Wine Ink: John Sutcliffe — a Four Corners icon | SierraSun.com

Wine Ink: John Sutcliffe — a Four Corners icon

Kelly J. Hayes
Wine Ink

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 possible corner of Southwest Colorado proves that, above all else, 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 with the Southwestern winds to more than 100 degrees in summer and drop below zero when the northerlies blow 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.

The Accolades

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.

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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, and all in the shadows of the talisman, Sleeping Ute Mountain.

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.

Just 15 miles west of Mesa Verde, the land seems foreboding and, frankly, a touch cursed. Sometime in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Anasazi people simply disappeared. Popular theory holds that climate change (a drought lasting 300 years or so decimated the region) may have been responsible for the Anasazi's departure. Not a good precedent for a winemaker.

The Beginning

"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 perfect May afternoon as we sat on the patio of his eclectic 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, into both the burning sun and the direct wind. "It was kind of a group endeavor."

He rattles off the names of the California wine legends (a Mondavi and Robert Brittan, ex-Stags Leap winemaker, included) who encouraged and 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 the aforementioned reds. They also produce a wine John has dubbed as Hafoty Fawr, named for an ancestral home in Wales.

The Legacy

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, a state that has seen improvement over the past few vintages in its wine-producing chops, Sutcliffe is a bright light. Far from the designated winemaking American Viticultural Areas of the Grand Valley (the Grand Junction area) or the West Elks (near Paonia), Sutcliffe is an outlier.

But it is precisely for this reason that he has been able to grow and produce wines that are the standard of the state. While there are more than 100 wineries and 1,000 acres of wine grapes planted in the state of 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, Colo., with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.

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.