Wine Ink column: Wine festival season begins with Taste of Vail | SummitDaily.com

Wine Ink column: Wine festival season begins with Taste of Vail

Kelly J. Hayes
Wine Ink

It was a bit like seeing a rock star.

Just over there, under a towering pine that cast a shadow on the snow fort, standing by himself, dressed in ski clothes sans jacket, sat the dashing winemaker Josh Jensen. In front of him on a table were three open bottles of his single-vineyard Calera pinot noirs. I shyly hesitated before walking over, glass in hand, to ask for a taste. After all, this was one of my wine heroes.

Before I could say a word Jensen smiled and, without hesitation, gestured with a bottle, looked me in the eye and asked, "Wanna try some pinot?" Instantly, I was in rarefied air, atop Vail Mountain on a spring day sipping the wines of one of California's legendary winemakers, with him, as we chatted about his days skiing the French Alps.

Such is the magic of wine festivals.

TASTE OF VAIL

This week, the Taste of Vail opens what could be called the wine festival season. This will be the 27th rendition of the popular festival, which always kicks off the first week of April (or "masters weekend," as some call it) and is an undeniable harbinger of spring. It simultaneously marks the end of the ski season and the beginning of the season of the sun, so you never know what you are going to get weather-wise. Pack accordingly, people.

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Vail is special, not only because of the well-run and stimulating wine seminars, but because it hosts the only tasting event that I know of that takes place nearly 2 miles high in the sky at 10,350 feet. The Mountain Top Tasting, as they officially call it, takes place Friday, April 7, and it's where I had the opportunity to meet Jensen, taste his wines and casually converse with the wine icon. It is the casual nature of this event that takes place in a stunning natural environment that makes it so remarkable.

Winemakers and wine lovers take advantage of the ski-in, ski-out transportation, and all are inclined to pour big, taste big and smile big, as they drink in the Rocky Mountain scenery. If you have been, you know how special it is. If not, go. It is a bucket-list event.

THE VALUE OF WINE FESTIVALS

Wine festivals are maybe the best way to learn about wine. To begin with, you are immersed, maybe for a day or perhaps a weekend, in a world that begins and ends with grapes. There are always group tastings that you can attend and get a look, and a taste, of a number of wines. Pick a favorite region or grape and focus on it. California cabernet your thing? You might be able to taste a dozen at The Grand Tasting & Auction. Where else could you do that? At this weekend's Taste of Vail, there will be cabs from Alpha Omega, Hall, Hess Collection and Mt. Brave — and that's just a few of the top Napa names that will be represented.

Second, if you are so inclined, most festivals have individual seminars that allow wine lovers to take a deeper dive into wine. This week at Vail, Master Sommelier Brett Zimmerman will take pinot lovers on a journey around the world in a seminar that features iterations of the grape from Germany's Pfalz region (made by Fritz Becker), Oregon's Willamette Valley (Cristom) and, of course, Burgundy. In an hour, you will know more about pinot noir than you did when you woke up that morning.

A FESTIVE SEASON

Food and wine festivals have proliferated in recent years, and just about every weekend you can find good ones in places such as South Beach, Florida; Austin, Texas; and New York City. But to me, the location has a big impact on the festivals, and natural beauty trumps a big-city scene.

Three weekends after Taste of Vail is the uber-luxurious Pebble Beach Food & Wine on the California Coast (pbfw.com). Summer kicks off June 16 to 18 with the 35th Aspen Food & Wine Classic in Aspen (FoodAndWine.com/promo/events/aspen-classic/classic-main). Smaller scale but equally beautiful tasting events can be found in Summit County in July at Breckenridge Food and Wine and in the Sierras in the fall at the Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival.

If one were so inclined, this could be a full season of wine festivals and tastings. But it all begins on a mountaintop this Friday in Vail.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.

Under The Influence

Calera 2014 Central Coast Pinot Noir — Though Josh Jensen is famed for making single-vineyard pinot noir from his Central California vineyards, this wine features grapes sourced from nine separate vineyards from five different counties on the Central Coast and serves as a perfect introduction to the wines of Calera. Light in the glass, a bit bigger floral bouquet upon the first sniff and then a balanced basket of berries on the palate, this wine will let you know why Jensen is such a treasure.

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