Eat, drink and soak up the scenery at the Taste of Vail

The gather and huddle in the early afternoon, often under the threat of ominous skies threatening to dump buckets of snow in their champagne flutes and on their foie gras. But that doesn't stop the hearty oenophiles and gastronauts from making the airborne gondola pilgrimage to the mountaintop picnic on Vail mountain, which is just one of the altitude-high diversions at this year's Taste of Vail, which uncorks next Thursday and continues through Saturday.

The three-day food-and-wine binge, which includes a series of wine-focused seminars and wine dinners hosted by various Vail Valley restaurants, plus numerous cooking demonstrations, kicks off Thursday afternoon with an après-ski wine tasting and Colorado lamb cook-off (which I'll be judging) in the center of Vail Village and ends with a bang on Saturday night, with a grand tasting and silent wine auction inside the Vail Marriott.

It's a culinary extravaganza that's bereft of the recognizable celebrity chefs that show their mugs around Aspen during the Food & Wine Classic, but it's a terrific precursor to Aspen -- and a whole lot cheaper. A festival pass to the Taste of Vail is $495, but you can also purchase tickets separately to individual events, including the mountaintop picnic ($135); Colorado lamb smackdown and wine tasting ($75); and grand tasting and auction ($175). To purchase tickets, which are selling quickly, go to www.tasteofvail.com/shop/.

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