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We take for granted, here in Aspen, that “Aspen” – as a name, as a brand, as a resort – connotes, of course, world-class. That’s why Europe’s most famous fashion houses open stores here. It’s why the planet’s wealthiest citizens buy ski homes here and why many of its smartest and most influential citizens will be convening here later this month to share ideas.

But what does “world-class” mean and what about Aspen helps it achieve that level? 

A good way to gauge is to consider whether something draws the world to town the way the skiing, shopping and real estate do. The Aspen Ideas Fest and the Aspen Music Festival and School certainly qualify, and then there’s this weekend, the Food & Wine Classic, when our little mountain town becomes the epicenter of the culinary and viticultural realms. Make no mistake: Food & Wine is as world-class as anything you’ll find around here, and in many ways it’s even more so.

“It’s always been my favorite,” says Charlotte Voisey about the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, and she should know. An award-winning mixologist and head of the brand ambassador program for William Grant & Sons (distiller of Glenfiddich Scotch, Hendrick’s Gin, Drambuie and other labels), it’s the London-born Voisey’s job to travel to food and drink shindigs around the world.

“Not only does it strike me as the most organized festival of its kind,” says Voisey, “but the dedication to sustainability, whether its recycling or using biodegradable elements – [I tell people who run other festivals] if you want to see things done properly you really should come out and see how they do it [in Aspen].”

It’s an interesting slant, but it’s just a small part of the reason why, despite its focus on grapes and grub, Aspen Food & Wine has become a big-time event in Voisey’s spirits world and is threatening, with its first-ever beer seminar this year, to become a major player in the craft brewing scene as well. Much of the rest of Food & Wine’s appeal comes from just that sort of product diversity and its enviable balance between interested tradespeople and wealthy imbibers.

“Some of the events we work on each year are just for trade, meeting with importers only,” says Antonio Rallo, president of Sicilia DOC (Wines of Sicily), which represents some of the finest vineyards from a winemaking region three times the size of New Zealand’s. “This is a big event because it gives us a chance to meet some of the best wine consumers from around the world. … [For that combination of trade and high-class consumers] I think it’s number one.”

Tasked with representing and preserving Sicily’s wines and its two most notable indigenous grapes – white grillo and red nero d’Avola – Rallo made his first visit to Aspen Food & Wine last year and so enjoyed the experience (“that’s why we’re coming once again – terrific, very good”), that he and Sicilia DOC will be back this year with an expanded booth in the grand tasting pavilion and some 40 premium wines to pour. 

Rallo will be joined by compatriots from such far-flung locales as New Zealand, Australia, Chile, South Africa, Germany, Portugal, France and one particular region that has long recognized Aspen Food & Wine for the world-class juggernaut it is.

“No other festival I’ve attended has such a huge presence just from one country, which is the country of Spain,” says Laura Werlin, whose career as cheese author, speaker and all-around obsessive takes her to events all over the place. “I mean, Spain has its own tent. … I’ve never seen that anywhere else.”

A passionate advocate of America’s world-class artisanal cheeses, veteran of numerous Food & Wine Classics and a regular visitor to Aspen, Werlin will be leading two seminars this year: “To Brie or Not to Brie,” which concerns exactly what its name implies, and “A Love Letter to Napa and Sonoma,” co-hosted with restaurateur and former Little Nell sommelier Bobby Stuckey, which will delve into the excellent wine-and-cheese pairings of California’s most famous winemaking counties.

It might seem like standard fare for Werlin, but this is Aspen Food & Wine, the big one, and this is an event that makes everyone want to step up their game.

“This is a festival for which I raise the bar like no others,” says Werlin. “I always want to bring in the very best cheeses and wines I can for this event. But Aspen Food & Wine is totally worth it.”

Special Sections Editor