Aspen, Colo., tucked high in the Rocky Mountains, may not be an ideal indicator of economic trends in America. But at the luxury hotel the Little Nell, the expensive wines have started to fly out of the cellar. It has sommelier Carlton McCoy shaking his head in wonder.
Bottles and magnums of first-growth Bordeaux and big-name Burgundy stud a 700-bottle glassed-in wine storage unit that holds a bottle or two of the most-ordered wines and some top-shelf labels. It runs the length of a cocktail bar at the entrance to Element 47, the awkwardly renamed restaurant that has retained the Wine Spectator Grand Award won by its previous incarnation, Montagna.
"We have people who come in here four, five nights a week," said McCoy, who recently replaced Jonathan Pullis as sommelier. "They don't even look at a wine list. They just point at a bottle in the glass case and sometimes they don't even ask the price." Sales of big-ticket wines have exploded here. "Those great bottles aren't trophies for the display case," he said. "They're moving."
Of course, this is Aspen, where $20 million homes dot the mountainsides. But not everyone in town is super-wealthy. Some are just well-heeled or, like me and my friends here, maybe qualify as comfortable. And during the past five years' economic slump, McCoy said, the average price of a bottle sold was $150, still a fairly high number anywhere (and the markups are not excessive, either). Today it's $250 and climbing, and that's in a restaurant shorn of its lavish trappings in a remodel aimed at making it more user-friendly.
Element 47 (silver on the periodic table) references Aspen's founding as a mining town. One of those mines was the original Little Nell. The dining room, once detailed in turned wood, now has a sleek, modern New York look, with lots of gray and straight lines. The menu, previously prix-fixe with several options for each course, offers the same style of outstanding locally-focused cuisine from chef Robert McCormick's kitchen, but à la carte.
"It makes it more approachable," said Sabado Sagaria, the hotel's food and beverage director. "It requires less commitment. Our guests like to start in the bar, have a few small plates or share plates, and move into the dining room. This is much more flexible."
And the wine cellar, if anything, is growing. The list currently has 1,500 selections with 20,000 bottles in the cellar, plus an additional 4,000 bottles aging in storage, at least 300 selections not yet on the list. Among these are cases of Domaine Fourrier, a highly prized Burgundy producer just now becoming available in Colorado. The village-level wines are on the list, the premier cru and grand cru bottles in storage for further aging. The storage area looks like it can handle a further 50 percent increase easily.
Another change to the list is a concerted effort to add more "playful" varietals and bottlings to the 25 wines by the glass as additional alternatives to the Pinot Grigio/Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc that customers seek everywhere. "The secret is to price the alternative $1 or $2 lower to encourage people to try them," said McCoy. I dropped by for a lovely sip of Abbazia di Novacella Kerner 2011, priced $1 less than the obligatory Pinot Grigio and remarkable for its plush texture and complex flavors.
The wine list has been redesigned to make it more approachable, with pullout selections such as "Patio Pounders" (refreshing summer wines) to help less profligate guests find what they want in a long list. The redesigned typography is sharp and readable.
On a recent visit, after studying the list for a few minutes, I closed the book and challenged McCoy to find us a wine for about $100 to drink with our chicken with summer black truffles, striped bass with Rancho Gordo beans and house-made bacon, and Emma Farms wagyu steaks with morel mushrooms and bone marrow. (All of those were as good as they sound.) He came back with Donelan Syrah Russian River Kobler Vineyard 2009 ($102 on the list), deftly balanced enough for the fish and sufficiently ripe and peppery for the meat and chicken. We drained it quickly.