Wine Ink: The season for wine festivals

Kelly J. Hayes
Guests pose for a photo in front of the Food and Wine poster during a Grand Tasting for the Food and Wine Classic on Friday.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

John Ragan looked deeply into his glass.

He swirled the wine and made a mental note of both the deep, dark color and the way the viscosity of the wine remained on the glass as “legs,” before rolling down the sides. He then put his nose inside and inhaled deeply.

“Dark fruits, some pepper, I’m going to eliminate pinot noir and gamay from the list,” he said. He took a second sip and turned pensive for a second. “I think it’s a syrah, likely young, old world. Maybe a 2015 Saint-Joseph?”

With that, a brown paper bag was removed from the bottle from which the glass had been poured and sure enough Ragan was right. The wine was from the 2015 vintage, and it was a syrah from the Northern Rhône AOC region of Saint Joseph. The assembled audience gave Ragan, a Master Sommelier and the Director of Wines for the Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, a round of applause.

What Ragan had done was not a parlor trick or the result of simply guessing what was in his glass. Rather, it was an example of him using the extensive database of wine knowledge that he has accumulated in his memory and a process of deductive reasoning to, first eliminate what the wine was not, then determine what it actually was. Everyone in the audience learned something about that process as they too went on the journey to taste, along with Ragan, what was in their glasses.

That is the beauty of attending wine festivals and seminars. The kind that come to cities and towns all across America each summer and fall. More than just places to indulge, or over indulge, they provide patrons and attendees the chance to learn just a little something about wine that they didn’t know before. And that is well worth the price of admission.

The experience I wrote of above took place at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. It is a three-day event that, for the past 36 years, has brought together a collection of the most celebrated and accomplished culinary and wine experts on earth. Ragan was part of a seminar called “Tasting with the Masters” where he, along with fellow Master Sommeliers Dustin Wilson and Sabato Sagaria, took tasters through six glasses of wine as they explained how “the deductive tasting” process works.

But you certainly don’t have to attend a major wine event to learn something new. In fact, at just about every tasting seminar and group tasting event, you can expand your horizons as you learn more about the wider world of wine. All you have to do is be open and attentive.

The best way to get the most out of a local wine event is to look at it as a place to learn. That is, as opposed to a place to get drunk. Don’t worry, tasting wine, even if you simply sip, and spit, will still give you that pleasant buzz. But don’t go to an event thinking that over-consumption is the point. No, the point is to try some things you have never tasted before and to take away a bit of knowledge that you didn’t have before. That’s what makes it fruitful. No pun intended.

If you are in a seminar where you can taste a number of wines side by side, don’t be afraid to take some notes. Even if they are just mental notes. Try to make a determination of what you like, what flavors turn you on … or off. In a general grand tasting, the kind where you can walk around with a glass to a number of different winemakers or vendors, pick a varietal, say chardonnay or pinot noir, and try a number of wines from that grape in a row. Note the variations and the similarities in the way each tastes.

And most importantly, don’t be afraid to pose questions. You can ask about the vintage or the soils, or the location of the winery. Ask about the winemaker and his or her experiences. Ask whether the wine was aged in oak and if so for how long and what effects the oak had on the wine. Ask about how much of the wine was made and what vineyards it may have been grown in. Or simply ask where you can buy the wine.

If you come away with just a nugget or two you will be farther down the road on your wine journey and will have had a better time at your favorite seminar or festival.

Festivals are both fun and educational. Enjoy.

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

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Summit Daily is embarking on a multiyear project to digitize its archives going back to 1989 and make them available to the public in partnership with the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. The full project is expected to cost about $165,000. All donations made in 2023 will go directly toward this project.

Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.