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First notes from the 2011 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen

ASPEN – The reporter’s notebook runneth over after the 29th annual Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen.

And for good reason, since this year’s Classic was much more exuberant than the 2010 version. Nothing wrong with 2010, of course, but many people still were hurting from the recession and with that there apparently was some reluctance to spend extravagantly, even when the spending was justified by years of hard work (or even better, great genes).

This year’s version, however, was vibrant and lively, once again nearly full of the joi de vivre that has long marked this week of celebrating great wine and food in Aspen.

Curiously, more than one person on the industry side of the market (meaning someone who makes, sells or markets wine) noted this year’s Classic attracted nearly twice as many industry people (about 3,200) as it did general consumers (around 1,800). These numbers haven’t been substantiated by anyone from Food & Wine but just walking through the Grand Tasting tents it appeared there were more booths this year than last highlighting distributors, wineries and spirits.

“It’s more like what the Classic used to be, an industry show before it turned into a wine-sippers get-together,” said one long-time (29 years) attendee and fine-wine distributor.

Mark Oldman, aka 'Dirk Diggler,' holds up a bottle of Mulderbosch 2004 Sauvignon Blanc Oldman purchased from the collection forfeited by former investment banker Bernie Madoff.

Two things about that: Nothing wrong with the wine-sippers, since most of them are endlessly enthusiastic and pay big bucks (about $1,000 for the weekend) to rub elbows with top chefs and learn wine-speak from the pros.

Second, in the past few years, as the recession caused many wineries and distributors to scale back their attendance, an ever-growing number of spirits makers (vodka, brandy, whisky and other liquors) started paying more attention to the Classic, discovering the same people who spend money on fine wine also spend money on fine spirits.

“And those are the people who had the money even in the recession,” my friend said.

A few of the many highlights:

Joshua Wesson, founder of the Best Cellars wine chain (nothing over $20 last we checked) and the 2009 Wine Enthusiast magazine Retailer of the Year, kicking off the Classic Friday by touting himself as the “Iron Sommelier” and daring others to dethrone him during his raucously entertaining seminar.
His challengers included Master Sommelier and wine writer Mark Oldman; M.S. Laura DePasquale of Palm Bay International; and M.S.-in-training Vilma Mazaite of Aspen’s Little Nell.

The audience was the judge in this food-and-wine pairing competition and in the end it was locals’ favorite Mazaite becoming the newest Iron Sommelier, pairing a Rannato Ratti 2010 Dolcetto d’Alba with Mario Batali’s Orrechiette with Sweet Sausage and Broccoli.

Oldman, who adopted a fake mustache and several pounds of (faux) gold chains for his weekend costume as porn star Dirk Diggler from the movie “Boogie Nights,” later told his own seminar (“Beat the Heat: Wines for Hot and Spicy Food”) it was time to “drink like a burglar.”

In happens that Oldman, (his newest book is “Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine”) was brought into the Bernie Madoff case to assess the value of Madoff’s wine cellar, as part of Madoff’s retribution to his clients.

Oldman also bid on, and won, some of Madoff’s wines and Oldman shared a couple of bottles with his Aspen audience.

“Only about 10 percent of his wines were good stuff,” Oldman said, holding up a bottle of the 2004 Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc, straight from Madoff’s cellar, complete with the red FBI warning label.

“Drink bravely,” Oldman urged.

Spicy food calls for a low-alcohol wine with little or no tannin, said Oldman, recommending sparkling wines and still whites (Reisling, Gewurztraminer, Torrontes) and lighter reds such as pinot noir and carmenere.

“You want something a little bit sweet or sweet seeming,” Oldman said. “Think in the terms of heat. Not too much alcohol or tannins and certainly nothing too expensive.”

And finally, we all know about the underground Classic, including the lineup of exclusive parties and dinners that happen with little or no fanfare.

Finally, however, there really is a truly underground Classic.

Former Grand Valley winemaker Ben Parsons and his Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery, based in Denver’s Santa Fe Arts District, hosted a subterranean Wine at the Mine bash Saturday night at the Smuggler Mine, where in 1894 the world’s largest silver nugget (2,054 pounds) was found.

The unusual setting (hard hats a must) included great food and music, memorable tours of Aspen’s past glories and some of Parsons’ distinctive urban-winery wines, including a canned Black Muscat

Parsons, whose under-earthly delights party was loudly acclaimed as the best social event of the weekend, said the lightly carbonated Black Muscat in-a-can should be available in stores by September.

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