

On Saturday, I attended a convivial lunch with the winemakers at the private Aspen Mountain Club. Once again, special menus were created by Daniel Boulud and Robert McCormick and paired with older vintage wines from each attending Domaine. In the spirit of La Paulée, guests were encouraged to bring wines from their personal cellars to be shared along with those of the winemakers.

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Sooo tempting to taste!
Sooo tempting to taste!

Taking photos with Aspen Highlands Bowl as the backdrop, the energy between all of the winemakers and Sommeliers was infectious and I felt as though I had just uncovered a thin veil of a world that I would like to dive into more, and perhaps even get a chance to taste the wine and the food in the future, in the meantime, I’ll visit Richard Chelec at my local wine shop of choice, The Basalt Wine Shop, and continue my education there!

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Celebrating La Paulee in Aspen, CO.
Celebrating La Paulee in Aspen, CO.

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