Michael Wagener, the former owner of Aceq in Arroyo Seco and Salt and Wine in El Prado, has died at age 41.
Wagener was found dead at his home on Friday evening (October 15), according to friends.
Born January 25, 1980 in Osseo, Wisconsin, Wagener graduated from the University of Minnesota at Duluth before moving to Taos nearly twenty years ago. An avid skier and outdoor enthusiast, he was drawn here to Taos Ski Valley and a job offer to be the Food and Beverage Manager at the then newly opened El Monte Sagrado.
He eventually left the hotel when it was sold to the Kessler Corporation and ran the Wine Shop, becoming the in-house sommelier at the now defunct Old Blinking Light restaurant. He later went to work at El Meze for the late celebrity chef, Fred Muller, who died earlier this year. At the same time, he started working for the young couple who founded ACEQ, a family-run farm-to-table restaurant located along Highway 150 in Arroyo Seco.
“I was a waiter and also ordered beer and wine, but after more than a year of working here I was ready to take over the restaurant and it worked out perfectly as family responsibilities did not allow them to continue to manage it ”Wagener declared in October 2017.
He ended up buying the restaurant and made some significant changes to both the menu and the space itself.
A natural in the service industry, he had no problem wearing many different hats at Aceq; he was often seen working in front of the house, tending to tables or tending to the bar. He was a skillful sommelier and became a member of the American Court of Master Sommeliers.
“When you take a perfectly fragrant and seasoned dish and top it off with a great wine, it’s like alchemy or magic,” he said.
There were only six wines when he started working at ACEQ. Finally, there were more than 50, including cask wines from local winemaker Vivac. “We have wines from all over the world, as well as locally,” Wagener said. “We also have craft beers, and many of them are also local.
“I have a strong vision to keep the food very simple but to have fun with traditional dishes – I want the food to speak for itself,” he stressed, “where sauces don’t drown out the flavor of the ingredients themselves. Less is more. “
After Muller and her partner, Annette Kratka left for California, Wagener, who had bought El Meze from the couple, renamed it Salt and Wine, but business never resumed.
Susie Fiore of the Taos Field Institute remembers that Wagener came less and less, after years of participating in mountain biking events with the kids.
“I want to remember him at his happiest,” she continued, “and I know he was happiest outside whether he was skiing or riding a bike.
“He was a great athlete at the time,” she says.
Even after Wagener closed Salt and Wine, ACEQ retained its popularity. His protégé, Elijah Safford, the current owner, bought him back.
Over the past few years, Wagener has struggled with alcohol and some of his friends say he was depressed. A Facebook post he posted in late September alerted others to possible issues. It was as if things had become too much for him, and it seemed like the start of a long, slow decline.
Wagener was not known to sit on his laurels, so many people in the community wondered what he might do next after the ACEQ sale.
“Tomorrow is our big turn,” Fiore said, referring to the TFI “Ride the Rift” event. laughed, “and he was so generous, a great generous spirit.”
We imagine that Wagener will be there, while the cyclists traverse the fault, in full unicorn trail. Like his skier alter ego, “Shawn Whitey Powell”, he was always up for the challenge; “Red,” as his friends called him, was the ultimate adventurer, always fun to be around.
“I’m devastated, we had to meet today!” I’ve known Michael since he moved here and wow I’m so sad, ”Asia Golden, a longtime friend, joined several others posting on Wagener’s Facebook page.
“A man who lived a life I could only dream of,” Fitz Whaley also wrote.
Brian Hart posted “What can you say about your best friends? He never missed this opportunity to tell you that he loved you.
“It was a brilliant spark that could light up your day,” recalls Angelica Backer. The two worked together at The Old Blinking Light. “He was such a big part of the Taos restaurant scene,” she notes, “everyone’s going to feel it, it’s going to affect everyone.”