Better red than dead: Winemaker Kevin Doyle pours his soul into his work
June 17, 2010
ASPEN – “If you taste a little salt in the wine, that’s the sweat dripping off my brow,” Kevin Doyle says of the wines he makes at his Woody Creek Cellars.
As a joke, the line only goes so far. There’s too much truth to it. Doyle makes his wines the old-fashioned way – no stainless steel tanks, no filters or chemicals at all – so there’s a far greater chance that a drinker will taste Doyle’s sweat in the wine than a metallic or chemical sensation. And the effort he puts into his wine is bound to cause perspiration. Doyle is essentially a one-man operation: he hustles around the Western Slope making deals for grapes; he self-distributes, driving from Boulder restaurants to Telluride liquor shops to the Aspen Saturday Market to get his bottles into the hands of consumers.
In the cavernous, old fruit-packing building in Delta County where he does his pressing, Doyle does welcome some extra hands: “It’s me and the people who will work for wine,” he said. But the essence of the work is physical labor – Woody Creek Cellars uses a manual corker and manual gravity-feed bottler – rather than the chemistry-set feel of many modern, massive-scale winemaking businesses. Doyle doesn’t own a computer, and only fairly recently did he get a cell phone. And at the end of making a batch, it is Doyle himself who is most likely to scoop up the last remaining grapes, using what he sees as the one indispensable tool of the winemaker’s trade: a dust pan.
“It’s the exact same equipment I started with, the same ancient equipment. Same bins, same basket press,” Doyle, who did his first crush 10 years ago, said.
While the taste of any sweat that does make it into the bottle is probably unnoticeable, there is another part of Doyle that does get into the wine, and is unmistakable: his soul. For a decade the 51-year-old, a former waiter and cab driver, has depicted himself as the rough-and-tumble, uncompromising winemaker, doing battle with the giants of the industry. He put his trust in his blue-collar work ethic and in the fruit itself, rather than beakers, additives, and university wine programs that stress human control over the winemaking process. A favorite motto of Doyle’s, one of many, is “God is perfect; I am only the shepherd getting the grapes in the bottle.”
Last summer, Doyle believed he was about to sacrifice himself, quite literally, for the wine. In an effort to get his wines to a bigger market, he moved to Littleton, and imposed on himself a schedule of doing six farmers’ markets a week. (He also had booths at markets in Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, though they were manned by hired help.) He continued to serve as his own distributor and salesman, driving to make his deliveries; in a recent month, he put 4,000 miles on his 1999 Chevy Astro van. He made his deals with various grape growers in Delta and Mesa counties, using a technique he refers to as “strong-arm barter.”
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When the summer was coming to an end, Doyle retreated to the fruit-packing plant to begin the 2009 crush, making 500 cases of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. With the wine put up in barrels, he headed back to Denver to set up a tasting room inside a cigar shop a block from Denver’s Coors Field. That project required numerous rounds with the State of Colorado over regulations regarding smoking and drinking in the same retail location. Doyle eventually got the OK to run the tasting room.
It took its toll. Doyle thought he was going to die.
“I’m worn. I’m beat. I’ve reached my peak and I’m on the other side of my physical non-well-being,” he said. “Onset gout, onset diabetes, obesity. My blood pressure … . And when people don’t buy the wine, anger management issues.”
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The nearly calamitous summer of 2009 came on the heels of a monumental 2008. After years of living by the credo of “one man, one thousand cases,” Doyle wanted to see how far he could push himself. He pressed grapes for 4,000 cases of wine.
“I had to chain myself to the winery. I never left, except for Thanksgiving, and four days to go to Orvis [hot springs] to soak,” said Doyle, who did, in fact, live part-time in the fruit-packing facility for the first six years of operating Woody Creek Cellars. “One man, one thousand cases – it costs too much to make it. I thought, Let’s go see what one man can do. I gave it everything I have – that’s 100 tons of grapes, moved in a five-gallon bucket into the crusher/de-stemmer. Sometimes I had to lie down from sheer exhaustion. And that” – crushing the grapes – “is just one step in a 10-step process.”
Another step in that process is known as “racking” – pumping the wine from one barrel to another to get rid of sediment that accumulates. Racking is far easier if filters are used, but Doyle doesn’t, believing they strip the wine of components that are necessary for a full flavor. Doyle refers to his 2008 racking as “the 400-barrel march.”
Going big turned out fortuitously – 2008 was, in Doyle’s eyes, as good a year as Colorado has had for grape-growing.
“No rain during harvest, good yields, no spring frost, no bugs. We caught the perfect non-storm,” he said. “Everything came together, and I hustled up some futures players, some growers and speculators who said, ‘Woody Creek, go as big as you can.’ And I did.”
Doyle met the promise of those grapes. His recently released 2008 Cabernet Franc is a big, complex, totally satisfying wine. Doyle believes it fulfills his ultimate goal – to make a Colorado wine that holds its own on an international stage. And Doyle, who doesn’t often hold back in stating his beliefs, isn’t the only one who believes in his product.
“It’s excellent. He understands Cab Franc,” Steven Craig, who owns Telluride’s Wine Mine and has been selling Woody Creek Cellars’ wines for five years, said. “And he’s one of the most versatile winemakers around. He makes a big variety of wines, and they all seem to be crowd-pleasers.”
