The Little Nell's young new wine director shares his favorite wine regions and his plans for the Aspen hotel's celebrated wine program.
When Chris Dunaway started working at The Little Nell in 2015, he had no idea he'd be taking over for legendary wine director Carlton McCoy in just a few short years. “The goal at the time of my arrival was to absorb as much knowledge and training over the course of a few years,” Dunaway says. “That way I could prepare to run a wine program of my own one day and make thoughtful and intelligent purchasing decisions. To say I was floored when presented with the opportunity to lead the next chapter of The Nell’s storied program is an understatement.”
Here Dunaway chats about his upbringing in Kentucky, his favorite wine regions to visit, and what guests can expect at The Little Nell in the future. Next time you visit, ask for a peek inside the Red Light Lounge.
You grew up in a small Kentucky town and your grandfather made…not moonshine, but wine. What type of grapes was he growing? Was his wine any good?
At both my grandfather’s and uncle’s houses, it was mostly Marechal Foche and some Concord grapes that were grown on a couple of rows of vines. Wines made from these grapes on their own would have been nothing out of the ordinary: Instead, it was the method of production that made them so unique. Once the wines were fermented, often in old, small, used barrels, they were left to mature in a couple of wooden tool sheds near the house. When the temperatures rose in the spring and summer the following year, the wines would madeirize and become slightly oxidative, but would develop an intense caramel, nutty, or “rancio” quality. I love these wines and love how they bring my family together. I have a bottle of my birth-year wine made by my grandfather that I hope to open on a special day.
What's the most valuable lesson you learned from Carlton?
Ha. Never shave your head. It won’t grow back. Also, always find a way to create value for our guests. He was a master at making our guests feel comfortable and welcomed. His charisma always lightened the mood, but it was truly his ability to exceed expectations that made so many of our guests fall in love with The Nell. I learned so much from him over the three-and-a-half years of working alongside him and I very much hope to continue our commitment to our guests’ experiences and find creative ways to exceed their expectations.
What is your favorite wine region you've visited?
Burgundy, by far. I know that may come across as an unoriginal response, but that region oozes history and mystique. We recently held our sixth annual Clip-In with Christian Cycling Camp in Burgundy and it was one of the most incredible weeks of my life. We rode bikes up to Montrachet and passed by Romanée-Conti along the Routes des Grands Crus, followed by cellar tastings and nights out at some of Beaune’s most incredible restaurants and wine bars.
Which wine region are you hoping to visit next?
Piedmont is definitely high on the list. I recently tasted a 1964 Giacomo Conterno Barolo that we poured at the restaurant and it was one of the most incredible wines I’ve ever tasted. So now truffles and Nebbiolo are all I can think about these days. I’d love to make it there during the Bra Cheese Festival that takes place every two years in the town of Bra next to Barolo. It’s usually in the last week of September, with the Alba Truffle Fair following in October. I feel like one would be hard-pressed to find a better way to indulge in the splendors of food and wine.
How are you going to make The Little Nell's wine program your own? What can guests look forward to?
That’s a tough question. I think I would rather make it more about the guests, so I always find myself asking, “How can I make the wine program theirs?” I want to continue to build on the legacy created by those before me, while finding creative ways to enhance the guest experience. Part of that is listening to what our guests enjoy and are looking for in their experience with wine. The majority of our guests are here to relax and unwind in the mountains, which should also translate into seamless, approachable experiences at our hotel – in the restaurants and the wine cellar.
What's your favorite part about working at The Little Nell?
The people I meet would be my favorite part of working at The Nell; both the ones I have the privilege of working with and the guests that visit from all corners of the world. To have the opportunity to gain a more global perspective on everyday topics thanks to my conversations with the guests from all around the world in such a beautiful and remote venue as Aspen is an invaluable perk of working here. My way of traveling without even leaving home.
You passed your Level III Advanced sommelier exam on the first try, which is so impressive! Are you studying for the master exam now?
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have passed the Advanced Exam on my first attempt. I can’t speak for others on the matter, but I’d worked with so many who had fallen short of passing that exam, so I knew how hard I had to work to have a shot. What many don’t know is that it took three years for me just to get a seat for that exam, so when I finally got the call I wanted to make the most of that attempt. I am aware of how much support from others positioned me for success and am incredibly grateful to my mentors and workplace for helping me prepare for it. I’ve since taken the Master Exam twice and not had the same level of success. I continue to study and look forward to the next attempt – with the goal that the third time’s the charm.
What can guests expect this year for The Little Nell's Dom Pérignon New Year's Eve party?
Expect the unexpected! We work all year long to prepare for the holidays, which include festive dinners at both of our restaurants, Clicquot Cats for a VIP fireworks adventure on New Year’s Eve, as well as The Dom Pérignon Party for the ultimate New Year’s Eve experience. This year is our 30th anniversary at The Little Nell and the traditional gift for the 30th is pearl, so you can imagine a pearl-themed scene. The Dom Pérignon Party takes over two levels of the hotel, along with the courtyard looking onto the slopes. Outside will be a winter wonderland with surprise activities. The food is always a hit, as well, served throughout the evening in Nell Style. Every year I find myself asking, “How can we do it bigger next year?” and every year we find a way. For sure it will be one of the most incredible parties of the decade!