By Chris Meehan | Jan 17, 2019
"I'm 75 years old," says Sutcliffe in a lilting Welsh accent tempered by decades in the U.S. "I'm not starting out. I built 23 restaurants, I was a soldier. I've done a lot things. I want this to be amusing."
In McElmo Canyon, cut into the southwestern corner of Colorado, Sutcliffe produces a variety of highly rated wines, from cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and grenache to merlot, pinot noir, and varietals. The vineyard also makes custom blends for some of the most exclusive resorts in Colorado like the Dunton Hot Springs and Telluride Ski and Golf Club, and Amangiri in Utah.
It's no surprise then that Sutcliffe has achieved numerous superlative scores from Wine Spectator; a score of 90 to 94 is "outstanding." Says Sutcliffe: "The last one was 91. We had three 90s then suddenly we got a 91 and we were particularly delighted," he enthuses. That was on the Sutcliffe 2015 Cinsaut. "I don't think anybody else in Colorado wins those awards."
The approach to winemaking is different than most winemakers. "You can't imagine anybody in Burgundy growing any red for pinot, it would never cross their mind," Sutcliffe offers as an example. Even in California, he notes, vineyards are focused on particular wines. But not Sutcliffe.
It's a successful approach. "My friends, those people who have been my coaches throughout this routine, they make a point that I can get 90s on four different varietals. That's unlike any of them because all of them specialize. They do cabernet or chardonnay or pinot or merlot and they expect to get very good ratings on those. They wouldn't expect to get great ratings on different varietals. It's not the way they concentrate."
A pioneer of grape-growing in southwestern Colorado, Sutcliffe now has about 12 acres of vines on his ranch. He also contracts with another farmer in the canyon to grow 44 acres of grapes.
To make the wide catalog of wines, Sutcliffe also sources grapes locally. "The other day I went to Palisade, where we have someone who grows for us called Black Bear Orchards, and I brought back three and a half tons of cinsaut. I will always do that, I think. There are one or two varietals I probably will always buy from him since he grows such beautiful fruit," he explains. "I also will probably buy sauvignon blanc. I haven't got that planted on any of the places and we've had really good luck buying sauvignon blanc from Palisade."
The wines themselves are made by Joe Buckel. "So I can't take credit for that," Sutcliffe says. "The fellow before him was Ben Parsons, who now has The Infinite Monkey Theorem."
Sutcliffe wanted to limit production to about 2,000 cases of wine, he says. "I wanted to get to the point where inventory was directed by my sales and everything was in line," he says. "What I now realize is that I can't hold the line on this. I probably need to bring in enough grapes to do somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 cases instead."
Challenges: "The first is the climate, we can get late frost, that is very difficult," says Sutcliffe. "The second is the distance from the big markets. But we are selling all of our wine so that's not crippling. Sometimes the quality of labor."
He also bemoans a lack of strong support from Colorado. "We have never received anything like support from the Colorado wine industry," he says. "Until this last 91, the Colorado wine industry did not see their way clear to announce to rest of the industry that one of their vineyards had actually scored 90." He contrasts it with his work as a restaurateur: "When we had restaurants in New York City . . . we were working together. We loved one of them doing well because we knew there was an associated success and that you could piggyback on those."
Opportunities: "I would love to have a small place in Denver that I could call a base for us," says Sutcliffe. " I have people looking at the moment. Quite a number of people who are developers have asked me if I would like a space in some of these new, really exciting things that are being put together. Denver's burgeoning."
Needs: "Publicity and press never hurt, you know that," Sutcliffe says. "You'd always love to have one or two sparkling young people to come and learn a bit of the trade and get excited by it."