“I’m a big fan,” Bill Bentley, the general manager and sommelier at Carbondale’s Restaurant Six89, said of Doyle’s wines generally. “I always find his wines to be Old World in style, earthy and minerally and with a sense of terroir. For the price, I’d compare it to anything from California.”
• • • •
Doyle, a former resident of the Woody Creek trailer park who now lives in the tiny Delta County town of Cedaredge, has pulled out of the Front Range farmers’ markets for this summer. The markets, he said, were a break-even economic proposition. He will focus instead on just three markets, including the Aspen Saturday Market, which opens Saturday, June 19, and on finding a satisfactory distributions deal. A bit of financial security, he thinks, will go a long way toward improving his health.
“I don’t need a doctor,” he said. “I need an accountant.”
Doyle has also decided not to make any new wine this year, for financial reasons, and because Colorado grapes this year were hit by a double whammy – a frost in October, and another in April. Arguably, the best way to address the financial issue is to modernize the process. But it’s out of the question for Doyle to even start down the path toward filters, additives and the like. He’d rather make no wine than mechanized wine.
“If I bring in machines, five days later everything’s done,” he said. “But if I use pumps, use unnecessary chemicals, I’d compromise what people have come to expect from a bottle of Woody Creek wine. I’m Old World style. I make wines the way they made them in Biblical times – grape, barrel, bottle. I’m only the shepherd. I don’t make the wine – but I keep a watchful eye over my flock.”
It is an approach to wine that has its downside. A winemaker who believes in heavy intervention might be able to take lousy grapes and finesse it into an acceptable wine. In Doyle’s method, bad grapes could make lousy wine. His wine is highly susceptible to conditions like high temperature – say, the kind of temperatures you’d find on a Denver parking lot where farmers’ markets are held. And many drinkers simply don’t like the kind of bold, uncontrolled, potentially unruly wines that result from Doyle’s process. They want something tamer, and a wine that will taste the same from one vintage to the next.
Doyle isn’t aiming for that crowd. “My winery is like a funky restaurant off the beaten trail,” he said. “You can buy a big conglomerate wine – we all do it, and that’s fine. But it’s those special bottles we stumble on, when you live outside your comfort zone and you know there’s authenticity left in the world and you’re not a part of this mass consumer culture.
“If I compromised and bought steel tanks” – instead of the oak barrels he uses – “there’d be no evaporation. But the wine would be skinnier, not richer. That’s not my style.”
Despite, or because of the idiosyncrasies, Woody Creek Cellars has found an appreciative audience. Doyle boasts that he does exceedingly well in blind tastings; at a blind tasting at the Woody Creek Community Center last year, his Cabernet Franc took first place. At the recent Ouray Chocolate Festival, Woody Creek Cellars took first among 60 entrants. At the 2005 Denver International Wine Competition, Doyle took two silvers, for his 2004 Merlot and 2004 Cab Franc; the next year, at the Colorado Mountain Winefest, his 2004 took bronze. A Wine Spectator blog wrote favorably of Woody Creek Cellars, particularly the 2004 Merlot.
Doyle has cut back on entering competitions, mostly, he says, because his wines don’t travel well. “If my wine gets above 85 degrees, nothing happens,” he said. “Because it’s alive, not dead. It’s a fresh product and if it gets too hot, it reacts. My wine’s like a beauty queen who looks best when she gets up first thing in the morning, not after she’s airbrushed.”
Just as his wines are not for everyone, neither is Doyle himself. He can be combative, and wears his us-against-them attitude on his sleeve. He points out that the Aspen Skiing Co. doesn’t buy his wines (with the exception of the independently run Up 4 Pizza). Doyle had a running battle with the Colorado Division of Liquor over how many tasting rooms he could operate; Doyle argued that one of his licenses could be used in a “mobile location.”
“I’m the Al Davis of Colorado liquor sales,” he said, referring to the rebellious owner of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders. “They give me the rule book, I read it, and interpret it differently. It’s to the point I’m on a first-name basis with the principal” – a reference to his frequent chats with Laura Harris, commissioner of the Division of Liquor.”
Doyle points out that the Division eventually gave in, and adopted his reading of the regulation regarding tasting room licenses. No surprise – his brash personality, passion and skill as a winemaker often win people over. He says that local liquor stores have treated him well. And Doyle has a side that can be masked by his aggressive, scrappy exterior. His advertisements don’t focus on his wines so much as they call for compassion and understanding. A CaBu – Catholic Buddhist – Doyle often speaks of “the brotherhood” to describe the collection of people who drink his wine and appreciate his method.
“Kevin has character. His wines have character, and Kevin has character,” Craig, the Telluride wine merchant, said. “His personality is hard to miss.”
Chances are that Doyle’s hiatus from wine-making will be a short one. (Personally, I give even odds that come harvest time, Doyle won’t be able to help himself from agreeing to take some grapes off a grower, and making a few cases.)
“When I go back to crushing, it’ll depend on distribution and consumer acceptance,” he said. “And if I do come back, it’s going to be insane. Because I know the vineyards, the blends. And I haven’t changed my technique.”
In case he doesn’t go back to making wine, Doyle has a piece of advice: “If you see Woody Creek wine, buy it,” he said. “Because it may not be there forever. It’s definitely a limited commodity.”