Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk |

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

If there has been a trend in food and wine this summer, it would be farm-to-table al fresco dining in vineyards.

And who can blame folks? It is a perfect repast for the times.

In an era when people want to “get back to the basics,” “commune with nature” and “eat and drink locally” – all catchphrases that have come to describe ways in which many us have responded to the economic collapse and the homogenization of our agricultural systems – can there be a better social gathering than a wine dinner under the stars?

Though the sun and the seasons are shifting, that doesn’t mean that you have missed out on the chance to get back to the garden.

Quite the contrary.

This September, to celebrate the bounty of the upcoming season, Jack Rabbit Hill Winery is hosting a series of “Plein-Air Farm Dinners” featuring a quartet of the Western Slope’s most talented chefs. And in the Four Corners region, John Sutcliffe of Sutcliffe Vineyards will also herald the harvest with an outdoor affair on his property in McElmo Canyon in Montezuma County.

A French phrase, “plein-air” means “open air” and is mostly associated with artists like Pissarro, Monet and Renoir, who set up their box easels in fields to capture landscapes on canvas. But it serves as an apt metaphor for chefs who create art using the products of the land as their medium and plates as their canvas.

The house that is home to the Jack Rabbit Hill Winery is prominently perched on Redlands Mesa off Highway 133, just west of Hotchkiss. It is there, in a grove of cottonwood trees amidst some of the most spectacular views known to man, that the dinners will be served. Guests will gaze upon the changing colors of the Elk Range to the east and the rugged outlines of the San Juans to the south and the simply unspeakable beauty to the north and west. All framed by vines, heavy with clusters of deep purple grapes that will soon be ready for the crush.

On Saturday, Sept. 5, the first Plein-Air Farm Dinner will feature Vail’s Kelly Liken. She will be followed by The Little Nell’s Ryan Hardy on the Sept. 14; Mark Fischer of Carbondale’s Six89 and Phat Thai on Sept. 21; and Tom McMullen, of Paradigms in Eagle, Colo., on Sept. 26.

The freshest fare, sourced from local farms, ranches and cheesemakers, will be paired with the wines of Jack Rabbit Hill and the spirits distilled in the barn “just over there” under the CapRock moniker.

 Each event will be limited to 75 people and the price is $75 per person. You can get more information, make reservations and get directions by calling Jack Rabbit Hill at 970-835-3677, or at

 On Monday, Sept. 29, right ’round the time that the leaves will be peaking and the grapes will be ready for harvest, chef Mark Fischer and the crew from Six89 will be taking a road trip to Sutcliffe Vineyards to prepare another outdoor dinner.

Proprietor John Sutcliffe, a welcoming host and lively raconteur whose resume ranges from a stint in the British Special Forces to playing six-goal Polo to opening and managing New York’s Tavern on the Green, will be pouring what many have hailed as the best wines ever produced in Colorado. The dinner menu is yet to be finalized but will include, according to John, “lamb, beef and the wondrous fruit and vegetables we grow in McElmo Canyon: tomatoes, chilis, corn, melons, pears, apples, Italian Plums, peaches … the list goes on.”

Sutcliffe Vineyards lies west of Cortez, in the historic and wondrous McElmo Canyon. From the Anasazi to the Navajo and Ute Indians, to its reemergence as a seminal wine region, this is one of the most interesting places in the state. If you can swing it, take a tour through Grand Junction over to Highway 141 down to Cortez (a six-hour journey), have dinner and then meander back home over Highway 550 the following day. There is a great, rustic bed and breakfast in the canyon called Kelly Place ( if you want to spend the night.

Reservations for the dinner can be made by calling John at 970-565-0825. The dinner costs $95 per person and is limited to 85 lucky people who will assemble in the vineyard at one long, inevitably joyous table.

Mother Earth, fall colors, fresh food, fine wine. September is sounding pretty good.

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