"It was a dream opportunity," says Chris Dunaway, an Advanced Sommelier and the new Wine Director at The Little Nell in Aspen. No, he was not referring to his new position leading the esteemed hotel's wine program (he would repeat that refrain later). He was merely talking about working with his predecessor, Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy, when he first joined The Nell as Head Sommelier in late 2015.

A Kentucky boy by origin, Dunaway grew up in a small farming town where he has fond memories of summer nights strolling among his grandfather’s grapevines. It was here that he first developed a curiosity and interest in wine. After graduating from Transylvania University in Lexington, his pursuit towards wine and hospitality led him to New York City where he worked for Master Sommelier Laura Maniec at the wine bar Corkbuzz and the celebrated French chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud. But when McCoy and The Little Nell came calling in 2015, the pedigree of the program was impossible to refuse. “Only a handful of positions could pull me from the Big Apple and The Little Nell happened to be at the top of this very short list.”
Chris Dunaway, Wine Director at The Little Nell
Chris Dunaway, Wine Director at The Little Nell

His entrée into the renowned wine program at The Nell provided the opportunity to have McCoy as a mentor, and immense support and encouragement with his studies for the Court of Master Sommeliers’ grueling Advanced Exam, which he passed on the very first attempt. Shortly afterward, StarChefs named Dunaway one of its Rising Star Sommeliers.

McCoy recently became the President and CEO of Heitz Cellar, one of Napa Valley's most prestigious wineries. The move left an opening at the top of the program, and rather than look further afield, The Little Nell looked within, elevating Dunaway to the top post last month.

So how does Dunaway feel about the opportunity? And what are his impressions of the wine scene in Aspen, especially with the Food & Wine Classic coming up on June 14-16, 2019?

We sat down to ask him.
Tell US why The Little Nell — and by extension the city of Aspen — is so unique among wine connoisseurs?

It really started with the hotel’s commitment to wine, and [former Wine Director] Bobby Stuckey’s hard work and devotion to creating a curated list of fascinating, classic wines. This was about 20-plus years ago. Ever since then, there has been this strong commitment to guest experience. What better place to have an incredible experience than a mountain town like Aspen?

Since Bobby, so many great names have come through the door, and what has been consistent is that commitment to the guest. Letting them escape their day-to-day busy lives to come to a mountain oasis that still has the wine resources of a large market like New York City, San Francisco, Chicago or L.A. ... but lacks the busy noise.

Wine has a way of bringing people together, and we have [Master Sommelier] Jay Fletcher in town [pictured below]. He is an incredible steward and patriarch of the wine community here in Aspen, and his commitment to training the wine talent in this town has been invaluable.

Jay Fletcher
Jay Fletcher

It sounds like The Little Nell wine program has had a way of perpetuating the passion for and devotion to wine around town. Is that safe to say?

Yeah, I think so. And then you have the Food & Wine Classic. What better way to bring the spotlight to any town, let alone ours, than to have such an incredible event as the Classic. We get to have so many extraordinary talents — from the culinary and beverage world — come to town, and they are all here, exchanging ideas.
Let’s talk about the Food & Wine Classic. What makes this event so significant to you, given that you are working in the wine industry in Aspen?

The Food & Wine Classic continues to provide a forum for the brightest and best talent in the country to convene and share ideas and experience food and wine in a unique light. We work hard to enhance our guest experience but also to better ourselves as professionals. What better way to hone your skills than to have the best of the best come and see what you are doing? It's an incredible opportunity to network, to learn and to forge relationships with the brightest minds in the industry.

Over Food & Wine this year, The Nell’s presenting two notable events – The Friends and Fellows Ride and Lunch with Blackberry Farm and the Heitz Cellar Legacy Dinner Accompanied by Krug and Hennessy – with McCoy back in town.

Any favorite memories from Food & Wine Classic’s past?

It's really difficult to pin one single thing. The event has such an incredible energy, from the moment we walk in the door to the moment we leave — sometimes 16 to 17 hours later! But I would say pouring a 15 liter bottle of Billecart Salmon Champagne for my former boss, chef Daniel Boulud, and a group of his friends. That was up there.

Do you need two people to pour such a huge bottle?

It can be done with one person, but it is quite the quad exercise [laughs]. But we actually have a specialized decanter. It is essentially a large cradle on a cart, that has a crank that allows you to decant large bottles very seamlessly [see photo below]. That cart will definitely be making the rounds on the patio and lounge during the Classic!
a big bottle of wine at The Little Nell
a big bottle of wine at The Little Nell

The Little Nell Wine Program
Burgundy wine

What do you hope to bring to the element 47 wine program that is new and different? What regions of the world are catching your attention as the next big thing?

There will continue to be a commitment to the classic wines and wine regions of the world. We have a very Burgundy-heavy wine list, but we do have the other classics: the best Bordeaux, Rhône Valley wines, a vast Italian selection, as well as German and Austrian wines, and of course, a commitment to the best domestic wine. But also a strong focus on values as well. My goal is to enhance the guest experience — to make them feel as comfortable as possible with wine, and seek out those up-and-coming regions that are making exciting wine right now with an incredible amount of value.

I'm looking forward to putting together a small list for the lounge area that is value-focused on quality-driven regions. I'm a big fan of wines from Etna in Sicily, as well as Greece, and some of the exciting wines coming out of Australia and South America.
Which season in Aspen speaks to you more: winter or summer?

Ooo. That’s a tough one. I’ve never lived somewhere in my life where I’ve enjoyed summer as much as I do in Aspen. But at the same time, there is an energy and festive spirit that exists through the entirety of our winter season. It's compelling. I'm always excited when we open our doors for the winter season, in part because we get a majority of our international guests in the winter. We get to meet people from so many diverse backgrounds. It's another reason why The Little Nell is such a special place.
When you are not working, what are some of your favorite things to do, and places to go in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley?

Because we do live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, I like to hike as much as possible. I love camping and trying to conquer the local 14ers. I've done two so far — Pyramid Peak and Snowmass Mountain, which was one of the hardest physical things I've ever done. And the climb up Mount Daly outside Snowmass is great, too.

But besides that, just spending quality time with friends, whether that is cooking at each other’s houses, or meeting up for a great bottle of wine ... or two or three [laughs].

About the Author

Aspen Snowmass blogger photographer Kevin Day
Aspen Snowmass blogger photographer Kevin Day


Kevin Day is a professional wine writer, travel blogger and photographer based in Colorado. A lifelong resident of the state, he has worked extensively with Aspen Skiing Company and the Colorado Tourism Office, and for some reason, he can still name every 14er in Colorado off the top of his head (even though he has never climbed one). His wine writing has been honored by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

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