Buffalo Jump Wines, Plus an Actual Buffalo

© Michele Prevost
By Dan Dunn Posted October 15, 2014

While driving through Yellowstone National Park on my way from Montana to Wyoming, I saw a huge bison taking a leisurely stroll along the side of the road.

Dan Dunn is taking an extensive road trip across America to research his forthcoming book, American Wino: A Story of Reds, Whites and One Writer’s Blues on the Winey Road to Redemption (Dey Street Books/HarperCollins). This is the third in a series of weekly dispatches chronicling his journey.

While driving through Yellowstone National Park on my way from Montana to Wyoming, I saw a huge bison taking a leisurely stroll along the side of the road. It was a breathtaking thing to witness up close, and clearly the guy in the SUV in front of me thought so too because he got out of the vehicle, walked right up to the giant beast with a camera and started snapping photos like he was Terry Richardson and the bison was Kate Upton.

Now, I’ll admit that my understanding of the behavioral patterns of the American buffalo is limited, but even I know that cozying up to one in the wild is an insanely stupid idea. Even if it actually did happen to bear a resemblance to a certain buxom supermodel (which it did not, by the way). Fortunately, this particular bison wasn’t in an apparent mood to pulverize an amateur wildlife photographer, and kept on lumbering down the road.

Turns out buffalo aren’t very bright either. Indeed, centuries ago, North American Indians used to hunt and kill the big, dumb, furry creatures en masse by herding them over cliffs. Such death-by-gravity sites became known as Buffalo Jumps, as did the winery in Cody—the only winery in Cody—where I found myself sipping Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay later that day.

Buffalo Jump Winery is operated in the Rodeo Capital of the World by the husband-and-wife team of former teacher Beckie Tilden and Scott Wagner, who played linebacker for the University of Utah in the ’80s.

Their selection of wines is darn good, made with grapes sourced from California, Oregon and Washington. (I would have to wait a few days before sampling any 100 percent Wyoming-made vino.) One of only four wineries in Wyoming, Buffalo Jump produces about 3,000 cases a year, almost of all of which is sold and consumed in our nation’s least populous state.

“Wyoming is a beer and shots state,” Scott Wagner told me, “so we have to be careful not to be snooty about wine around here.” He wasn’t kidding either—the cheese plate they gave me to accompany my 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve was devoid of Époisses de Bourgogne. And having to use a plastic knife to spread Brie on a crumbly cracker gave me a real appreciation of how difficult life must have been for the settlers back in Wild West times.

I met Alfred Eames about 600 miles south of Cody in Paonia, Colorado, a haven for artists and social misfits, long known more for its kind bud than fortified grape juice. Eames is one of a handful of winemakers producing high-quality wine in the region, most notably Sangre del Sol, a lively and well-balanced blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Eames started out making dandelion wine in the early ’70s. Experimentation with grapes followed, and in 1999 Alfred Eames Cellars released its first bottling. These days, he’s churning out about 2,000 cases annually from a tiny winery nestled in one of the most picturesque valleys in America.

Rob Kimball of 5680’ Vineyards is also producing delightful wine out of Paonia, and has been doing so since 2005. Like Eames, Kimball’s a self-taught winemaker who handles virtually every aspect of production—planting to bottling to sales—on his own. (He needs to hire someone to build him a website, though.) Kimball is convinced that Paonia will come to be recognized as one of the country’s great winemaking regions, and is training his teenage son to be a winemaker as well.

“Someday, somebody is going to make a world-class Pinot Noir right here in Paonia,” Kimball said. “And when that happens, I really hope that somebody is me or my kid.”

I wouldn’t be against it.

Next week: More from Colorado and Wyoming, along with Nebraska and Iowa.

For more on Dan’s journey, follow him on Twitter @TheImbiber

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