Food On The Move: The Durango Wine Experience

The Durango Wine Experience Is A Marathon, Not A Sprint

Dan Pennington
11 min read
A Weekend Dream Come True
There was so much to see, and a lot of people to see it with. (Dan Pennington)
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I’m still the new guy around the office, and I’m still getting the hang of this “writing about food” thing, so I was surprised to get offered the chance to go to Durango, Colorado this past weekend to attend the Durango Wine Experience. With minimal planning, I loaded the car with my weekend essentials and made the drive. My entire weekend was spent figuring out how to do this event justice, and I think it’s a combination of four parts that coalesce to create the authentic Durango Wine Experience.

The Town – My spatial awareness is horrible. I was surprised to find out that Durango is only a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Albuquerque. It was my first time visiting Durango, other than pit stops I’d made while heading elsewhere, and the first time I got the chance to truly appreciate what a wonder this town is. In a way, it feels like stepping into the past; with a mix of Western-styled buildings and signs, in a quiet town setting straight out of the 1950s, there was such a sense of calm and relaxation everywhere I went. Durango has a magical charm that caught me off guard. Everyone was so friendly and kind, cars were parked everywhere with windows rolled down and left unattended, dogs walked off leash calmly, and the cool mountain air was refreshing.

I was lucky enough to stay at the Rochester Hotel & Leland House, a set of family-owned and incredibly unique historic hotels across the street from each other. Each room is different in some way, lending it a charm that permeates the entire establishment. Kirk Komick, who renovated and now owns the properties with his mother Diane Wildfang, was kind enough to show me around and tell me the history of the hotel, including the many films shot in Durango that helped inspire the unique rooms. Ava, a staff member, was even kind enough to rush a quarter to me when she found out I was parked in front of a meter that wasn’t paid. The Durango community seems to be inexplicably filled with some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Ruby and Matt, two people I’d meet later at the first wine tasting of the trip, invited me out on the town to show off their favorite spots and for drinks immediately afterward. For no reason other than that we all vibed with each other and they truly loved Durango so much they wanted to show off the best of it to a newcomer. When I say this town has a special wonder to it, these small moments contribute hugely to that.

The Wine – My lord, there was wine. What surprised me more was that there were tons of craft beers and spirits there, too. I had mentally prepared for the wine, but I wasn’t at all set to handle the sheer amount of alcohol being presented to me. I had been in the city all of 20 minutes before I had to shuffle a few streets down to make it in time for a rum tasting session. Featuring six unique rums, including an arrack (think rum, but southeast Asian-styled, typically using sugar cane as well as rice, grain or fruit local to the region) that was a totally new experience for my mouth, the next hour was spent learning the history of rum itself, the politics of the rum industry and the science behind various styles. All of this happened within El Moro Tavern, which provided snacks, including some amazing chicharrónes (ancho dusted, no less) and roasted bone marrow with grilled crostini.

From there, I was whisked away to the Secret Garden at the Rochester, where a group of vendors were set up to do a large tasting of all styles of wines and spirits. Now, all this happened in my first two hours in Durango on a Friday afternoon, which means I hadn’t attended anything from the full list of Thursday events, and the events they had held that morning. This should have clued me in to the fact that this event is a marathon rather than a sprint, but I had already committed to doing as much as I could. What followed was two hours of walking through this space and meticulously trying everything on offer.

Some of the stand-out memorable drinks included the Bastianich Orsone Sauvignon, a light, well-structured, fruity wine, featuring complex flavors and a medium finish. Sitting directly next to it was a bunch of canned wine. La Bulle-Moose de Cigare stood out in stark contrast to the bottles surrounding it, in a black can with the image of a pink moose. This bubbly pink blend (grenache and grenache blanc make up 75 percent of the blend) was surprisingly refreshing. Another slightly fruity wine, it made me rethink canned wine. What used to be the joke gift of the wine industry has made some solid strides; canned wine can be great wine. Finally, there was Marble Distilling.

As a 505 native, I did a double take. Not to be confused with local beer heroes Marble Brewing, this Colorado distilling group took craft spirits to a new level. Not content with a line of regular drinks, they aimed for something new and fascinating. While everything they had on display for testing is worth an article unto itself, the one I want to highlight most was their Moonlight EXpresso coffee liqueur. Featuring only four ingredients, this smooth liqueur is made with roasted dark Guatemalan coffee beans and Ugandan vanilla to create a dark liquid that shoots magic through your veins and jolts you awake. Not too bitter, not too sweet and featuring a drink recipe that would make The Dude proud, this was a hugely unexpected find to come across.

