Old World, New Region
November 25, 2005
Being of Irish-Catholic descent, Kevin Doyle probably has it in his blood to be the scrappy underdog. Arriving in Aspen as an 18-year-old with $1,000 to his name, in the drought winter of 1976 to boot, only heightened that self-image as the little guy battling the odds.Three weeks ago, at 47, Doyle had his giant-slaying moment. At the Denver International Wine Competition, Woody Creek Cellars – Doyle’s one-man winemaking operation, founded five years ago on a relative pittance – earned two silver medals, for a 2002 Merlot and a 2002 Cabernet Franc. It was the first year for the event, but for a startup winemaker like Doyle, from a lightly regarded state like Colorado, the competition still appeared stacked against him: 300 wines, from 16 countries and such well-known domestic wine-producing states as California, Oregon and Washington. Among his foes were massive vintners with multimillion=dollar operations and decades of winemaking experience.Yet Doyle, who lives in the Woody Creek Trailer Park and makes his wine in a dingy former apple-packing shed near Delta, came out on top. It is the kind of triumph that Doyle seems to have been waiting for, through 20-plus years of waiting tables, to confirm his status as a wily, fighting Irishman.”It’s akin to a plowhorse winning the Kentucky Derby,” said Doyle, who produced his first wine just three years ago. “It’s like a plowhorse pulling the cart with Secretariat to the race, but Secretariat gets hurt, so they run the plowhorse.”I beat Mondavi. The legendary Merlot powerhouse, Lambert Bridge, from Sonoma, took third. There’s hundreds of millions of dollars in capitalization, all of it in New World wineries. And there’s thousands of years of education and prestige that the little Woody Creature winemaker stomped.”Thinking there might be a bit of flukiness to Doyle’s victories, I ran a Thanksgiving Day blind tasting with two of Aspen’s leading oenophiles, accustomed to serving their diners only the best wines. Both were duly impressed, especially by the taste of French oak. “Whoa, you broke out the quality stuff,” said one. And neither came within a continent of guessing that what they were drinking was made from grapes grown on Colorado’s Western Slope.
Doyle says it was ” out of desperation, not inspiration,” that he got into winemaking. Waiting tables at such Aspen restaurants as The Mother Lode, Poppie’s and Krabloonik, the Southern California native had more than a passing familiarity with wine. But after two decades of working for tips, he began thinking there was some bigger mark he could leave on the world.”I wanted to do a business. I couldn’t take it anymore, living in Aspen, working for a wage,” said Doyle. “But corporate America has everything so tied up, you can’t build a product and put it on the shelf. Because someone will copy it and push you off.”Not only did Doyle know wine, but he also saw it as a niche where bigger wasn’t necessarily better. In fact, Doyle is part of the vocal school that believes that mass-produced, scientifically calculated wines are crushing the spirit out of a practice that has historically celebrated regional varieties and traditional techniques. Doyle saw being small, underfunded and using primitive methods as an advantage.
