Fruit of the vine
Local vintners create award-winning wines
Jesus Castillo walks through grape vines on a sunny morning recently, tasting the ultra sweetness of the chardonnay grapes, testing the security of the protective nets strung over yet-to-be-picked fruit and lamenting the hard rains making harvesting this season particularly difficult.
He stops in front of a row of green and leafy vines and shakes his head.
“Look, no grapes,” says the vineyard manager for Sutcliffe Vineyards. “All the merlot, gone.”
Such is the life of any farmer in these parts, battling frosts, rain and bugs to bring high-quality produce to bear in the harsh climate of the Four Corners. And like many farms in our area, the product is top notch.
Sutcliffe Vineyards, located outside of Cortez, is winning newfound recognition from the media as its wines receive ever higher ratings, recently earning 88 points for both its syrah and pinot gris.
Guy Drew Vineyards, just down the same road that lines McElmo Canyon, is making inroads as well, showing up on more and more restaurant menus, from here to California and the man himself gaining acclaim as a bold winemaker unafraid to experiment.
You have to ask, what is it about Southwest Colorado’s unforgiving terrain that produces such delicious results, whether it be a tomato or a grape?
Grapes actually thrive in less-than-perfect soil, their roots going deeper to gain energy and sustenance from the land. Years where growing conditions are more difficult — like this one, with early winter freezes and a rain-deluged summer — yield less fruit, but the grapes that survive often make the most sublime wines.
So there’s no time to spare over the loss of even a prized grape, as other varieties wait for the attention of Castillo and his crew, who scramble to pick the vineyard’s grapes at their peak moment.
Guy Drew waits as well. The vines he planted on his property a decade ago are no more, but the fruit from the friends he commissioned to grow grapes for him (many of them not farmers at all, but landed businessmen looking for a higher profit for their acreage) should be ready any day.
“We had 20 acres of trellis,” Ruth Drew, wife of the winemaker, says with a rueful laugh about the vines she and her husband planted and ultimately pulled out. “Why keep beating yourself up?”
Yet the Drews have found success making wines from grapes grown to their specifications in earth more accommodating than their own. The scrumptious Russell Vineyard Dry Riesling offers bright flavors and a long finish, wonderful with piquant food. His signature metate, an enormous red blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, leaves a delightful hint of cherries on your palate.
But can he do it again? Can a winemaker replicate flavors from one year to the next with completely different grapes?
That’s the magic and the mystery of winemaking. Drew says his first aim with any wine is to make it without fault, no imperfection of fruit or flavor. Next, he strives to let the grapes speak for themselves rather than manipulate them to create a particular result.
If a vintage can’t stand by itself, if it has faults like bunch rot, he bypasses it altogether. In 2010, he made no red wine at all.
“I get the pleasure as a winemaker to taste wines from the time they’re picked to the time they’re bottled,” he said. “Every year, you add to your memory.”
But don’t even ask if that memory might lead him to favor one of his wines over another.
“I produce wines I’m proud of. I don’t have a favorite,” he said, standing in his expansive tasting room at the front of an enormous gallery of Native American art in Cortez. “I mean, what will go with dinner?”
Winemakers always look to pair their products with food, thus the boom in the wine-drinking trend of American diners. So it’s little wonder you can find both Guy Drew and Sutcliffe vineyard wines on local menus. It’s all part of the eat-local, buy-local movement sweeping even remote resort areas like ours.
But that’s not the only reason Four Corners restaurants carry local wines.
“I don’t have them on my list because they’re Colorado wines,” said Drea Firth, the sommelier at Eno in downtown Durango. “I have them on my list because they’re delicious.”
If you want a mouth-filling, fruit-forward syrah, Sutcliffe’s version is a worthy New World option, she says. If you’re looking for a meritage, you’ll be hard pressed to find better than Guy Drew’s.
Despite the difficulties of this year’s harvest, Sutcliffe winemaker Joe Buckel is optimistic about the 2014 vintage, predicting a killer chardonnay and an intense syrah, the grapes of which they just harvested from McElmo Canyon. (While Sutcliffe owns vineyards on site, it buys grapes from other Colorado vineyards, too, as Guy Drew does.)
Rather than the usual notes of red fruit like strawberries and raspberries, he’s noticing deeper flavors like blackberries and black currants in the syrah. Again, the less fruit on the vine, the more flavor in the grape.
Despite recent rains of biblical proportions, both Cortez-based vineyards are enjoying the beautiful warm days of early fall, a lovely time to visit their bucolic properties tucked down unpaved lanes off County Road G. Modern wineries are tapping into the burgeoning interest in wine by creating welcoming and informative places to visit and Sutcliffe and Guy Drew are no different. Both offer charming on-site tasting rooms with outdoor tables to picnic and take in the spectacular scenery of far-western Colorado.
To heighten visibility and draw visitors who might not otherwise make the drive out of town, Drew also opened a tasting room on U.S. Highway 160 as you enter Cortez. Sutcliffe opened and closed one on the busiest corner of Durango and is looking for a better location before reestablishing a downtown tasting room.
But their signature product — a variety of often wonderfully surprising wines for good value — can be found at almost any local wine store.
Aren’t we the lucky ones?