As immense as the walkabout through the garden was, it in no way prepared me for what was listed on the schedule as the “Grand Tasting”. What I expected was another 20 to 30 wines, with a few more craft alcohols from the day before. What I got was two tents packed with hundreds and hundreds of people, and more wines, spirits, beers and snacks than I could have expected. My perpetual joke about being a “professional drinker” came to mind and laughed in my face as I looked at what was sure to be a sampling career highlight.

I immediately ran into Matt and Ruby, who I’d met the day before, and before I knew it, I was pulled into the tent to try all the food and drink we could fit into a three-hour period. I lost track at some point within the first hour, but I safely estimate I tried around 60 different wines, 15 different spirits, 3 beers and at least 12 different food samples (one that I went back and “tried” again four separate times). My best offer is to give you highlights of what I tried, so you can get a taste of the experience.

Folly of the Beast Pinot Noir: Featuring a striking label with a whale tail vanishing beneath the waves and calling to mind Moby Dick, it was a sweet wine with hints of spice and fruit heavy but ultimately light and refreshing.

Casteller Cava Brut: Having recently been introduced to cava brut, I was excited to compare. This wonderful, dry, crisp bubbly helped give me a second wind on the rush through the tent.

Monaco Cocktail line: Canned mixed drinks touting two shots per can, the Moscow mule was the perfect mix of ginger beer and vodka, all in can form, with the right ginger bite on the end. Very recommended.

Tattoo Girl Riesling: Sweet wines must be in style, because I came across so many here. Not a complex wine, it was approachable in a way that many others weren’t. Immediately getting a profile of peach and honeysuckle, this Riesling stuck with me long after I walked away—enough to bring a bottle home.

Spring44 Distilling: Featuring a large range of spirits, I tried the honey vodka, which wasn’t too sweet, while featuring hints of vanilla, lavender and, of course, honey.

Ska Brewing Brut IPA: I don’t like IPAs, which makes me a heathen, I know, but this one was different. The dryness of the brut cut away the excessive heaviness I have come to expect from IPAs, leaving an enjoyable drink featuring all the flavor without the bitter.

Peach Street Distillers: Featuring a dapper hound on the label, Peach Street came out full force with everything in their repertoire of products and left me floored. I couldn’t pick a favorite if you put a gun to my head. Everything they offer is extraordinary.

These were just a few of the ones I tried and loved, and this list is by no means definitive. There were hundreds of tables within the tent, and so many experiences to be had. It’s hard to overstate just how spoiled with choice a person can be here.

The Food – Well, we are the food section, it was inevitabile that we’d get around to this. The Grand Tasting had 15 different food vendors inside, and I found myself worried all the small snacks they were offering me were going to leave me too full to try everything. For example, the very first table I went to in the main tent was Chimayo Stone Fired Kitchen, which offered up a lamb ragù hummus taco. These tacos filled my entire hand, overflowing with toppings. These were hot, soft, packed with flavor and overwhelmingly good. I had barely finished stuffing my face with the last of it before we hit another food table, Seasons (same creator as locally, but with totally different owners), who were offering fresh baked gougères, with white cheddar and bacon. They were delicate, flaky, with a little bacon crunch on the end. I almost felt bad I about eating three in a row.

My favorite? El Moro Tavern, which held the rum tasting the day before, were offering what I can only describe as the inspiration for ambrosia, nectar of the gods. An herb de Provence pizzelle with camembert, a French marinade, topped with a local golden gooseberry ginger jam. Somehow looking like a masterpiece on a paper plate, they pumped these out insanely fast, considering how quickly they were vanishing off the table. I damn near melted in place eating this snack, because every piece of it was working in perfect harmony with itself. I saw the face of God that day, and it was a red-haired man handing me a second helping of this after he saw my first reaction.

The Experience – Within my first few minutes at the Grand Tasting, I got to catch up with Mandi Davis, event director for the Durango Wine Experience. With vividly pink hair, she was easy to spot in a crowd. Another reason she stood out was the immense smile on her face. As someone who has helped organize events of all sizes, I know how rare it is to smile at the height of it all. For the brief chat we had, you could hear the passion for this event in her voice.

Which, in a way, seems to be Durango. This is a town of passion. Everyone here is in love with the life they have, many referring to themselves as Durangotans, an amalgamation of the city name and extant great ape species. I made real friends in my two days there, people who were genuinely excited to share life within this town with others. I felt at home, welcome and like a part of the culture. Is that The Durango Wine Experience? A sense of community surrounded by good food and good drink in a beautiful locale? It definitely felt like it, and that’s reason enough for me to go back and do it again.
A Weekend Dream Come True

This was just a single table worth of wine.

Dan Pennington

A Weekend Dream Come True

Seriously, this snack was so insanely good it should be against the law.

Dan Pennington

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