WineInk: The festival season begins | TahoeDailyTribune.com
Kelly J. Haye
Wine Ink

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WineInk: The festival season begins

It was like seeing a rock star.

Just over there, under towering pine that cast a shadow on the snow fort, alone, dressed in ski clothes sans jacket, sat the winemaker Josh Jensen. In front of him on a table were three open bottles of his single vineyard Calera pinot noirs. I shyly hesitated before walking over, glass in hand, to ask for a taste. After all, this was one of my wine heroes. Before I could say a word Josh smiled and without hesitation, gestured with a bottle, looked me in the eye and asked, "Wanna try some pinot?" Instantly I was in rarefied air, atop Vail Mountain on a spring day sipping the wines of one of California's legendary winemakers, with him, as we chatted about his days skiing the French Alps.

Such is the magic of wine festivals.

TASTE OF VAIL

This week, the Taste of Vail opens what could be called the "wine festival season." This will be the 27th rendition of the popular festival, which always kicks off the first week of April (or "Masters weekend," as some call it) and is an undeniable harbinger of spring. It simultaneously marks the end of the ski season and the beginning of the season of the sun, so you never know what you are going to get weather wise. Pack accordingly, people.

Vail is special, not only because of the well-run and stimulating wine seminars, but because it hosts the only tasting event that I know of that takes place nearly 2 miles high in the sky at 10,350 feet. "The Mountain Top Tasting on Vail Mountain," as they officially call it, is where I had the opportunity to meet Josh Jensen, taste his wines and casually converse with the wine icon. It is the casual nature of this event that takes place in a stunning natural environment that makes it so remarkable.

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Winemakers and wine lovers take advantage of the ski-in, ski-out transportation and all are inclined to pour big, taste big and smile big as they drink in the Rocky Mountain scenery. If you have been, you know how special it is. If not, go. It is a bucket list event.

THE VALUE OF WINE FESTIVALS

Wine festivals are maybe the best way to learn about wine. To begin with you are immersed, maybe for a day, or perhaps a weekend, in a world that begins and ends with grapes. There are always group tastings that you can attend and get a look, and a taste, of a number of wines. Pick a favorite region or grape and focus on it. California cabernet your thing? You might be able to taste a dozen in the grand tasting. Where else could you do that? At this weekend's Taste of Vail there will be cabs from Alpha Omega, Hall, Hess Collection and Mt. Brave. And that's just a few of the top Napa names that will be represented.

Second, if you are so inclined, most festivals have individual seminars that allows wine lovers to take a deeper dive into wine. This week at Vail, Master Sommelier Brett Zimmerman will take pinot lovers on a journey around the world in a seminar that features iterations of the grape from Germany's Pfalz region (made by Fritz Becker), Oregon's Willamette Valley (Cristom) and, of course, Burgundy. In an hour you will know more about pinot noir than you did when you woke up that morning.

A FESTIVE SEASON

Food and wine festivals have proliferated in recent years and just about every weekend you can find good ones in places like South Beach, Austin and New York City. But to me, the location has a big impact on the festivals and natural beauty trumps a big city scene.

Three weekends after Taste of Vail is the uber-luxurious Pebble Beach Food & Wine (www.pbfw.com) on the California Coast. Summer kicks off June 16-18 with the 35th Aspen Food & Wine Classic in Aspen (www.foodandwine.com/promo/events/aspen-classic/classic-main). Smaller scale but equally beautiful tasting events can be found in Summit County in July at Breckenridge Food and Wine and in the Sierra in the fall at the Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival.

If one were so inclined, this could be a full season of wine festivals and tastings. But it all begins on a Mountaintop this Friday in Vail.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.