The Bite

When you think of wine festivals in Colorado, Aspen and Vail usually come to mind: The grape-celebrating events in those towns have been around so long and have become so popular that Aspen's Food & Wine Festival looks like spring break in Florida (well, it would if people wore their furs and stashed their dogs in their purses in Florida), and the Taste of Vail has a waiting list

It was about time for this state to offer something less ostentatious and more accessible for the common wine drinker. It was about time for the Estes Park Wine Festival, which got off to a modest start this past weekend.

Of course, Emeril Lagasse wasn't there to bam! things, and Jacques Pepin was too busy accepting Father of the Year awards to take notice. But the folks who attended this, the first annual Estes Park festival, got something they'll never get in Aspen or Vail: attention. The participants were positively pampered, with unlimited access to the presiding chef, Marc Grandmaison of the hosting Stanley Hotel, and lots of personal time with relaxed wine merchants who were able to drop the stiff stuffiness and enjoy the goings-on along with everyone else.

When Grandmaison moved to Colorado last September from Rhode Island, where the 34-year restaurant veteran owned the Seaport Tavern on the water in Wickford, he realized that the Estes Park area had as much to offer as towns that put on big wine tastings. "Look at how beautiful it is here, with the lake and Rocky Mountain National Park nearby," he says. "We have excellent restaurants and residents who love food and wine. I wanted to bring new blood to the area, bring some different businesses, and knowing how well wine tastings do back East, I thought this might fly here."

Along with Monty House, owner of Estes Park's popular Grumpy Gringo eatery, Grandmaison contacted wine merchants, chose two nonprofits -- the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Colorado and Quota International -- to be recipients of the proceeds and assembled a weekend-long roster of wine seminars and tastings. The careful planning paid off: The usual first-year snafus were kept to a minimum last weekend, and a good time seemed to be had by all. (As at most wine-related events, an even better time was had by some...)

Grandmaison had never been to either the Aspen or Vail festivals -- and that may have been a good thing. "It could have made it hard for me to try to pull this off," he admits. "I might have felt like, 'Who am I kidding?'" Instead, he tried to fashion Estes Park's event along the lines of wine festivals in Rhode Island. "I just wanted people to be able to get into it, to try some new things and to see what the area has going for it," he explains.

Among the things Estes Park has going for it is the Stanley (inspiration for Stephen King's The Shining), fresh off the first of several major renovation projects planned by owner John Cullen. Wine couple Christopher and Ashley Rowe -- he's the director of training and education for Southern Wine & Spirits, she's an on-premises wine specialist for National Distributing Company -- had stayed at the Stanley five years ago, and they were impressed by the changes made since then. The Stanley's Concert Hall, whose seven layers of flooring had been removed to reveal the original 1909 hardwood floors, hosted the first tasting Friday afternoon ($25 per person); forty or so attendees were treated to about as many pounds of cheese, all brought in by the Cheese Importers Warehouse (33 South Pratt Parkway, Longmont). A wheel of the Swiss-like French Madrigal was football-sized, and there was so much Haystack Mountain goat cheese, a Colorado product, that people were taking hunks as big as baseballs and smearing it on fresh-baked bread. And because the tasting lines weren't ten people deep, everyone got a chance to chat with the unusually jovial wine merchants.

The surprise wine at that tasting turned out to be the Lemberger from the seven-year-old Trail Ridge Winery, based in Loveland, of all places. (It's at 4113 West Eisenhower Boulevard.) Winemaker Tim Merrick was there in person to pour and chat; he was particularly proud of the Lemberger -- and rightly so. Based on the German grape of the same name -- it's sometimes spelled Limberger, but should never be confused with the cheese -- this wine had a Zinfandel quality with a lighter finish but similar soft, round, velvety berry tones. Retailing for $11, it's available locally at Applejack Wine & Spirits (3320 Youngfield, Wheat Ridge), which stocks several other Trail Ridge offerings (the Riesling is a nice sipper) as well as more Colorado-produced wines. At the gala dinner ($100 per person) that night in the Stanley's Cascades Restaurant, it was Grandmaison's turn to shine, with a seven-course meal -- when was the last time you had a seven-course meal, anyway? -- that started with scallop-rimmed risotto and ended with a ganache-covered cake, with a fantastic basil-strewn mango sorbet and a prosciutto-stuffed filet in between.

The next day included wine seminars and tastings (most of them $25 to $35 per person -- a bargain given the ratio of one wine rep for every six participants), a reprise of the cheese blowout, and then individual wine dinners at area restaurants. I was lucky enough to be at the French repast ($65 per person) at the Silverado at Lake Shore Lodge (1700 Big Thompson Avenue), the only commercial establishment on Lake Estes, a mountain-lodge-looking establishment with a stunning view of Twin Sisters and Longs Peak. Chef John Bunting sent out five courses, including a well-assembled, seafood-packed bouillabaisse matched with baby vegetables and a textbook-perfect, saffron-kissed aioli, as well as an intriguing dessert of strudel filled with apples, raisins and goat cheese. The food was beautifully matched with Christopher Rowe's selections from four French regions, the best of which was a Rhone-based 1997 Chateau Redortier Gigondas -- 60 percent Granache, 20 percent Syrah and 20 percent Cinsault -- whose wonderfully deep, well-rounded and slightly peppery flavor went beautifully with the multiple flavors of the bouillabaisse; it retails for about $20 locally. The finale was smashing, too: an intensely peach-flavored liqueur out of Burgundy called Trenel Fils Crème de Peche ($40, and worth every penny).

Based on the smiles of festivalgoers exiting Sunday's all-you-could-still-manage-to-eat champagne brunch, Estes Park has a corker with its Festival of Wines. Circle your calendar for May 3-5, 2002 -- and plan on leaving your furs at home.