Food & Wine attendees dazzled by celebrity chefs

Wine expert and undeniable Riesling fan Paul Grieco shows off the Riesling tattoo he wore during the recent Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Riesling, said Grieco, is the greatest wine on the planet.

ASPEN — The 28th annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen wrapped up Sunday with a thunderous flourish and a Riesling tattoo.

In the main ballroom of the St. Regis Hotel, TV host and food expert Sissy Biggers proclaimed chef Rick Bayless (Frontera Restaurant in Chicago and others) winner of this year’s Quickfire Cook-off over the equally talented Michael Voltaggio, “Top Chef” season six winner.

This year’s theme was “Make Vegetables Sexy” and Bayless, who specializes in gourmet Mexican cooking, made a tomatillo-and-lobster dish that wowed the judges and the crowd.

These are rock-star-level chefs and the audience simply couldn’t get enough of them, lining up 10 and 12 deep to have their photo taken with the chefs following the competition.

In the crowd, I saw Michael and Maggie Murzanzki of Chicago, whom I first met two days earlier when Maggie bid $4,000 to have lunch with Jacques and Claudine Pepin.

That’s some big coin to spend for a champagne lunch with celebrities, but as Maggie pointed out, there’s more to the story than a long lunch with friends.

All the money goes to fund research into breast cancer through KitchenAid’s program called “Cook for the Cure,” said Brian Maynard of KitchenAid.

“So far, the Aspen Classic has raised nearly $12 million for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and breast-cancer research,” Maynard said to cheers and applause.

That’s one of the many back stories of the Aspen setting, where the glitz often hides the real people who attend the Food & Wine Classic.

You spend your days at cooking demonstrations, wine seminars and wandering the huge Grand Tasting tents, sipping $300 wines and wondering who in the heck are all these people who paid nearly $1,200 to attend.

There are, of course, celebrities and wanna-be celebrities, but there are many others just like the Murzanskis, who spend money for a good time and a great cause.

“We use this weekend to start our summer,” said Michael, a vice president with Central Steel Fabricators in Cicero, Ill. “We’ve been here nine of the last 11 years.”

At the other end of a decidedly quiet Sunday morning in Aspen, there was the very obvious Riesling tattoo sported by New York City restaurateur and self-proclaimed Riesling fanatic Paul Grieco.

Grieco (rhymes with echo) offered a seminar called “Riesling: A World Tour,” and after three days of the Food & Wine Classic, a Sunday morning seminar is unlikely to be very crowded, as he noted.

“People are either too hung over to get up or are over at the St. Regis watching the show,” Grieco offered. “So that means you (in the audience) are either lost or in love with Riesling.

“I’ll be bold enough to presume it’s the latter.”

About the time Sissy Biggers was introducing the Quickfire chefs amid flashing strobe lights and the driving sound of rock music, Grieco was listing what he considered the most-important attributes of a “great” wine.

“Finesse, harmony, complexity, longevity, all these add up,” he said, running his hand through his unruly mane of black hair, flashing the big, bold “Riesling” printed on his forearm.

But it’s terroir, and the ability to communicate terroir, that makes a wine truly great, he said.

“What do I mean by terroir?” he asked. “It’s more than just the soil or the landscape or the weather. It’s a sense of place, it’s what you grow and where you grow it and even the history of the land.”

Riesling, said Grieco, speaks of place like no other grape.

“Riesling is the greatest grape and produces the greatest wines on the planet,” he said. “Riesling is totally transparent, it gives absolute voice to the place it’s grown.”

He laughed about the tattoo on his forearm, and noted we, too, could have one.

“If you love Riesling as much as I do, you’d do this, too,” he said, lifting the arm for all to see. “And so I’ve given you all the opportunity to have a Riesling tattoo.”

It’s not a real tattoo, of course, but rather a temporary water-based mark, and there at our seats were similar wet-and-press-on tattoo kits.

In spite of the hour, and any remaining hangovers, very few of the audience left without their Riesling tattoo.

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