Sandwiched between the Ute Mountain Ute reservation and Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, the strip of private land running through McElmo Canyon is captivating. Irrigated hayfields rise to red rock cliffs and the Sleeping Ute reaches almost 10,000 feet. The canyon’s temperatures vary wildly as cold air sinks off the Sleeping Ute and is trapped by Battle Rock in the winter and summer days routinely exceed 100 degrees. But, the canyon also has a unique micro climate, long growing season, and beauty. In addition to its distinctive environment, McElmo has a tightknit community. Many of the McElmo residents have resided in the canyon for generations. They have survived floods and bitter winters. And, they have transformed the canyon and become a part of its environment. Like many before him, John Sutcliffe fell in love with the area when he discovered it.
Originally from Wales, John’s first job in the United States was working on a cattle ranch in Carbondale, Colorado for Bob Perry before attending college in Oregon. After spending time in the restaurant industry, John followed a woman who worked as a doctor in Shiprock, New Nexico to the four corners area. John began camping on what is now the Sutcliffe Vineyards property in 1990. Emily could drive to work, and they had a small cow-calf herd and horses and camped on the property for a year.
Eventually, an architect friend came to visit and after touring much of the southwest looking at similar climates Reggie Gibson designed the house and they all built it. When the house was built, irrigation water returning to McElmo Creek had created mud cliffs dropping to the creek. The Sutcliffes pushed dirt up from the bottom to create a gradual slope on which plants could grow. They grew chilis, tomatoes, and melons in the fields and continued to raise cattle. For a time, John raised Watusi bulls which were sold to the rodeo circuit. Generally easy to work around, when the cows calved they became extremely protective and their long horns occasionally sent cowboys over fences or under tractors for protection.
The first vines were planted in 1995 because the architect thought they would look nice around the house and would help keep the ground stable. Then in 1999, John received a license to make wine and began to grow wine grapes. The first wines were sold in 2001. They only sold the wine to restaurants, but the wine was well received. Seasons Restaurant in Durango was one of the first purchasers. Today, people come to McElmo to visit the vineyard, taste the wines, and enjoy the scenery. Last year, Sutcliffe Vineyards received three 90s from the Wine Enthusiast and was named as one of the best 500 producers by Food & Wine Magazine. Sutcliffe Vineyards works closely with Dunton Hotsprings and has partnerships with numerous restaurants including Stonefish in Cortez. They also feature their wines at events and art openings and have a wine society that you can only join after having visited the vineyard.
Sutcliffe Vineyards was placed under conservation easement in 2000. John was making a living as a farmer, and he wanted to be able to continue making a living as a farmer while keeping the land the way it is. A conservation easement was the perfect tool, allowing John to continuing farming and establishing the vineyard while ensuring that the land will remain undeveloped in perpetuity. John worked closely with Nina Williams throughout the process and was soon hosting gatherings at his house to encourage others in the canyon to play their property under conservation easement. Today, Montezuma Land Conservancy has helped protect over 5,250 acres in McElmo Canyon.
John describes himself as a “great disciple of conservation easements” and strives to convince others to utilize conservation easements. For John, it is important to be a farmer and important to be a part of the community. Montezuma Land Conservancy is a part of that community. John is a fantastic partner to MLC, and we always look forward to visiting Sutcliffe Vineyard!