Robin McBride, co-owner of the McBride Sisters Wine Company along with her sister Andrea, performs alongside Salamander Hotels and Resorts owner Sheila Johnson and chef Kwame Onwuachi during the June 19 celebration at Aspen Meadows on Sunday, June 19, 2022.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

On a Saturday night, about halfway through the food and drink marathon, which is an Aspen food and wine classic, I stumbled across the wrong tequila party at the Jerome Hotel.

This was easy enough to do, given that by the end of the night I had counted at least three different tequila parties going on at Jerome’s at the same time. The Código 1530 party we weren’t supposed to attend was about a 30 second walk from the Milagro salsa party I asked RSVP for, which was maybe a minute or two away from the chef’s dinner with Carlos Gaitán and Casa Dragones.

The failure was on par with the elegant debauchery you would expect from Aspen’s Food & Wine Classic, where patrons spend most of the weekend full and drunk on sips and morsels that push the boundaries of gastronomy. and mixology and winemaking. The festival looks extravagant because it is.

A large sign hangs in the Grand Tasting tent at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic on Saturday, June 18, 2022.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

But consumption is only part of the story. In Cabernet workshops, industry professional groups, and end-of-festival celebrations, the conversation revolved around change and propaganda as much as (or more) taste or technique.

The message over and over again has been that what we eat and drink is part of a social and natural ecosystem that we must care for and take care of.

Pastry chef and activist Paola Vélez chats with local Aspen chef Emily Oyer at a grand tasting during the second day of the Aspen Food and Wine Classic on Saturday, June 18, 2022.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Take, for example, climate change and winemaking. At a Sunday morning seminar on “Superstar Cabernets from Around the World,” one of the attendees asked about the relationship between the two. A conversation, according to wine expert Ray Isle, could stretch a seminar from one hour to five.

“This is a huge question, and a very important one,” Isle said.

There were vintners on stage with him

Braden Albrecht of Mayacamas Vineyards in Napa Valley and Andrew Latta of Latta Wines in Washington State have both seen how wildfires can change the winemaking and drinking experience.

In hotter and drier climates with more frequent and larger wildfires, winemakers are affected not only by the threat of flames but also by the threat of smoke. Parts of the Mayacamas vineyards burned down in the 2017 Nuns Fire; Smoke in the Columbia River Gorge in Washington DC reached dangerous levels in 2020.

For wine drinkers, this can mean the difference between a sip of rich, smoky essence and something that tastes more like “licking an old ashtray,” Isle said.

“Things are getting hotter and we can handle it,” Latta said. Irrigation and shade can help, he says, “and we’ve all learned to adapt over the past 10 years or so. … The smell of smoke is insidious.”

A day earlier, chef and media personality Andrew Zimmern was also thinking about the climate, as well as food shortages and hunger. During a workshop on invasive species, he mentioned walleye that affects native species in the Colorado River and suggested that the solution might be in the pan.

“This is leading to the degradation of the river system, and we know how important water is right now, especially here in the West,” Zimmern said. “So while it’s a delicacy, 1,200 miles, 1,500 miles away, it’s public enemy #1 here in this part of the world.”

Why not eat it then, he suggested. The cooking demonstration focused mainly on the technique and cooking of other invasive species – the iguana, which smelled like divine hissing in the pan, and the carp, which several tasters called outstanding. But it still took some time for Zimmern to offer what he jokingly called “a lecture and parental finger-wiggle.” It was more serious than he could show.

Andrew Zimmern and Paola Velez participate in the morning panel discussion at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen on Saturday, June 18, 2022.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

“Deep down, I think we should all do our part to make our world a better place for other people,” Zimmern said.

Chef Kwame Onwuati, who is the Executive Producer of Food & Wine, also highlighted the message at the June 19 celebration at the Aspen Meadows Resort on Sunday. He has partnered with Food & Wine, McBride Sisters and Aspen Meadows, a wine company run by Salamander Resorts and Hotels.

During the short speech, Onwuachi recalled a phone call with Food & Wine editor-in-chief Hunter Lewis, who contacted the James Beard award-winning chef to “find out what we can do to make the world a better place,” Onwuachi said.

The event commemorated what is now a federal holiday: June 19, 1865, marks the date troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and declared that the state’s enslaved blacks were free more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Onwuachi noted that he also noted black culinary talent, tradition, and diversity in the industry.

“Look at this room: can we dive into this for a second…? We can? Because it’s beautiful, it’s diverse,” Onwuati said.

“I love seeing all these beautiful people get together, celebrate at this amazing resort, eat like dried chicken in Aspen, you know what I mean?” he added later.

Robin McBride, who, along with her sister Andrea, created the McBride Sisters wine company, is also part of it. The company is the largest black-owned wine company in the United States, and the McBride sisters are committed to creating space for other blacks in the industry.

“We really saw a shortage of women, a shortage of people of color, or a shortage of blacks in the industry right away, and our mission very quickly became to make positive changes in the space,” she said.

There seems to be a desire for this kind of positive change, Pastry Chef Paola Vélez noted during a panel discussion at Classic on Saturday. She co-founded Bakers against racisma massive bake sale that raised millions for social justice causes around the world, but when the organization launched it wasn’t so sure it would be a success.

“I started talking about injustice in cooking and I thought I would be blacklisted,” Velez said at the workshop. “But instead, my organization was able to reach four continents, to more than 200 cities in the US, and (we) were able to raise funds for social justice classes just by using our pastries and positivity.”

And, just like a shared dish can be spread around the table, Veles invited the participants to take some ideas and share them.

“I want you to destroy what you think food is and then let us reconstruct what it is in this new reality 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 different people, so let us inform you about the new reality and help us spread the word.”

Food & Wine Classic attendees drink and chat at the Grand Tasting tent in Aspen on Saturday, June 18, 2022.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

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