By Shawn Chitnis
ASPEN, Colo. (CBS4)– A small wine show that hoped to bring more people up into the mountains during the summer is now the premiere event in the country for lovers of good food and unique wines and this weekend the Food & Wine Classic celebrates 35 years as a festival that has transformed the culture around chefs.
“The vision behind the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen to where it started and to what it has become is an extraordinary ride,” said Devin Padgett, Special Projects Producer for the Classic.
In the early 1980s the businesses in Snowmass Village were looking for a way to get more people to visit in the summer, the concept of traveling into the High Country outside of the winter hadn’t caught on yet. They created a wine show to help get visitors excited about spending the summer in town.
“You can’t replicate the mountains in the summertime,” said Debbie Braun, President & CEO of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. “In June it is 70 to 80 degrees, all the big chefs know this to be the first place that they got started.”
The combination of comfortable weather in a beautiful setting was an instant draw and the concept caught on quickly. But back then the glamour around the restaurant business and experiencing good food didn’t exist. There wasn’t a platform to create that view of the industry.
“Chefs weren’t rock stars then, chefs weren’t celebrities,” said Padgett. “Everything is different and we’ve been able to ride that wave.”
A few years into the Classic, Food & Wine became the host and the event moved to Aspen. Each year the festival provided a stage and an audience for chefs and restauranteurs to gain notoriety and become famous.
“We’ve always wanted to be a company that gives back to our merchants as well as card members and the Classic is the perfect place to do be able to do that,” said Danielle Wallis with American Express.
For three days, anyone lucky enough to have a pass to the event can hear from the top chefs, winemakers, and restaurant owners about the latest trends in the industry. They can also enjoy multiple Grand Tastings with 500 wines available and freshly prepared food to pair with it. There is also a 5K run and several outside parties that keep guests busy from morning to night each day of the Classic, which always falls on the third weekend of June.
The event limits the amount of people that can attend each year to 5,000 people. The Classic sells out within the first month of releasing passes for sale. Two-thirds of those registered are returning guests to the festival. Attendees are making a commitment to travel to Aspen six months in advance. That kind of dedication attracts so many high-end vendors and major corporations like American Express.
“This place is so special in the way that is builds a community around this festival,” said Erin Maxwell of American Express, the presenting sponsor of the Classic.
Attendees, vendors, and organizers all agree the scenic background helps to set apart this festival from any other. The early vision to propose an event like this before anyone else had also keeps it in a category of its own. But the town of Aspen also gets credit for embracing the Classic each year.
“If you got invited to Aspen or if you were going to Aspen to the Food & Wine Classic, it was a big deal, it was a big honor,” Padgett said.
The town can keep the seminars, Grand Tastings, and outside events all within a six-block by six-block area, making the entire event walkable for visitors. Aspen also prohibits any construction the week of the Classic. The number of guests and businesses descending on the town also creates a huge economic boost for the city.
“Aspen does get the reputation to be exclusive and high end but that is not who the locals are here, that is not the 500 people who are serving of all of us, who are working in those shows, owning those shops.” said Braun. “We feel like we are just like everyone else and we want to share our little secret with everyone.”
For many attending the Classic, this is their first introduction to Colorado. Braun says it does get people excited to see what else is in the state. Some drive up through Independence Pass and others stay after the weekend to see some of the sights beyond Aspen.
“It should be on everyone’s bucket list,” Braun added. “To make it up here and really see a different part of Colorado that they may not get to see from let’s say from the Metro area.”