Aspen Food & Wine Classic

The ‘hautest’ ticket in town

by Leslie Frisbee

At a time when food and wine lovers have their pick of epicurean events — it is estimated there are more than 6,000 nationwide, with Las Vegas serving up at least a dozen per year — the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen is considered to be the “hautest” gastronomical ticket in the country.

“The Classic is in a class all by itself. You can’t compare it to other culinary events,” said restaurateur-chef Thomas Keller. “This is it. … If you’re going to go to one festival event, it has to be the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.”

In celebration of its 35th anniversary, June 16-18, the festival features more than 80 events, including cooking demonstrations, seminars, panel discussions and tastings presented by 50 prominent sommeliers and more than 70 star chefs.

This year’s roster includes notables such as Danny Meyer, Curtis Stone, Daniel Boulud, Scott Conant, Andrew Zimmern, Marcus Samuelsson, Gail Simmons, Jonathan Waxman, as well as Luxury Las Vegas’ food issue cover subject, Keller. In an effort to drum up business in the off-season, Aspen restaurateurs Gary Plumley along with Bob and Ruth Kevan created in 1983 what was then known as the Aspen/Snowmass International Wine Classic. Sponsored by American Express and hosted by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association and Snowmass Village Resort, the inaugural event featured 21 wineries, drew 300 attendees and operated with a budget of less than $20,000. Today, the Classic attracts the who’s who of the culinary industry, more than 5,000 attendees and is a multimillion-dollar fete.

The event, sponsored by Food & Wine magazine, takes over the tiny mountain town with the Grand Tasting Pavilion serving as the epicenter of the weekend. Attendees of the grand tasting gather to experience wine and food from around the world while rubbing elbows with famed chefs and winemakers.

“Our goal is to make sure that the people who have come here, and they’ve paid the money to buy the tickets, that they get the opportunity to mix and mingle, and see the chefs up close,” explained Christina Grdovic, publisher of Food & Wine.

“Sure, you can wait in line to get your book signed, but we also want to create an atmosphere where you’re walking down the street and maybe you’re standing behind Bobby Flay when you’re buying your coffee, or sitting next to Jacques Pepin at the Main Street Bakery. And that is why we control the numbers so tightly because that’s a really important part of the success here.”

Perched high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and surrounded by six 14,000-foot peaks, the town of Aspen is remote and treacherous. Due to the perilous peaks cascading the runway, ABC News dubbed its airport one of the scariest in the nation — there have been 32 deaths in plane crashes at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport since 1982. The sheer challenge of reaching the place ensures that only the most committed foodies and oenophiles attend.

With tickets fetching upward of $1,500, the Food & Wine Classic offers single day tickets, event packages and exclusive tastings. And while the festival is dedicated to showcasing the best in food and wine, it also provides an opportunity to give back.

From the Classic’s ticket sales, 2 percent of the net proceeds benefits Grow for Good, an endeavor by Food & Wine to support local growers and sustainable farming. In addition, the festival offers “Green Passes,” a VIP experience in which $1,000 of each ticket purchase is donated to the Grow for Good Campaign.