Wine Column July 22, 2009

Guy Drew works to improve local wine

Deep in the archaeological heart of Colorado, Guy Drew and John Sutcliffe are modern pioneers of commercial winemaking.

Several of us, including Paonia winemaker Bill Musgnung, had dinner last week with the personable Drew, who owns and operates Guy Drew Vineyards (http://www.guydrewvineyards.com) in McElmo Canyon west of Cortez in Colorado’s Four Corners area.

For many of us, when we think of Cortez, a vision of the sere desert country comes to mind, but Drew and Sutcliffe (Sutcliffe Vineyards, http://www.sutcliffewines.com) reminded us Cortez sits at a relatively high elevation.

“My ranch vineyards are at 5,750 feet and I get grapes from other vineyards up to 6,800 feet,” said Drew as he poured from a bottle of his 2006 Metate ($30), a field blend of 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 18 percent cabernet franc and 2 percent petite verdot.

It was a rich but elegant wine with dark fruits, plenty of soft tannins and a long finish that paired beautifully with Dava Parr’s braised lamb. Drew also shared a bottle of his equally savory 2005 Meritage ($19), a blend of 53 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent cabernet franc and 22 percent petite verdot.

Drew purchased his ranch in 1997 after first looking around Durango, which he found “too expensive and too cold” for his plans. He also looked at northern New Mexico before settling on McElmo Canyon, a perennial stream that runs west from Durango to Bluff, Utah, where it meets the San Juan River.

The region has a strong history of farming and ranching, and Drew settled on a former hay ranch seven miles from Cortez.

“I already had a vision” for winemaking, said Drew, who “retired” to winemaking at a relatively early age after working since the age of 19, including more than 20 years in the materials handling business.

“I developed a taste (for wine) early, when I was in my 20s,” he said, “and I spent the rest of the time developing my palate.”

By the time Guy and his wife, Ruth, decided to tackle the winemaking end, they not only had a business plan but a strong personal philosophy about winemaking.

“My original thought was to plant grapes and work solely with the fruit (my vineyards) gave us,” Guy said. His first vintage was in 2000 with fruit purchased from Steve Smith at Grande River Vineyards in Grand Junction.

“But I was anxious to produce my own wine, from my own fruit,” he said.

As it is with most plans, Drew had to make changes on the run.

“I grow nine different varieties of grapes,” he said. “Really, though, my place is a tough place to grow grapes but it grows great fruit.”

McElmo Canyon is known for its fruit production, and because there are other sites more suited to certain varietals, Drew says he often contacts local ranchers and farmers about planting more grapes.

In that climate, a difference of 100 feet in elevation, allowing better air drainage summer and winter, can make a major difference in producing wine grapes, he said.

“I’ve worked with other ranches (to plant grapes) where the cold air drainage is better and many of the farmers I contact are eager to work with grapes,” he said.

Among his many wines are a syrah ($18), cabernet sauvignon ($18) and a blend called MSCF ($18), which stands for merlot, syrah and cabernet franc and is pronounced, he said, “mischief.”

He also makes a delightful unoaked chardonnay ($16), with bright flavors of lemon, banana and tropical fruits.

His lineup is, he said, “a wish list of the wines I like to drink.”

Drew is as refreshing as his wines, with a marked determination to improve the entire Colorado wine industry. He’s not afraid to criticize what he sees as bad winemaking or poor winemakers, the latter of which, in his opinion, this state has too many.

Too much turnover, not enough experience, poor crop management, too much meddling by owners who fancy themselves winemakers, the list of Drew’s grievances isn’t long but it is candidly thorough.

“I think the Colorado wine industry has a great future but it has to continue to grow and improve,” Drew said.

Cellar door sales, where customers go directly to the winery to make their purchases, are a big part of the industry, he said.

This enables winemakers to retain more of their profits, a key to survival in a difficult economy.

“What’s going to make the Colorado wine industry survive is selling it out the front door,” he said.

Drew’s wines are available at stores around Grand Junction including Planet Wines, 420 Main St.

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