Grape destinations

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

At left, Dolph Kuss, Sabina Kuss and Renèe Felix head to another establishment on the First Thursday Art Walk, while, at right, Shaun Loveless and Bridget Hall enjoy an early evening at Eno, 723 East Second Ave.

By Pamela Hasterok
Special to the Herald

Alison Dance bought the building next to her restaurant Cyprus Cafe, and within months, one tenant bailed and the other couldn’t meet the rent. An impromptu brainstorming session with a friend and voila! Eno was born.

“By the time I got home that night, I told my boyfriend, I’m going to open a wine bar,” she said, sitting in the sleek space on East Second Avenue on a weekend morning.

Wine is having a moment.

Not only that, it’s having it in and around Durango. Four places to drink wine opened in the past three years, two this year alone.

What’s happening? Have Durangoans suddenly thrown over their preferred drinks of choice – beer and strong liquor – for that swishiest of cocktails, a good glass of wine?

Well, let’s not go so far. There’s no shortage of patrons waiting in line outside Steamworks Brewing Co. on any given evening, and no local bar is tossing out vodka and whiskey for chardonnay and malbec.

But sure enough, wine is making headway even in our own Wild West. Jason Blankenship opened Olio in Mancos in June, a wine bar with a farm-fresh, European-style menu. Dean and Tracey Fagner opened Four Leaves Winery in January, both a tasting room and a do-it-yourself wine producer on Main Avenue.

Just up the block, Sutcliffe Vineyards, the venerable Colorado winery, established a small tasting room at the northeast corner of Main Avenue and College Drive.

These places are in addition to Jean-Pierre Bléger’s tasting room and wine bar, which he opened in 2004 when he moved his well-known bakery downtown.

But back to Eno. It taps into the ’70s vibe of that hippie hangout favorite, the coffee house. The walls are decorated with good local art, and Dance holds receptions for the artists. Live bands play in winter. You can meet your friends for a glass, a drink (Eno serves cocktails as well), a snack and wile the evening away on $20.

You can order old favorites like the French sauvignon blanc by Domaine Plouzeau, or experiment with a torrontes by Callia from Argentina, another floral white. While you’re sipping, you can nibble on Eno’s tapas – just another word for small plates of delicious food – cured meats with pickled carrots or a Coloradan artisan cheese plate with fruit crostini.

Eno also is a coffee house, opening at 8 a.m. and offering light breakfast items, coffee and teas and staying open until 10 p.m. You can order wine at any time, of course, but the iced mocha is a delightful way to carry yourself into cocktail hour.

Blankenship is aiming at the same ambiance – art on the walls, live music when he can get it – to create a casual, hang-around feel. But while he initially imagined Olio primarily would be a wine bar, his love of cooking and his skill at it mean his eight tables are usually full of diners.

And who wouldn’t want to try his steamed dumplings with carrot, ginger, bok choy and a Thai barbecue glaze or the trio of deviled eggs with avocado, roasted fennel and white anchovy, and sundried tomatoes and serrano ham? They go perfectly with Blankenship’s favorite wine of the moment, Lacryma Cristi, a complex Italian white with notes of citrus and apple.

Blankenship is eager for customers to frequent his place for the wine, and not just chardonnay and Bordeaux.

“I try to get people into other things than Sauvignon Blanc. You don’t walk in and say ‘Give me a chardonnay.’ I want you to walk in and be willing to try something else.”

Fortunately for us, Durango has novelty, too. Four Leaves Winery offers you a chance to taste the 19 wines they make in the back room – aged three months max – or even, if you’re adventurous, to make your own.

Owner and winemaker Dean Fagner will show you around the tidy, industrial-looking room where he makes wine in 28-gallon plastic buckets. He imports the raw material for his wine – called juice, just as you’d expect – to create such well-known varieties as sangiovese, the intense and fruity base for Chianti and chardonnay, the elegant, medium-bodied grape of white Burgundies. He also blends his own sweet fruit wines, creating such exotic flavors as grapefruit blush, a more tart white zinfandel.

The fabulous old building has high, decorated ceilings and thick stone walls. The owners installed a long granite counter, the better for pouring flights and nibbling on nuts and chocolate. Definitely nontraditional, Four Leaves attracts drinkers looking for the new.

“We want people to experience how to make wine,” Fagner said.

He also wants them to have fun. A foreign customer once asked the year of the wine he was tasting.

“What year? Heck, we’re bottling it while you’re still drinking it,” he said, laughing.

While it may be hard to believe, Sutcliffe Vineyards, the pre-eminent Colorado winemaker, was once just as unusual. In 1995, when John Sutcliffe started growing grapes outside Cortez, Colorado had no wine industry to speak of. Today, the state’s terrain and climate are encouraging more winemakers to give it a try.

At Sutcliffe’s tiny tasting room – most of the drinking is done at the eight blue tables on its outside patio – you can try its most popular wine, the 2009 100-percent merlot (87 points from Wine Spectator) and dip into its charcuterie board. Or if you’re still feeling the last bit of summer’s heat, you can sample its German-style riesling, sweet smelling but crisp tasting. Either way, you’ll go away happy.

But if you’re looking for a tried-and-true, old-fashioned wine bar with the comfort of a French bistro and a cheese plate to match, Jean-Pierre’s Bakery and Wine Bar will fill the bill. (Let us note that many of Durango’s fine-dining restaurants offer extensive wines by the glass and happily will serve them to you at their bars, as well.)

If you’re lucky, Bléger himself will be there to assist with the tasting, opening bottles of a delicious, minerally French Bordeaux rosé or a deep, fruity Côtes du Rhône, or best of all, setting out a plate of creamy Camembert and pungent Pont l’Eveque cheeses, all while dressed in shorts, a Hawaiian shirt decorated with palm trees and Birkenstock sandals, as he did for me.

Bléger targets two types of customers: the knowledgeable local and the affluent visitor. He is developing a full line of classic Bordeaux – the most expensive wine on the planet – yet offers most of his wines by the glass for less than $10.

To him, wine is simply a pleasure, something to be indulged in every day. But he sees the potential, too, for extravagances, upwards of $400 a bottle, and he also is beginning to stock those wines.

“Ladies like diamonds. They could do without, but they buy them anyway. Men like expensive cars. They could do without, but they buy them, too. That’s how I’m approaching it,” he said, in his inimitable French accent.

Meanwhile, I recommend the 2011 Chateau Haut Rian rosé at $8 a glass and the small cheese plate with nuts and fruit for $7.50. We all deserve our indulgences.

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