Western Colorado ’s Star Wine Makers
By Laurel Miller
Colorado is known for many things: outstanding skiing, spectacular panoramas, funky mountain towns, mountain biking, climbing, microbrews. But it’s never been known for its wine—until now. Although winemaking first began on the Western Slope more than a century ago, the industry came to a halt during Prohibition. In the last decade, however, the state has seen an increase in wineries, with the number of licensed wineries now totaling 72. More recently, Western Slope winemakers have begun garnering regional and national accolades for their wines, as the industry continues to refine itself and Colorado gains increasing prominence for its restaurants and the food artisans and family farms they source from. Below are some of the state’s pioneering vintners and winemakers.
S. Rhodes Vineyards
Steve Rhodes arrived in Colorado in 1991 well-versed in old-school California winemaking techniques. While living in Sonoma and Marin counties for 20 years, Rhodes “dabbled” in wine production in his garage, like many of that region’s residents do. “It was a different time back in the late ’60s,” he recalls with amusement. “You could go to the local bar and meet winemakers.”
Flash forward 25 years, and Rhodes has become one of Colorado’s most-respected winemakers. While self-taught (“I learned through osmosis and from drinking a lot of good wine—which really is the best way to develop your palate,” he says, half-jokingly), the modest Rhodes has garnered a reputation for producing distinctive, European-style merlot, pinot noir and Gewurztraminer on his eight-acre vineyard in Hotchkiss. He considers his Ellie’s merlot his top wine. Named for his 14-year-old daughter, Rhodes describes it as high acid, with “a lot of backbone and depth.”
Rhodes started the winery in 1996 and has been using sustainable growing methods since the beginning, using cover crops to discourage weeds and, aside from the occasional application of sulphur to prevent powdery mildew, no pesticides or other chemicals. Fortunately, Colorado vintners don’t currently need to worry about phylloxera, or
“phyllox,” a sap-sucking pest that feeds on the roots of grapevines and subsequently decimated wine regions in California and Europe, as it has yet to be identified in commercial vineyards here. “The absence of phyllox has resulted in one of the most unique features of the Colorado wine industry, especially in regard to pinot noir and merlot,” says Rhodes.
“We grow our vines on their own rootstock, as opposed to using grafts [something that has become the norm in other wine regions in order to help prevent phylloxera].”
Rhodes sees a bright future for the Colorado wine industry. “For the first 10 years, it was pretty bad,” he admits. “But now, there are quite a few really good wines being produced. I think we’re on the up swing. There’s a big push toward eating locally, Slow Food and developing a grower to consumer connection with food and drink.”
Good news for us, and good news for Rhodes, who is fortunate to be doing what he loves for a living. “I actually feed my family from this,” he admits. “It’s not a hobby.”
13450 Chickory Road, Hotchkiss
S. Rhodes wines can be found at the tasting room at Orchard Valley Farms in Paonia, Restaurant Six89 in Carbondale, the Grog Shop in Aspen and Roaring Fork Liquors in Glenwood Springs, as well as online at www. vinoshipper.com.
Terror Creek Winery
Parts of southwestern Colorado may have earned the moniker “Switzerland of America” for their similar alpine scenery, but few of us associate the Swiss with wine—let alone the Colorado wine industry. Joan Mathewson would like to change that. Mathewson is the owner and winemaker at Paonia’s Terror Creek Winery, the highest altitude vineyard in North America at 6,400 feet.
Originally from New Jersey, Mathewson went to school at Colorado Women’s College; her husband, John, is an alumnus of Colorado School of Mines. The couple, now in their 70s, discovered European wine after traveling there in the early 1960s. After visiting France’s Alsace wine region, the Mathewsons traveled to Switzerland, and fell in love with the country and its wines, which are little-known outside of Europe. They vowed that they would one day return to Colorado and establish a vineyard and winery that produced European-influenced wines. In anticipation of fulfilling that goal, Mathewson trained with winemakers in the Canton of Valais, primarily working with chasselas, pinot noir and gamay varieties, and eventually received her oenology degree from the Engineering School of Enology at Changins, near Lausanne. In 1992, the Mathewsons fulfilled their longtime dream by opening a winery in Paonia, a region with an up-and-coming wine industry that reminded them of Switzerland. Today, Paonia has a designated appellation for its wines, called West Elks, which is part of the North Fork Valley region. Although the area is becoming known for its pinot noir, Mathewson became the first in the region to grow Gewurtztraminer and Riesling on her 10-acre vineyard; both are cool-weather, high-altitude wines.
