Vail Wine Ink coumn: John Sutcliffe is a Four Corners winemaking icon
IF YOU GO …
Getting to Sutcliffe is an arduous process, but the journey is half the fun. If you go to the Four Corners area, where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico share borders, the drive to taste wine at Sutcliffe is a must. Coming from the west, take U.S. Highway 160 through Cortez and turn onto the “G” Road. In 13 miles or so, you will see both the vineyard and Battlerock. Oh, and bring your mountain bike for a ride on the slickrock nearby. Access to McElmo Canyon is a dry and dusty road that sits between the 10,000-foot-high Sleeping Ute Mountain to the south and the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument to the north. Quite a ride.
Sutcliffe Wines, 12174 Road G, Cortez, CO 81321; 970-565-0825, sutcliffewines.com; open noon to 5 p.m. most days.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
2013 Sutcliffe Hafoty Fawr — A Rhone blend that John Sutcliffe is most proud of, this limited-production wine is named for a village home in Wales. Bright, young and oh-so-fresh, like many of the Sutcliffe wines, it is excellent with food. Fruit forward, but balanced, tasted blind I would suggest that no one, and I mean no one, would be able to identify the origin of this loverly wine.
John Sutcliffe has been a soldier, a ranchhand, an artist, an investor, a hotelier, restaurateur, raconteur and a winemaker. But one visit to his eponymous vineyard tucked into the farthest corner of Southwest Colorado proves that he is a pioneer.
Choosing to make wine a mile above sea level, in a water-starved canyon filled with sagebrush and mountain lion, and where the temperatures rise to more than 100 degrees in summer and drop below zero in January, would prove daunting to most. But Sutcliffe, a Welshman with a boyish charm and an indisputable spirit of legendary proportions, has not just embraced the challenge — he has reveled in it. And today, he makes exceptional wines in the Four Corners region, the very heart of the land that the ancient indigenous peoples of North America planted, harvested and abandoned hundreds of years before.
In an unprecedented moment for Colorado wines, the Wine Enthusiast, in 2014, awarded 90-point ratings to Sutcliffe for its 2010 Merlot, 2010 Syrah and the 2011 Cabernet Franc. While the fruit for the merlot was from the Oak Knoll District of Napa, both of the other 100 percent single varietal wines were sourced directly from 36 acres of estate-grown grapes that are meticulously farmed, most just below the imposing edifice of Battlerock.
McElmo Canyon may be the most unlikely place in America to grow grapes for fine wine. Rugged, dry and high, the canyon was home to the Anasazi, the Navajo word used to describe the ancient Native Americans who lived for centuries in the surrounding cliffs and hillsides, building pueblos that remain intact to this day. Sometime in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Anasazi people simply disappeared. Popular theory holds that climate change may have been responsible for the Anasazi’s departure. Not a good precedent for a winemaker.
“I’m guessing that maybe someone in Victoria in Australia or maybe the Andes, may be making wines in areas like this. But there are not many of us,” John said on a May afternoon as we sat on the patio of his home and winery sipping a terrific Viognier. I began to grill him about the who, what and why of the place
“We planted the first vines in 1995,” he said, as he gestured toward the sloping vines that faced due west. “It was kind of a group endeavor,” he said, laughing and rattling off the names of the California wine legends (a Mondavi and Robert Brittan, ex-Stags Leap winemaker, included) who helped him plant his vines. “We had no lofty goals, and in our first year of production, we made 10 cases. And it wasn’t bad.”
Twenty years later, the vines look stressed and weathered, exactly the way Sutcliffe and his winemaker since 2008, Joe Buckel (a veteran of both BR Cohn and Flowers in Sonoma), like them. And last year, they produced 4,500 cases of wine off of those 36 acres, including the Viognier, a Rose and Chardonnay, along with reds.
John Sutcliffe sees himself as a farmer rather than just a winemaker, and credits both the desolate nature of his lands and the patience he exhibits with his vines for producing wines of balance and character. His goal is to produce wines of nuance and quality and share them with the rest of world. Though he sells much of his production to members of his wine club, The Sutcliffe Wine Society, he is proud to distribute bottles to the great restaurants of America and, indeed, the world.
In Colorado, Sutcliffe is a bright light. Far from the designated winemaking American Viticultural Areas of the Grand Valley or the West Elks, Sutcliffe is an outlier. But it is precisely for this reason that he has been able to produce wines that are the state’s standard. While there are more than 100 wineries and 1,000 acres of wine grapes planted in Colorado, there is no doubt that Sutcliffe is the one to know.
It took a Welshman, planting blooms in an abandoned desert to make it happen.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.