“There’s two kinds of wineries, Old World and New World,” said Doyle. “Most of the big wineries have been absorbed by big companies, and they’re not making better wine, they’re making more wine.”My wines are handmade, chemical-free, no pumps, gravity flow, unfiltered, aged in French oak. No tanks. I’m an old-school winery. Very old-school.” Doyle concluded his assessment by insisting, “I’m not Davis,” a reference to the influential, New World winemaking program at the University of California, Davis.In 1998, Doyle began a two-year apprenticeship with Steve Rhodes, who has been making wines for 20 years, the last 10 of those in Hotchkiss. Doyle refers to Rhodes as a renegade, and also as Colorado’s best winemaker. Of his time with Rhodes, Doyle says, “I had no amateur winemaking career. I went straight to the pros.”In 2000, with 50,000 borrowed dollars, Doyle started his own operation, with Old World principles firmly in mind. He prides himself on how little of his own touch he leaves on the wine; unlike the big winemakers, painstakingly striving for consistency and high scores from Wine Spectator magazine, Doyle lets the grape speak for itself.”You crush the grapes, you put ’em in a barrel, put ’em in a bottle,” he said. “God is perfect, and I’m just the shepherd, getting the grapes in the bottle.” Even Rhodes is impressed by the extremity of the philosophy; the apprentice may have become more of a renegade than his master. “He doesn’t do anything to it. It’s just grapes and it turns into wine,” said Rhodes of Doyle’s methods. “It’s not screwing anything up.”Rhodes says Doyle is working all on instinct, which is all he seems to need. “It’s like cooking. Some people have a touch for it,” said Rhodes. But it seems to be a sign of the industry that while innate abilities can produce good wine, it isn’t sufficient for a winemaker at a big producer. “I don’t think he could be a winemaker at a big winery,” added Rhodes. “They want degrees and all kinds off science and testing and labs and people who can solve problems. [Kevin’s] technique is, don’t have any problems.”Doyle avoids problems by having the most simple equipment and techniques imaginable. A series of snapshots he gave me of his operation are comical: an aluminum-sided shed (where Doyle lives, without heat or TV, approximately eight months of the year). Grape stemmers that look like wood-chippers. A handful of ragtag locals who trade some of their time during crushing season for a case of wine. And one picture of a determined-looking Doyle with a batch of grapes in what looks like … a dustpan?”You can’t run a winery without a dustpan. And a 5-gallon bucket. That’s how you make wine,” said Doyle, explaining that the dustpan is his favored implement for moving grapes from one place to another. “I’m not of the 20th century, or the 21st century. I missed CDs; I had to go straight from cassettes to iPod.”You can see by the equipment, I’m just driven by desire.”Doyle’s distribution methods are on a par with his production. He travels around Colorado with his wine and, “as soon as I see a liquor license, I go in. Like a Western gunslinger.”
Doyle is getting accustomed to competitions – and to doing well in them. Earlier this year, he entered several of his wines in the professional division of the Colorado Mountain Winefest in Grand Junction. He earned three bronze medals: for his 2002 Merlot, 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2002 Cabernet Franc.”But people said, ‘Hey, Kevy – big whoop. It’s a dog-and-pony show; it’s just Colorado. Why don’t you put your wines where your mouth is?'” said Doyle. So he entered the Denver International Wine Competition, which is open to any wine distributed in Colorado, and drew competitors from Italy, France, Australia and California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys.His competitors, however, haven’t adjusted to the likes of Doyle. The reaction he got upon winning two silvers was stony silence from his fellow winemakers.
“Not a word. Because I’m the wrong guy to be winning medals,” said Doyle. “Not one person said congratulations. And I knew every one of them. But it’s not about me; it’s about the wine. They can say anything they want, or ignore me. I don’t care. My wines are good.”The audience he does care to please is the Aspen wine drinker. Doyle, a divorced father of two local schoolkids, is a big believer in community, the Aspen community. The label on his bottles features four interlocking hands and wrists, a symbol for strength in unity. Doyle has some bigger ambitions than the 1,000 cases a year he currently produces. He’d like to increase his capacity to 5,000 cases; he’d like to make Colorado’s first $100 bottle (but insists that he’ll “always sell a $14 bottle”). But his real aim is to be Aspen’s winemaker, akin to the Old World village winemaker in France or Italy. “I want to make great Colorado wine – for Colorado,” he said. “My desire is to sell all my wine in Aspen. I want to be Aspen’s darling.”The hurdle is convincing wine drinkers and servers in an upscale town that a regionally made wine is good enough for their sophisticated palates. It can be a hard sell; Doyle says he gets a lot of resistance in the town he loves so well. But he loves the challenge and relishes overcoming the obstacles, which he is slowly doing. His wines are served at Mezzaluna, the Steak Pit and Poppie’s, and sold at most Aspen liquor shops. At the Woody Creek Community Center and Gracie’s, they are even sold on Sundays, a benefit of being a self-distributing winemaker.For the time being, Doyle is content to eke out a living, convince one wine lover at a time, and occasionally poke his finger in the eye of the winemaking establishment by winning medals over them. His business model, he says, is not to grow huge and win the world over immediately, but “to live and fight another day.” Doyle should know as well as anyone that time determines who is a hero, and that’s especially the case with wine.His mentor, Steve Rhodes, is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Doyle the winemaker. “Pretty sound wines,” is Rhodes’ evaluation. “We’ll see how they age.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com