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Wine Magic in the Mountains

Little Nell in Aspen celebrates 20 years of Grand Awards
Photo by: Harvey Steiman
Patagonian chef Francis Mallmann came to Aspen to share his open-fire cooking with guests at the Little Nell's Grand Award celebration.

Posted: Aug 25, 2017 2:00pm ET

Ten sommeliers at the Little Nell, a fancy hotel in the Colorado mountain town of Aspen (population less than 7,000), have earned Master Sommelier pins since 2003, an unheard-of number for any single restaurant. That includes Carlton McCoy, who currently presides over the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning cellar.

To celebrate the 20th consecutive Grand Award, several of those somms came back to pour wines from the cellar for an affluent crowd at Element 47, the Nell's restaurant. Francis Mallmann, the iconoclastic Patagonian chef who is best known for cooking outdoors with fire, hung whole Wagyu rib eyes over smoldering logs at the base of the ski slope outside the door. He made a memorable salad from smoked wild mushrooms. For the joint menu, Element 47's executive chef, Matthew Zubrod, made corn soup.

Talking with the ex-Little Nell somms, I was struck by two things. When I asked about most memorable moments there, not one talked about serving great old vintages of classics from the seemingly limitless supply of such wines. They all talked about the people they served and how the restaurant's wine culture fits into Aspen's.

Jonathan Pullis, who got his M.S. pin in 2009 and is now general manager of the Chefs Club at the St. Regis a few blocks away, noted that Aspen draws famous people. "Living with wine in this little zone of benefits puts me in contact with the world," he said.

Bobby Stuckey, now owner of Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder, thought for a second and recalled a regular guest, a paraplegic, who brought in a guest also confined to a wheelchair—Stephen Hawking, the physicist. "I served them single-vineyard Guigal Côte-Rôties," he recalled with a grin. "They loved it."

Stuckey also fondly remembered Robert and Margrit Mondavi, the icons of California wine. They made a habit of staying at the hotel for New Year's. "They closed the place one New Year's Eve," he recalled. "I have a photo of them in the back room near dawn, still sipping great wines with the staff."

Sabato Sagaria, now chief restaurant officer of Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, was the Little Nell's food and beverage director when he got his pin in 2012.

"I wasn't a mountain biker when I got here, but the culinary team all did it, and they got me involved," Sagaria said. "I couldn't keep up with them at first, but it drove me to get better. The same thing happened when I decided to try for Master Sommelier. I was in way over my head, but Richard [Betts] and Bobby and all the sommeliers pulled me through."

At the celebration, Mallmann, the visiting chef, explained that he loves wine but not food-and-wine matching. "For me, wine is something to share with friends, not to stress over," he said. That might seem anathema to sommeliers, but somm-turned-vintner Raj Parr nodded vigorously.

"That's what we're for," he said, smiling.

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