There’s a sweetness in the air as summer slips south and autumn crooks her finger. How can the spirit not soar as our jagged skylines take on her warmer hues of jasper, saffron, claret and gold? How can the heart not burst under azure skies, so intense?
September stirs a nostalgic, delicious ache we alleviate through orchard visits and picking succulent fruit with a loved one; hauling pumpkins and kids in their Radio Flyers. For many of us, quaffable spirits and micros give way to moving inward, lingering and savoring through wine. And of course, the annual Grand Tasting at the Snowmass Wine Festival, a cherished annual must-do.
The festival founder, Barbara Wickes, is well positioned to pull together an exceptional experience. As proprietor of Sundance Liquor and Gifts, she’s been tasting and sourcing wine since 1979. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the festival this year, mutual friend and wine importer John Maxwell, a Blue Lake resident, describes Wickes as the long-standing heart and soul of the festival.
“The Grand Tasting is an authentic expression of Barbara: friendly, well organized and unpretentious. You almost have to describe it by what it isn’t,” Maxwell says. “Her festival is a much more civilized event, with smaller crowds. No one is pushing past you. You can taste your wine without smelling Chanel No. 5. It’s so much fun to be able to taste such a wide variety of wines in one setting, where you have the chance to compare them and try new things.”
Wickes notes, “It’s a wonderful, intimate, low key experience. Everyone here looks forward to it. If someone’s lived here for a long time and finally comes, they always say ‘I can’t believe I’ve never done this before.’ ”
With so many things to do in our valley, it’s impossible to know everything. I first discovered the festival through Wickes by doing landscape design work for their Aspen home several years ago. I was moved by her grace and kindness, and I wanted to know more. As I often do, I used the journalist’s “hall pass” to probe deeper.
The festival is her way of celebrating community and giving back. In sponsorship with Snowmass Rotary, the Grand Tasting and a silent auction raise money for Rotary’s Community Grant program, which distributes funds to local and international nonprofits, as well as scholarships for Basalt High School seniors.
“The festival is so positive and symbiotic,” says Wickes. “The silent auction has incredible wines; all the vintners choose to donate something special. People have a chance to purchase expensive, exquisite wines at a more affordable price.”
With a personal connection, my first Grand Tasting was sublime. Maxwell had studied the vintner roster and planned our afternoon the day before. You too can plan ahead at snowmasswinefestival.com/vinters As for us, we would start with light, sparkling wines and Champagnes.
“Champagne is often served too cold,” says Maxwell. “Walk around a bit with your first bubbly. Let the sun warm it. Peruse the food. Try seafood, fish, crunchy little nibbles. No sweets. Save those for the spirits at the end.”
It’s such a treat to attend with a fun wine professional. Find one if you can. For each wine we tasted, Maxwell had a backstory about the vintner, who might be a friend, or how the region’s climate or the soils affect taste.
We then moved on to fresh, aromatic whites – think pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and albariño, a lesser known varietal from the northwest of Spain. Tasting so many, we made it a slow process, taking advantage of Saturday freedom. We were sure to snack and bring water bottles, neither of us particular fans of inebriation. At the least, hydrating is a palette rinser.
Even if you spit, “your mouth lining is so thin and still absorbs alcohol,” Maxwell says. “Most of us have kids or animals to answer to later.”
Wine needn’t be so serious. Maxwell, ever playful, would elbow me to “quaff that” and head onward. He’d deepen his voice, or reduce it to a whisper, stoking anticipation. At times, he’d ask me what I thought before revealing how obscenely valuable the bottle was. There’s something so delicious about a $74 sip of wine while you are dressed in jean shorts!
Uniquely so, Maxwell harbors no compulsion to dominate the wines, which makes for a novel adventure. As I rarely drink the heavier whites, they become a sensory and semantic challenge, attempting to define what I’m tasting. These thicker, sumptuous mouth feels spur visits with chefs offering veggies, pork, chicken.
Oh, luscious reds. We explored the regions with restraint, so as to keep our palette open: Italy’s sangiovese, Spain’s tempranillo, and France’s pinot noir. There’s no point in overdoing it, saturating your taste buds, overwhelming future flavors.
“The French consider wine a foodstuff,” says Maxwell, “they don’t often sit around and just drink.” Sampling old world reds, which tend to be more acidic and dry, we sought out mushrooms and goat cheese, heightening both morsel and juice.
Tongues still alive, we topped off a stunning autumn afternoon with classic, New World Zinfandels, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and malbecs grown in California, Australia, South America. Hello, oral explosions. Darker, jammy, often with hints of spice or pepper, take your time to savor these. Visit chefs playing with steak, sharp cheddar, tomato sauce.
Definitely consider swilling and spitting most of your swill, as the Grand Tasting also features Colorado spirits. Marble Distilling, Leopold, Peach Street, and Vapor Distillery will showcase vodka, gin, whiskey, bourbon, and liqueurs. Now you can hit those dessert tables. Or, if you prefer a more savory sweetness, partake of Cedaredge-crafted Snow Capped Cider.
The Snowmass Wine Festival is a homegrown experience not to be missed. Saturday’s weather is predicted to be perfect, 71 sun lovin’ degrees with stellar blue skies.
Take in those breathtaking alpine views. Bask in the friendly company of laid back locals and friends. Hire a babysitter, take the bus and leave the iPhone for a sublimely pleasant al fresco afternoon.