Escape to Wine Country

The Palisade Cafe with Flyer by Joe Buckel. Photo by Lisa Moose Levy Kral

It’s 5 o’clock at the Palisade Café. The chef called in an hour earlier with news of a broken tooth – he won’t be showing up to oversee tonight’s wine tasting dinner.

That, and about half a dozen other emergencies have owner John Sabal in high gear as he manages tonight’s shift in course at the busy and, at times, chaotic creative enterprise that is his restaurant: the Palisade Café. John thrives on the energy of improvisation, and is in excellent spirits as guests begin to arrive for the dinner.

John Sabal, owner of the Palisade Cafe. Photo by Lisa Moose Levy Kral.JPG

“I guess I’ll be working the kitchen tonight, too,” he laughs. Which is not the crisis that it may seem, as John was once General Manager at the Keystone Ranch Resort before moving west to Palisade, Colorado’s wine country.

Arriving from cold, grey Summit County into full-blown springtime in the Grand Valley, Alan and I are in a happy daze. Stunned, actually, by the nearly psychedelic green of peach and apricot orchards beginning to leaf out, grape vines shooting out tendrils in the vineyards. As far as we are concerned, it will all be fine.

A few minutes later, I see our friends Don and Suzana, who’ve also come over from Summit, parking their car across the way. They shed their heavy winter coats, and wander across the quiet Main Street towards the Café, taking in the quaint, slightly scruffy, downtown with bemused expressions.

It is a good time of year to get out of Summit County and go west. The water is rushing impressively now through Shoshone and down into Glenwood Canyon. In Palisade, it’s warm and light, and the steep slopes of Mt. Garfield are an uncharacteristically plush, grassy green because of the wet spring. Tractors and other big farming vehicles share the road as you come into town, and everything just slows down to a dreamy pastoral pace.

I am ready for a glass of wine.

I look around for Joe Buckel, the winemaker.

Joe has recently started his own label, Buckel Family Wine, which is an exciting development for those who know him and have followed his winemaking progress. Joe’s career began in Sonoma 15 years ago with the esteemed wineries BR Cohn and Flowers. 10 years ago he attracted the attention of the New York restaurateur John Sutcliffe who had a small winery and several vineyards in Canyon of the Ancients, Cortez. By the time Joe moved on from Sutcliffe Vineyards to start his own label, he had created for Sutcliffe not only wines that are now sold in most Colorado liquor stores, but also blends that are served under private labels at several resorts, including the Telluride Resort restaurants. All produced with grapes grown in Colorado.

As I angle for a preview of the first wine, a Cinsault, I talk to Joe about how different it feels to be here in this casual setting compared to some of the wine dinners Alan and I have attended in Summit County or over in Vail. There is an easy-going enthusiasm in the air, which contrasts with more stiff, formal dinners we’ve been too where everyone wants to come across as an expert and guests are surreptitiously analyzing the quality and price of each selection with the “Vivino” app on their phone.

Winemaker Joe Buckel, center, with Palisade growers Brian and Rebecca Cox. Photo by Lisa Moose Levy Kral

Joe responds: “I think the difference really comes down to who is conducting the tasting or dinner. Distributors or importers need to impress and have a certain ‘air.’ But if it is the winemaker or someone in production or the owner of the company, you tend to have a more loose experience – more fun and down to earth.”

The enjoyment is amplified when the food and wine all come from Colorado. “It gives everyone more of a connection,” Joe says. “You have a sense of place. People don’t feel ‘far away’, removed from the source of the experience. And that familiarity brings everyone into the fold and makes us all feel more like we are with our own people, we are ‘insiders.’”

Maybe that is what makes it feel so special. I think most of us, even if we are strangers, feel as if we are with “our own people” this evening: people who are maybe a little less interested in formality and more excited about enjoying John’s and Joe’s collaborative effort to bring food and wine together. If the pairing works, food and wine don’t just go with each other; each brings out the best in the other. And that is a magical thing to experience.

As the evening comes to an end, Alan and I follow Joe to his car where his trunk is packed with cases of the wines we sampled that evening. We buy several bottles of our favorites. I particularly like “Flyer,” a smoothly calibrated red blend. Throughout the evening, the wine has flowed freely and now I am laughing and talking too much and buy several more bottles than I intended to.

One week after the dinner I am home in Breckenridge. As I look out the window, it is snowing again. What more tempting moment could there be for another escape to Wine Country?


This piece appeared in the Summit Daily News Sunday May 19, 2019

Photos: Lisa Moose Levy Kral


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