What sets Terror Creek’s wines apart is that Mathewson produces a dry version of both the Gewurztraminer and the Riesling, rather than the more traditional, high-sugar versions. “I make them in the drier style of Alsace, which pairs well with their traditionally rich food, which is heavily based on pork and dairy products,” she explains. The wines also complement Indian and Asian cuisines, as well as Mathewson’s local favorite, Roubideau Farm to You goat cheeses from Delta. Terror Creek also produces a red table wine called Chalet, and a pinot noir that Mathewson says is “fantastic” with the leg of lamb from their “downhill” neighbor, Desert Weyr farm.
As for the future of the Colorado wine industry, Mathewson believes that it will become known for specific varieties and styles of wine. “We don’t have the available land for large-scale wine production due to geographical and climatic constraints,” she says. “But I think Colorado wines are getting better, and the winemakers here are putting in continuous effort. People really appreciate what’s being produced here.”
17445 Garvin Mesa Road, Paonia
Terror Creek’s tasting room is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through September; drop-ins are welcome. You can also find Mathewson’s wines at Ella in Carbondale, the Flying Fork Café and Paonia Liquors in Paonia and Try-R Liquors in Hotchkiss.
The gregarious and outspoken John Sutcliffe is unabashedly a renegade and a Renaissance man. The 65-year-old Brit came to the United States in 1968 to try his hand at cowboying in Carbondale and Elko, Nev. And while he quickly adapted to the Western lifestyle, Sutcliffe defected to New York, where he re-opened the legendary Tavern on the Green restaurant. Eventually, Sutcliffe, who for a time also wrote for The Denver Post, relocated back to southwestern Colorado, where his former wife, Emily, was practicing medicine. It was in Cortez that Sutcliffe first became enamored with the idea of producing wine. “I had bought an 88-acre working cattle ranch in 1985, and we’d planted some wine grapes for ornamental landscaping in 1995,” he explains. “When I tasted the grapes [merlot, cabernet franc and syrah] they were so great that I sent them to the wine program at University of California, Davis. They tested the brix [sugar content] and acid, and said they were extraordinary.” Wine grapes require high levels of acid, what Sutcliffe calls “the cornerstone” in wine production. The microclimate of sunny days and very cool nights, and mineralrich soil make his high-altitude McElmo Canyon Ranch perfect for a wide variety of grapes. Sutcliffe grows everything from the aforementioned varietals to pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, viognier, Riesling, petit verdot and Gewurztraminer on 12 acres of vineyard. McElmo Canyon isn’t, however, a designated wine appellation, although, jokes Sutcliffe, “We keep submitting it every month or so.”
While he has a long and prestigious background in the food and wine industry, Sutcliffe himself is not a winemaker. With the July departure of winemaker Ben Parsons, Sutcliffe has hired on Joe Buckle, who moved to the area from Sonoma in early August. Buckle has been consulting for Sutcliffe for four months and his credentials include stints at such prestigious California wineries as B.R. Cohn Winery, and Flowers Vineyard & Winery in Sonoma (“One of my favorite pinot noirs, ever,” says Sutcliffe).
In addition to numerous regional awards for his wines, with raves that range from “luscious” and “complex” to “the best to come out of Colorado” (5280, 2006 Chardonnay), Sutcliffe’s 2005 Bodysgallen (a “lean, silky,” blend of merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot) was just declared “one of the ten best wines of 2005 outside of California,” by Master Sommelier Doug Frost. Not too shabby for a British cowboy. •
12202 Road G, Cortez
Sutcliffe’s tasting room is by appointment, and the wines can be found at Aspen restaurants Matsuhisa, Montagna, Jacob’s at the Hotel Jerome, Gusto, as well as the Wine Spot, Aspen Wine & Spirits and Of Grape & Grain. To order online, go to www.sutcliffewines.com.
Laurel Miller is a food travel columnist for The Oakland Tribune/BANG Newspapers and GreenLight magazine, as well as a freelance contributor to publications such as Gourmet, Outside, Saveur, Dining Out Guides