One Bottle: The 2005 Sutcliffe Vineyards Syrah

Date April 30, 2007 at 10:00 PM

Publication THE magazine

Categories Health & Beauty


Language and wine are related. One goes into the mouth. The other comes out of it. When you learn about wine, you learn a language. If you speak about wine in numerical terms, you experience wine as a quantity. If you speak about wine in conceptual terms, you experience wine as an idea. If you speak about wine in terms of choices and emotions, you experience wine the way you experience life.

In the late 1970s, when I first started drinking good wines, I was introduced to a businessman in San Francisco named Phillip Sammartano. Mr. Sammartano was known in and around the Bay Area for having a remarkable wine cellar. (These days, anyone with money can buy a remarkable wine cellar. In those days, buying class with money was not so easy. You had to know what you were doing.) The day we met, I told Mr. Sammartano that I loved drinking wine but felt like I was missing something. Mr. Sammartano asked me what I thought I was missing. I said I didn't think I knew enough about wine to know what I was missing.

Mr. Sammartano said to keep drinking. "You're not missing anything,"€ he said. "You just think you are."€

I nodded my head like I knew what he meant, but I didn't.

Mr. Sammartano saw right through me. "The thing to remember about wine,"€ he said, "is that you don't have to think about it to enjoy it."€

"Okay,"€ I said. I still had no idea what he meant.

"Have you meditated?"€ he said. "Ever done any trance work? Taken any drugs?"€

I told Mr. Sammartano I'd taken some drugs.

"Then you know,"€ he said.

"I do?"€ I said.

"When you got high,"€ he said, "what did you do with your thoughts?"€

"Mostly I just let them happen,"€ I said.

"Did you try to have them?"€ he said.

"No,"€ I said.

"Did you try to get rid of them?"€ he said.

"No,"€ I said.

"That's how you want to approach wine,"€ he said. "You don't need to know a lot about wine to appreciate it. Just drink it and let it work on you. If it makes you happy, laugh. If it makes you sad, cry. If it makes you think, follow your thoughts."€

"Excuse me,"€ I said, "but didn't you just say I didn't have to think?"€

"About wine,"€ said Mr. Sammartano. "Nobody can stop thinking. But when you drink wine, the less you think about it, the better. Stop trying to be an expert. Keep your brain away from the wine. Thinking about wine can tie you in knots. It's unhealthy."€

Over the years, I've given a lot of thought to what Mr. Sammartano said. Each time I open a magazine and read about a wine that offers "aromas of white peaches, nuanced with hints of blackstrap molasses and overripe elderberries"€ I remember Mr. Sammartano's advice. Each time I see a wine described as "a solid 92+, with potential to the mid-nineties, or higher"€ I feel lucky to have met him when I did. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with using food words or numbers to discuss wine. Everyone-myself included-does it. It's like a code the wine world uses to classify and compare what we drink. All I'm saying is that there's more to it than that. The way you talk about wine is the way you experience it. Some people say wine tastes like food. Other people drink by the numbers. I like living wines. That's why I use experiences to talk about them.

Which brings us to the 2005 Sutcliffe Vineyards Syrah.

Sutcliffe Vineyards is in McElmo Canyon, Colorado. McElmo Canyon is twenty minutes southwest of Cortez, Colorado, and a half hour north of the Four Corners. McElmo Canyon is a farming community that was homesteaded by white people during the 1880s. Apricots, hay, melons, and peaches are the main crops. Before white people came to McElmo Canyon, the Navajo and Ute tribes farmed and hunted there. Sutcliffe Vineyards is on the north bank of McElmo Creek, facing the Sleeping Ute Mountain. Battle Rock, the site of the last battle between the Navajo and the Utes, is directly west of the vineyard. Legend has it that, during the last battle, a band of Utes cornered a group of Navajo women and children at the top of Battle Rock. The Utes backed the women and children to the edge of the cliff that now overlooks Sutcliffe Vineyards. Rather than submit to the Utes, the women and children jumped.

In the glass, the 2005 Sutcliffe Syrah comes right at you. Very few wines can pull off this kind of aggressive behavior. The 2005 Sutcliffe Syrah is the only one I've tasted that manages to agitate you and soothe you at the same time.

Syrah is a grape that has been known to produce wines of passion. Like crimes of passion, wines of passion are difficult to anticipate and even more difficult to control. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, French winemakers use the traditional cépage of approximately one-third Grenache, one-third Mouvèrdre, and one-third Syrah to temper the nature of the Syrah grape. Sutcliffe Vineyards' Syrah is one hundred percent Syrah, and I think I know why. In McElmo Canyon, the combination of intense heat, cool evenings, and violent thunderstorms pulls the grapes in different directions. Instead of getting tempered by other grapes, the Syrah gets tempered by the elements.

More information about Sutcliffe Vineyards can be found at The stunning pictures on the website make the vineyard look like it's too good to be true, but when you're there, the vineyard not only looks like its pictures, it makes you feel as good as it looks. There used to be many places like that. Now they're hard to find.

The 2005 Sutcliffe Vineyards Syrah is a wine with a soul. It is a living wine first and a limited production Syrah from Colorado with the potential to become a cult wine second. John and Emily Sutcliffe, who own Sutcliffe Vineyards, have a great deal to do with the character of this wine, but so does McElmo Canyon. The landscape has something to say. It speaks the language of loss, redemption, sorrow, and truth. How could the wine say anything less?

One Bottle is dedicated to the appreciation of good wine and good times, one bottle at a time. The name One Bottle, and the contents of this column, are © 2008 by If you need help finding a wine or building a cellar, write to Joshua Baer at