Winemaker gambles on 25 tons of grapes
November 21, 2006
Kevin Doyle, owner and winemaker of the one-man operation Woody Creek Cellars, sold out of his 2004 vintage. It has become a common occurrence for the Aspen-area vintner with the combination of a tiny output – his primitive facility in Orchard City typically puts out between 800 and 1,200 cases a year – and growing reputation, his awards include two silver medals at last year’s Denver International Wine Competition and a bronze at this year’s Colorado Mountain Winefest. So Doyle anticipated his mid-autumn trip to New York City to spend time with his girlfriend and do a little wine schmoozing, knowing this year’s grapes were crushed and his inventory sold.Then Doyle got a call from his friends at Verso Cellars. A good grape-growing season and an overstock of Colorado wines added up to a lack of capacity among Colorado’s winemakers. Verso, near Grand Junction, had 50,000 pounds of grapes hanging on the vines. These weren’t just any grapes: They were clones of the renowned Opus One grapes, the fruit that produced Verso’s gold- and silver-winning Cabernet Sauvignons at last year’s Winefest. Doyle calls them “super-premium” grapes.
“They said, ‘Come pick up your 25 tons.’ I said, ‘Are you out of your mind?'” said Doyle, who already had his bags packed. “I was completely beat and exhausted, out of storage space. I was finished.”But the growers at Verso knew Doyle better than that. They knew Doyle as a scrappy, 48-year-old Irishman who cherishes telling his story: a trailer park-dwelling, former waiter placing ahead of some of the biggest players in the winemaking industry. They know Doyle as someone who has fully embraced what he calls his only talent – making wine. Doyle did an early bottling of his Sirah and Tempranillo grapes (the result of which, he said, will be a bigger fruit flavor). He extended his credit to the max, buying $35,000 worth of bottles. And he accepted delivery of the 25 tons of grapes.”It’s monumental,” said Doyle, who figures he will put in 14-hour days through December. “But I live for this type of situation. I’m a typical Aspenite. We work hard and we party hard.”Doyle has his work ahead of him. For Woody Creek Cellars, formed in 2000, putting out 1,200 cases is a huge year. His current stock of grapes, due to reach shelves in 2008, should produce some 3,400 cases. A trip to New York around that time is probably out of the question.
Those wines will be produced with little help. Currently, Doyle has two helpers who each work five-hour shifts. But for the most part, it is Doyle, crushing 47 jacuzzi-sized bins of grapes.He gets no aid from modern machinery and techniques. Doyle’s guiding winemaking motto is “God is perfect; I am the shepherd.” A visit last month to Doyle’s facility showed just how Old World he is. His operation is in a fruit-packing warehouse that was largely abandoned until he set up shop. The facility is impressive only in its size and its lack of amenities. There is no heat or hot water; Doyle runs his business without a computer. When my wife, daughter and I assisted in the winemaking process, we went at it with our feet and Doyle’s most essential tool, a dustpan (for scooping up the last remnants of the crush). There are no pumps, filters or sulfites, just grapes, buckets and French oak barrels.The big winemakers, whose facilities can resemble a chemistry lab, dominate the industry. The ultimate goal of corporate methods is to produce a consistent, predictable product, rather than distinctive, regional wines.”All wines now are the same,” said Doyle. “It’s like buying Coke or Pepsi.”
Doyle aims to stick to his ways. Even as he plans to triple his output, he has bought no new equipment.But Doyle is inching closer to the big producers. As he’s entered the realm of corporate debt, he has adopted a new favorite quote, one he attributes to John Gilmore, former owner of the Hotel Jerome: “If you really want to see time fly, borrow $1 million on a 90-day loan.””I’m not in the same league as him,” said Doyle, whose 2005 vintages, ranging from Pinot Noir to his award-winning Cabernet Franc to his own blend, Baldy’s, arrive in January. (They are available at most local wine shops, and at local restaurants such as the Woody Creek Tavern, Mezzaluna, the Steak Pit and Krabloonik.) “But I’m going from a low-limit poker game to a bigger limit in a real hurry. It’s not no-limit Texas Hold-’em yet, but the stakes have definitely been raised.”The easy thing to do would have been nothing. But that’s not what I’m all about. I got my hand and I’m playing it. I’m in.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.comThe Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.