ASPEN, Colo. - Wandering the parties, tents and secret gatherings surrounding the nation's most exclusive food festival brings a question to many lips: "Can this be real?'
Look one direction and you might see Gwyneth Paltrow posing for photos with new friends. In another, Matthew McConaughey is sipping bourbon with admirers of both the spirit and his career. Get jostled in a crowd and you might accidentally step on the clogged foot of celebrity chef Rick Bayliss, or maybe you'll be eating breakfast and mustachioed Top Chef contestant Joe Sasto will appear to judge an egg-cooking competition.
Instagram-famous people are everywhere, eating dinner with seafood magnates at Lance Armstrong's house or performing DJ sets, posing with bottles of Dom Perignon or Cristal or sweating out last night's drinks with a mountaintop yoga class.
Yes, it's all very real.
Once a year, about 5,000 foodies descend upon this picturesque mountain town for the Food & Wine Classic, filled with $10,000 wine tastings and gold-leaf eggs Benedict.
Diamonds flash equally under the sun and disco lights of all-night parties sponsored by wineries, tequila distributors and entire countries. (The country of Peru was a major sponsor this year, and even brought in alpacas to up guests' selfie games.)
Attendees have paid nearly $2,000 per ticket to attend a grand tasting of unlimited wine and food from around the world, along with cooking seminars and wine pairings led by authors and experts like Mark Oldman and Leslie Sbrocco. Champagne bottles are sabered open with swords and free Lexus shuttles stop for anyone who doesn't feel like walking more than a block. And held annually the same weekend in nearby Snowmass, chefs grill meats, fish and veggies over open flames for the Heritage Fire festival, which is technically separate from the Aspen events but draws many of the same people.
In Aspen, untold millions and billions flow through the streets and parties, the private jets and luxury automobiles signaling that even though this is mostly a party, there's plenty of business being done, from wine buyers sealing deals with vineyards to hotel chains locking down new liquor suppliers. The agreements made in Aspen set the course for what drinks you drink and the foods you eat in the coming months as buyers spot and and set trends.
Ostensibly, however, the event is about education, and among this year's most popular seminars was Oldman's "How to Drink Like a Gazillionaire,' in which audiences drank from an 18-liter bottle. Also drawing huge attendance was Top Chef season 15 winner Joe Flamm's pasta-making session in which he held forth on flour, humidity and why Chicago is a great city.
After rolling out dough with a beer bottle because he couldn't immediately find a rolling pin, Flamm joked that good tools are critical: "Stir it with a cute little spoon. Cute things make the food taste better,' he said to audience laughter.
Answering an audience question about his time on Top Chef, Flamm said he wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
"It's so hard, it's stupid,' he said. "It's like this adult chefy kind of summer camp. The camp sucks but the food's great.'
Sounds exactly like the Food & Wine Classic - although the only part of this weekend that sucks are the hangovers.
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