On Saturday night, about halfway through the eating and drinking marathon that is the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, I accidentally stumbled into the wrong tequila party at the Hotel Jerome.
It was easy enough to do, considering that by the end of the night I had counted at least three different tequila parties happening at the Jerome at the same time. The Código 1530 party, which we weren’t supposed to be attending, was about a 30-second walk from the Milagro salsa party I had RSVP’d for, which was maybe a minute or two away from the Chef’s Dinner with Carlos Gaytán and Casa Dragones.
The mishap was right on par with the kind of elegant debauchery that you’d expect from the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, where attendees spend most of the weekend well-fed and day-drunk on sips and bites that push the boundaries of gastronomy and mixology and winemaking. The festival looks extravagant because it is.
But consumption is really only part of the point. At seminars about cabernets, panels of industry professionals and end-of-festival celebrations, the conversation revolved around change and advocacy as much as (or even more than) flavor or technique.
The message, time and again, was that the things we eat and drink are part of a social and natural ecosystem that we ought to care about, and care for.
Take climate change and winemaking, for instance. At a Sunday morning seminar on “Superstar Cabernets from Around the World,” an audience member asked about the relationship between the two. The conversation, wine expert Ray Isle said, might stretch the seminar from one hour to five.
“That is a huge question, and a crucial one,” Isle said.
Up on stage with him were winemakers
Braiden Albrecht from Mayacamas Vineyards in the Napa Valley and Andrew Latta from Latta Wines in Washington state, both of whom have seen the way wildfires can change the experience of winemaking and wine drinking.
In a hotter, drier climate with more frequent and larger wildfires, it isn’t just the threat of the flames but also the threat of the smoke that impacts winemakers. Parts of Mayacamas Vineyards got scorched in the 2017 Nuns fire; smoke in the Columbia River Gorge in Washington reached hazardous levels in 2020.
For wine drinkers, it could mean the difference between a sip with a rich, smoky essence and something that tastes more like “licking an old ashtray,” Isle said.
“Things getting hotter we can manage,” Latta said. Irrigation and shade can help with that, he said, “and we’ve all kind of learned to adapt over the last 10 years or so. …Smoke taint is insidious.”
A day earlier, chef and media personality Andrew Zimmern had the climate on his mind too, plus food insecurity and hunger. During a seminar on invasive species, he cited the walleye fish that are impacting native species in the Colorado River — and suggested the solution might be in the skillet.
“It is degrading the river system, and we know how important water is right now, especially out here in the West,” Zimmern said. “So whereas that’s a delicacy, 1,200 miles, 1,500 miles from here, it’s Public Enemy No. 1 here in this part of the world.”
Why not eat it then, he suggested. The cooking demonstration focused mostly on technique and preparation of other invasive species — an iguana that smelled divine sizzling in the pan and a carp that several audience taste-testers described as outstanding. But Zimmern still took some time to offer what he jokingly referred to as a “lecture and parental finger-wagging.” It was more earnest than he might have let on.
“In my heart, I think we all have to do our part to make our world a better place for other people,” Zimmern said.
Chef Kwame Onwuachi, who is the executive producer of Food & Wine, likewise emphasized that message at a Juneteenth celebration at Aspen Meadows Resort on Sunday. He collaborated with Food & Wine, the McBride Sisters wine company and Aspen Meadows, which is managed by Salamander Resorts and Hotels.
During a brief speech, Onwuachi recalled a phone call with Food & Wine Editor-in-Chief Hunter Lewis, who connected with the James Beard Award-winning chef to “figure out what we can do to make the world af—ing better place, ” Onwuachi said.
The event celebrated what is now a federal holiday: Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the date that troops arrived in Galveston, Texas and announced that enslaved Black people in the state were free more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. It also celebrated Black culinary talent, tradition and diversity in the industry, Onwuachi noted.
“Look at this room: Can we take a second to soak this … in? Can we? Because it’s beautiful, it’s diverse,” Onwuachi said.
“I love to see all these beautiful people coming together, celebrating at this amazing resort, eating like, jerk chicken in Aspen, you know what I’m saying?” he added later.
Robin McBride, who with her sister Andréa created the McBride Sisters wine company, is part of that too. The company is the largest Black-owned wine company in the United States, and the McBride Sisters make a point to create space for other Black people in the industry.
“We really immediately saw the lack of women, the lack of people of color or lack of Black people in the industry, and it really quickly became our mission to make positive change in the space,” she said.
There seems to be an appetite for this kind of positive change, pastry chef Paola Velez noted during a panel discussion at the Classic on Saturday. She co-founded Bakers Against Racisma grassroots bake sale that has raised millions for social justice causes worldwide, but when the organization was launching, she wasn’t so sure it would be a success.
“I started speaking out about injustices in the culinary industry, and I thought that I was going to get blacklisted,” Velez said in the seminar. “But instead, my organization was able to go into four continents, 200-plus US cities, and (we) were able to fundraise for social justice classes, just using our baked goods and positivity.”
And, just like a shared dish might go around the table, Velez suggested attendees take some insight and pass it on.
“I want you to deconstruct what you think food is, and then allow us to reconstruct what it is in this new reality that we live in,” she said. “We do this because we love you guys. We love food. We love our cultures. We love how it bridges the gap between diverse peoples, so allow us to inform you of the new reality, and help us to spread the word as well.”