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Aspen’s Best New Year’s Party

The most fun New Year’s party in Aspen, Colorado, is not the one you read about in the society pages, but the one that Little Nell chef Ryan Hardy and sommelier Richard Betts throw the next day—with rich Gruyère fondue, spicy seafood soup and Betts’ own wines.

In Aspen, Colorado, New Year’s Eve is like a movie premiere, fashion show and street party all mixed together. There is hysteria, snow, fur, Champagne and mountain beauty everywhere; celebrities and angelic, twentysomething snowboarders jam the sidewalks; and every hot tub is full.

The most VIP place in town is Montagna restaurant in the Little Nell hotel. It’s so crowded, you have to be an especially thin supermodel to squeeze in. Yet Richard Betts, the sommelier, and Ryan Hardy, the chef, never appear exhausted. Betts, 36, is preternaturally suited for his job—he doesn’t need much sleep, and his long, slim nose fits perfectly into a wineglass. Since coming to the Little Nell in 2000, Betts has become one of the country’s great wine directors and a smart, emerging winemaker. His staff even call him "Hollywood."

Hardy, 33, loves the kitchen no matter how crazy it gets. Soon after arriving at Montagna two years ago, from the Harbor View Hotel on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, Hardy began transforming it into a farmhouse-style kitchen. He bought an organic farm in Crawford, Colorado, where he grows vegetables and fruits for Montagna. He converted a storage room in the restaurant into an "aging room" for his homemade salumi, prosciuttos, hams and cheeses. Boyish and enthusiastic, he often asks diners if they want to see his aging room. ("No!" one jet-lagged New Yorker recently replied. "I need an anti-aging room.")

On New Year’s Eve at Montagna, people dance on the tables, then fall asleep there. Betts and Hardy are just about the only people in Aspen who ski the next morning.

On New Year’s Day, the two leave their homes early, not long after finishing work. They’re so disoriented, they don’t know whether to drink wine or coffee; they choose neither and drive up into the mountains, where there are no lifts, so they hike up, skis strapped to backpacks. It’s the ideal outing for those who love to do things the old-world, artisanal way.

That’s the way Betts makes his wine. Four years ago, he started his own label, Betts & Scholl, with Dennis Scholl, a venture capitalist, art collector and Little Nell regular. The first Betts & Scholl project was a Barossa Valley Grenache made with grapes from a small old vineyard in southern Australia. The red wine is fruity and fun, but also restrained, grown-up. "In America, we like big cars, big movies, big houses," Betts says. "Betts & Scholl is the opposite of big. We’re making elegant wine. Elegant is smooth, soft, supple, seductive—almost all the s words you can think of."

After a breakfast picnic, Betts and Hardy ski down the basin through deep powder, dodging boulders. By midday, they’re back in Aspen and heading to a friend’s house to prepare a New Year’s Day feast, an annual Betts tradition.

Betts begins preparing a seafood soup in his grandmother’s heirloom 1839 Dutch oven—his favorite family heirloom. "Onion, halibut, orange zest, olive oil, chiles, squid, shrimp, clams, mussels," he says, as if reciting a poem. "It’s wonderful, it’s fun, it feeds a lot of people. It’s killer!" Meanwhile, his wife, Mona Esposito, and their daughter, Isabella, play duets on the piano. Seven-year-old Isabella already has an appreciation for beets, Beethoven and baby sips of Burgundy. Eventually, other guests—including Cathy Rusnak, Hardy’s wife—gather in the glass-walled house, which looks like a glowing ice cube in the woods. Hardy brings out hors d’oeuvres: small bowls of charcuterie, including his house-made finocchiano, fennel-cured salami. Betts pours Scarpetta, a white wine from Friuli that’s clean and supercrisp. It’s a collaboration between Betts & Scholl and Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, the sommelier and chef, respectively, at Boulder, Colorado’s outstanding Frasca Food and Wine.

Hardy has also prepared a bubbling Gruyère fondue, which everyone gathers around as if it were a campfire. "Fondue is about the ritual of making it, the practice of doing things slowly. That’s also why I like charcuterie so much. The beauty of salami only comes out after 18 months. If you do it right, it’s amazing. If you try to rush it, it doesn’t work." Accompanying the fondue are bowls of crusty bread, pickles and even some of Hardy’s salami for dipping, along with glasses of 2004 Betts & Scholl Hermitage Rouge, a deep and serious wild berry-scented red that brings to mind châteaus and formal clothes. "When you’re on the hill where the wine comes from, you can see the mountains where the Gruyère comes from," Betts says, urging everyone to picture the Hermitage vineyard on a rocky perch above the Rhône River in France.

For Betts, drinking wine is a form of transportation, the equivalent of armchair travel. "Pick up a glass of wine, and when you stick your nose in there, you have a chance to get to know a place—its geology, geography, history, people, cuisine," he says. "It’s all in there. Wine can take you on a trip. I’d rather drink a margarita than a wine that doesn’t take me somewhere."

The main meal is served buffet-style. Hardy has rubbed a pork loin rib roast with fennel, garlic and chile and roasted it so the meat is caramelized and succulent, crispy and tender. This roast is his idea of the perfect dish: lots of flavor, few ingredients. The chef, who grew up in Kentucky in a family of banjo players and black-eyed-pea aficionados, has also stewed tender black-eyed peas with a flavorful ham hock because his mother—his guru—always ate black-eyed peas on January 1, for good luck. (He modernizes the peas by sprinkling them with Parmigiano-Reggi­ano and serving them with garlic-rubbed toasts.) Betts has baked an ultrarich potato gratin with dried porcini mushrooms that he and Hardy gathered last summer.

Just before dessert, Betts passes around a small, beautiful, bluish empty bottle, the kind that might be found in an apothecary in France. It’s the bottle he’s chosen for his latest project with Scholl: a mezcal called Sombra ("shadow" in Spanish) that’s made from agave plants in Mexico. Sipping it, he says, you can taste "the Oaxacan Sierra, the stones, plants, dust, beauty."

The meal ends with a pistachio-covered lemon–olive oil cake that epitomizes both Hardy’s and Betts’ sensibilities: It doesn’t rise high or look showy. It’s restrained but transportive. When you eat it, you can close your eyes and picture a little farmhouse in Tuscany, the heavy old wooden dining table, espresso in a little cup, moonlight in the olive trees outside. Enough! There is now moonlight in the Colorado aspen trees. January 1 is almost over. So everyone reluctantly returns from armchair traveling and heads home.

Lois Smith Brady, a writer in Aspen, contributes to the Vows and State of the Unions columns in the New York Times.

Published January 2008
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