The Food & Wine Classic Turns 30

by Amiee White Beazley for Aspen Peak Magazine Summer 2012

The Food & Wine Classic attracts the best local producers as well as an international roster of talent

Every June there is a mantra repeated among industry insiders at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. You might hear it Sunday morning, during the Classic Cook-off, or Saturday afternoon at the height of the Grand Tasting mayhem. But you always hear it—Best. Aspen. Ever! “Somehow every year the Classic exceeds the year before,” says Sissy Biggers, food personality and hostess of the Classic Cook-off. “Maybe it’s the intensity of the experience and the myriad elements, but the Classic is not just about food. It’s also about great colleagues, random encounters, meeting new friends, and seeing old friends.

For its 30th-year celebration, the Food & Wine Classic is going to be bigger and better than ever, with more events for pass holders and community members. This year will see the greatest number of chefs and winemakers, including Mario Batali, Giada De Laurentiis, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Tom Colicchio, Danny Meyer, Jacques Pépin, Michael Symon, Ming Tsai, and more, leading in excess of 80 cooking seminars and demonstrations. Special events will include fireworks (weather and fire ban permitting); a late-night dessert party with Gail Simmons, host of Top Chef: Just Desserts; a 5K charity race through downtown Aspen, hosted by Bobby Flay; and a celebratory 30th anniversary benefit concert and party at the Aspen Music Festival Benedict Tent, with music by Elvis Costello & The Blue Beguilers, and dinner by Batali, José Andrés, and Michel Nischan.

Finally, opening in June and sure to leave a lasting legacy in Aspen is Food & Wine’s first venture into the restaurant business. An exclusive agreement with The St. Regis Aspen resort ushers in Chef’s Club by Food & Wine, a restaurant that will showcase the culinary talent of the magazine’s premier award, its Best New Chefs. Opening in conjunction with the start of the Classic, the new eatery will feature a rotating, biannual menu curated by select chefs. Ray Isle, Food & Wine’s executive wine editor, along with St. Regis Aspen sommelier LeeAnn Kaufman, will pair wines with the dishes, while renowned mixologist and Food & Wine contributing editor Jim Meehan will create a signature and seasonally inspired cocktail menu.

The Classic has become the most distinguished food and wine festival of its kind—the first, the best, “the granddaddy of them all.” But before it set the standard, it started where so many great stories do: with humble beginnings.

Three decades ago, summers in Aspen were quiet. A little too quiet, it turns out, for Gary Plumley, who was (and still is) part owner of the Hopkins Avenue wine and spirits store Of Grape & Grain. Through his connections, and with the support of Snowmass restaurateurs Bob and Ruth Kevan, Plumley organized the first Aspen/ Snowmass International Wine Classic in 1983. Sponsored by American Express, the event featured 22 wineries from around the country, and the response in town was enthusiastic.

Over the next couple of years, the festival increased in popularity, but so did Plumley’s debts. Although hosting the festival cost less than $20,000 annually, organizers were more than $60,000 in the hole. So they sold the festival to the Aspen and Snowmass Chambers, and the next year, in 1987, American Express introduced the festival to Food & Wine.

According to Devin Padgett, current producer of the Classic, Food & Wine at that time had no marketing or events department. Planning the Classic was up to a few women in the circulation and advertising departments on the 16th floor of the American Express Publishing building in Manhattan. And it took only a few months to pull it all off.

“We started working with the staff of Food & Wine, and it was a chuckle because we were country bumpkins and they were, you know, New York City people,” jokes Plumley, who is now 73. “They were a little high-strung and go-go-go. But it all worked, and what a lot of fun it was to work with them.”

Today the Classic is akin to the Oscars for food and wine professionals. The stories and legends, the seminars and grand tastings, the programs that grew from the effort—Best New Chefs, Grow for Good, the Restaurant Trade Program—have all successfully elevated the educators, the influencers, the media, even all the way down to the everyday home cook.

Even after three decades of tastings, food sampling, networking, and celebrating, the Food & Wine Classic is once again born anew. It seems 30 is just the beginning of a new era.

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