By Kim Fuller Published in Vail Daily
When spring arrives in Vail, we raise our glasses to completing one season and celebrating the coming of another. The annual Taste of Vail food and wine festival brings together locals and visitors with mountain appetites, and this year, the weekend will really be in full bloom in its 26th season, with seminars, signature events and even a pink pairing, as the Taste of Vail coincides with Pink Vail on Saturday.
“Living in Vail, there will always be other events that are happening,” said Angela Mueller, executive director of Taste of Vail. “We feel that Pink Vail has helped bring more presence to our Debut of Rose event that is happening today at the Arrabelle Grand Ballroom from 3 to 6 p.m.”
The Taste of Vail and Pink Vail events will both feature Chateau d’Esclans winery and its French rose offerings. Mueller said the Taste of Vail’s signature events evolve every year. The Debut of Rose will be held indoors for the first time, so cooler temperatures won’t put a damper on the spring-inspired tasting.
Festival participants can indulge and learn throughout the weekend, with a lineup of seminars such as Speed Dating with Pinot Noir and Cigar Tasting, and new this year, What Puts the Pop Inside of Sparkling Wine? and Wake Up and Smell the Rose.
Chefs and winemakers create unique flare within the overall experience of the festival. Mueller said chefs have been working to make special offerings for every event.
“For us, the Lamb Cook-Off is a perennial favorite,” said Paul Anders, executive chef of Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard. “I think most chefs are a touch competitive by nature, so the element of a judged competition adds a little extra fuel to the fire.”
Anders and his chef team often take home wins at the cook-off. Last year, Mountain Standard won top honors in the event’s 11th year.
“Between the two restaurants, we are lucky enough to have 10 talented chefs,” he said. “This gives us the opportunity to collaborate, taste and critique our items with a lot of good palates.”
For these types of tasting events, Anders said the team tries to make something that’s portable and easy to eat, while still packing in a lot of flavor. This year, he said he has decided to pass the torch to let other chefs take the reins with the cook-off. Sweet Basil sous chef Sal Salazar and Josh Monopoli, of Mountain Standard, will represent the restaurants this year.
Anders said the Mountain Top Tasting is another festival standout. Picture a snow fort on top of Vail Mountain, filled with gourmet selections of food and wine — a truly elevated way to experience gourmet.
“I can’t think of too many opportunities to attend an outdoor food and tasting event on top of a mountain at 10,000 feet,” he said. “It’s unique and special for sure.”
The chef will keep his coat on past the tasting, as he heads to the base of Golden Peak for the James Beard Foundation’s Celebrity Chef Tour at Larkspur. Anders will cook alongside local and visiting chefs, including Denver-based Jennifer Janinski, of Bistro Vendome, and Troy Guard, of TAG Restaurant.
The chef dinner, along with engaging seminars and a Taste of Vail-debut Sunday brunch, will keep eager taste buds buzzing throughout the weekend, but it’s definitely the signature events that bring in the biggest crowds, year after year.
“All three major food events are unique, exiting and get me looking forward to spring,” said Brian Busker, Matsuhisa Vail executive chef. “The Lamb Cook-Off gives us a chance for some friendly competition between restaurants. The Mountaintop (Tasting) says it all — amazing restaurants and wine, flawless views and one heck of a party on top of Vail Mountain.”
Don’t lose your appetite, as the climactic Grand Tasting event is the delectable finale to the weekend, and this year, there’s even a Sunday brunch at The Remedy Bar in The Four Seasons to complete the fun.
“To top it all off,” Busker said, “the Grand Tasting allows us chefs to relax, have fun, enjoy each other’s food and mingle with our guests who made this season possible.”
FOOD FESTIVAL STRATEGIES
Sean Razee, beverage director and master sommelier for Vail Resorts, said with any large food and wine tasting event, it’s important to slow down and pace yourself.
“If you have time, get a list of the participating wineries and restaurants and find just a couple that you particularly want to seek out,” Razee said.
When he gets to an event, Razee usually does a walk-through of the entire venue to get an overview before sipping on anything or tasting any food.
“I scope out things I want to try and make mental notes of where I want to end up later,” he said.
Anders agreed that it’s imperative to take your time, walk around the entire event and see everything that’s available.
“Once I have a good idea of what’s offered, I would start light with white wines or rose, paired with raw fish, salad and other lighter-style items,” he said. “Then you can move on to the red wines with more meaty items.”
Razee said to enjoy the restaurants and wine producers you already are familiar with, and to also take opportunities to learn about new outlets and purveyors.
“The more well-known wine tables will have the longest lines,” he said. “I shoot for tables with wines that I’m less familiar with so that I can also get a chance to ask a question or two about the wine while I am there.”
Razee also follows a rule (and he adds that the rule gets a little vague toward the end of an event): one glass of water or one plate of food for every three wines tried.
“I like to stack my visits to the food tables up front,” he said. “Ideally, I’d hit about five food tables and five wine tables within the first 30 minutes.”
After he has tried some dishes and had a chance to chat with chefs, he said he goes back into his mental map and starts to visit the locations he pinpointed on his initial walk-through. By this time, some of the longer lines have become shorter and he has a wider range of opportunity to taste and talk.
Finally, don’t worry too much about trying to pair food and wine at these events. Although Razee said he somehow always has a glass of sparkling wine in his hand when he visits a seafood table. He occasionally looks for a particular style of wine to pair with a particular dish, or vice versa.
“But sometimes all the plates and dishes can become a bit of a blur — particularly later in the event,” he said. “This is when I break out my camera phone. Take pictures of the wines you like and make a reservation at the restaurant whose food you enjoyed.”
Razee said he recommends using an app such as Delectable to take notes and to do self-ratings of the wines you like.
Between implementing his own tasting strategies during the Taste of Vail’s signature events, Razee will be leading a food and wine pairing seminar, Deliciousness Decoded: Battle Crostini, with two other master sommeliers on Saturday from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at Terra Bistro.