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Sutcliffe Vineyards

John Sutcliffe
February 17, 2017 | John Sutcliffe

Birth of a vineyard

I have been asked to spin a romantic web around the birth of Sutcliffe Vineyards. Even coached to recount long afternoons with cold rain rattling the windows as I stare out on our Welsh hills dreaming of serried ranks of vines basking under a cloudless sky. Tempting to endorse that sylvan dream and there were endless days when grey blankets of rain swept across our village from the Irish Sea. But there is a missing element, I had never seen a vineyard as a child, never stood between it manicured rows, only tasted the "fruit of the vine" in the form of sherry and port at Christmas. Maybe the odd sip of champagne at a cluttered wedding.
The real story behind the birth of our beautiful vineyard in deepest McElmo Canyon is sadly more mundane and accidental. After living on the Ranch for a number of years, our architect came out from Charleston to peruse his work, and like all architects, discover the poor taste people exhibit once the designer leaves the job. Reggie Gibson had not only designed the houses but had swung a hammer, if somewhat falteringly, during the construction. With a ring of dead Modelos around his feet and with the sweeping gesture of his arm he pronounced the place would never be aesthetically complete without its' own vineyard. "Hell it's like Tuscany, blistering hot, dry chalky mountains and the English dotted around."
We had bought the place as a base. Emily could rest from the rigors of medicine and I could put neurotic years in the restaurant business behind me. We would keep a few horses, have an orchard and garden, run a few cows, perhaps write and draw a little. In fact more thought was given to building a polo field than embarking on a serious farming venture. Reggie, as he was wont to do, had sold himself on the idea. "No I mean it, be perfect, trust me, be perfect"
It was the late spring, Reggie left, the days got longer, the sun fiercer and the wind settled into a summer lull. Our eschewing of the idea, the constant rejection of the vineyard became almost competitive. Every meal would elicit a more potent reason to dump the idea, and yet imperceptibly the romance of the plan took hold. Gradually our disavowal of the ides shifted to discussions of the merit of different varietals; how much could one intelligently plant, and more importantly, how many vines could one properly tend.
In 1995 a rather sartorial crew began to plant the 2 acres of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Vintners from whom I had bought wine in New York when California wine was still hard to sell, an old school friend from England, a novelist, a sculptor, restaurateurs from Telluride and the son of my great friend in the British Army and some rather more productive neighbors who showed more familiarity with a shovel. From the 1999 harvest we made our first commercial wine and in 2001 we put it on the market. This vineyard which was so grudgingly allowed into the world now sells wine across this country, even exporting to Europe. My disquiet at starting this venture, the illogicity of planting vines in our isolated desiccated canyon was long ago converted to deep and irrefutable passion for what we do. Now, in my dotage, when I stare out of the window at our juniper dotted hills, I am aware how special farming for wine is. We plant the vines, nourish and water them, prune and train the canopy, harvest the fruit, crush and ferment it and finally bottle and market the wine. We control every step along the way.


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