Unlike most of the other 4,998 paying guests at the 2014 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, John and Jan Stenmark will take home with them something big, bold and quite unexpected.
It’s not a little-known wine from an obscure wine-making region or an immense bag of freebie kitchen utensils, plastic wine glasses and intimidating recipes.
Rather, it’s a tattoo, a black one with eye-catching inch-high letters that yell “RIESLING,” something you certainly wouldn’t expect of the quiet, retired couple from Jackson, Mississippi.
But midway through Saturday morning on the second day of this 32nd anniversary edition of the high-country Classic, the Stenmarks discovered it’s difficult to resist the charm and devilish humor of New York City restaurateur and wine educator Paul Grieco, who heralded his 10 a.m. seminar on “Summer of Riesling” by approaching several early arrivals in the audience and offering them quickie, painless water-soluble tattoos.
In short work, the Stenmarks, who said they have been longtime Food & Wine Classic attendees and Riesling fans as well, had matching tattoos on their right forearms, something about which John seemed quite pleased but left Jan a bit more perplexed.
“We don’t have anything like this in Jackson,” said John Stenmark with a grin while admiring the stencil on his arm, and a listener was unsure if he meant the tattoo, Grieco’s unabashed enthusiasm or the Food & Wine Classic in general.
As for Jan, she looked at the tattoo, smiled weakly and wondered aloud, “Do these things wash off?” and then said something about grandchildren, tattoos and Grandma.
It’s all part of the festivities at the (officially) three-day Food & Wine Classic in Aspen (it’s four days if you hit the Thursday welcoming reception), where you can sip, swirl and taste your way through hundreds of wines and sample treats from many of the top chefs in the United States and around the world.
Grieco, recently tabbed the second most-influential wine person in New York City, is a popular speaker at the Classic and again this year his Riesling seminar played to a packed tent at the Aspen Art Museum.
The phrase “Summer of Riesling” refers to the on-premise wine program the iconoclastic Grieco began in 2008 when he banned all white wines by the glass except Riesling in his restaurant.
“Now, about 300 restaurants and wine bars across the U.S. are doing a ‘Summer of Riesling,’” he said. “We simply want to start a conversation with you, our customers, and let you know something happens with Riesling that doesn’t happen with other grapes.”
In a nearby pavilion Anthony Giglio, wine author (10 books, five wine guides and counting) and entertaining and unpretentious wine educator, was exhorting his audience about wines being produced in what he calls the “new” Tuscany, the uncrowded, secluded and wild region of Maremma, on the western coast of Italy’s Tuscany region.
His secret to tasting new wines? Take three sips before you make up your mind.
The first is the rinse to clear your palate, the second is to pay attention to the sensations on the tongue, and third, try it with food.
“Wines, especially Old World wines, are made for food,” Giglio said.
He said that while he was growing up in New Jersey, his Italian family tradition meant wine was served at every meal.
“On our table, we had salt, pepper, grated cheese, olive oil and a jar of those crushed, dried peppers, like you see in a pizza joint,” Giglio said. “And wine, a big pitcher of wine. It was a food, a condiment, something we had every day.”
When someone asked him about how long wine should be kept and stored, he shook his head and said too many times expensive wine collections are held too long, only to be sold cheaply at estate-sale auctions.
“Remember three things: Drink your wine when it’s alive, drink your wine when you’re alive, and buy old wines when you want them,” he advised.
The food side of the Classic was just as exuberant and wide-ranging. From Spanish chef José Andrés’ much-awaited outdoor barbecue where whole pigs were turning on the spit and nibbles included the “José Andrés taco” of thin-sliced Fermin ham wrapped around a spoon of caviar to the advice of cheese authority Laura Werlin that sparkling wines match well with rich, ripe cheeses and the standing-room audience ready to fawn over the father/daughter kitchen-magic team of Jacque and Claudine Pépin, it was a weekend with too much to see, hear and indulge.
It’s pricey ($1,250 for the coveted and fast-selling weekend pass) and can be demanding, particularly if you fail to stay hydrated, sample too freely during the five one-hour and 45-minute Grand Tastings or simply forget to get enough sleep (oh, yes, there is that).
But where else can you reach out to many of the top wine experts, watch the world’s best chefs create their magic from old favorites to the latest culinary trends or taste wines from A (Albariño) to Z (Zinfandel)?
Only in Aspen, where you might even go home with a new tattoo.