A Place Between Heaven and Earth: Leroux Creek Inn B&B and Winery

Jul 18, 2013 by     No Comments    Posted under: Tourism

It’s a bright day all around. Winter sun shines on fields of snow. Inside Leroux Creek Inn the brilliance is softened by warm tones of adobe and tile, a crackling piñon fire, and deep cushioned chairs. I’m sipping coffee with Yvon Gros and Joanna Reckert, proprietors of the Bed and Breakfast, Vineyard, and Winery that comprise this international agritourism destination.exterior

Originally from New York City, Joanna has lived in Colorado for 30 years. “I never lost my accent,” she jokes with a noticeable accent.

“I lost mine,” mutters Yvon, capturing in that short sentence much of what makes him a popular host: a gentle, self-effacing demeanor mingled with a quick humor. His accent is thick with the romance of the French countryside, and so, it happens, is the getaway that this couple offers at their B&B.

With simple southwestern elegance, gourmet French cuisine, an array of handcrafted wines, spectacular views, and the rich agricultural context of the North Fork Valley, Leroux Creek Inn has put itself on the map for people seeking an authentic culinary vacation. It also represents the epitome of agritourism as a burgeoning economic driver in Delta County.

As an organic vineyard and successful winery, the business also exemplifies the potential and the contribution of the West Elk AVA to our growing sustainable, land-based economy. American Viticultural Area is a designation applied to a couple of hundred wine-grape-growing areas across the U.S., defined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury based on specific geographic features and distinguishing uniqueness of place. The West Elk AVA is one of only two AVAs in the state, and contains the highest-altitude vineyards in the northern hemisphere. A recently published book, An American Provence, describes what makes the West Elk AVA unique, and focuses on Leroux Creek in particular.

Yvon n Joanna

Joanna tells me that she and Yvon met in Vail 23 years ago, where she owned a business designing exercise apparel that was sold all over the US and in Europe. “I’ve always been in the garment industry. I never really thought I’d be farming,” she says. “I do all the flowers and I love that.” She keeps the Inn full of flowers and container plants blooming throughout the grounds during the season.

Yvon, a career restaurateur, dreamed of running his own winery when he moved to Vail in 1973. Only when they bought the Inn in 2000 was he able to fulfill that dream.

“And I really wanted to have our fruits,” he emphasizes. “I didn’t want to buy fruit. Now there is actually a lot of good fruit in Colorado, but ten years ago it was not the fruit that I wanted… As a farmer you have to be lucky too, you know, later on you say you’re smart, but at the time we were lucky because we didn’t know that much, and it was a perfect field. The slope is perfect, the flow of the frost is perfect, the exposition is perfect.”

There were only three vineyards in the North Fork when he planted his first grapes, hybrids rather than vinifera, “the noble vines, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris… At 6000 feet it’s difficult to grow vinifera, so we grow hybrids which works a lot better. It took awhile but people start to get a liking of it and this summer we sold all the white wine, the rosé, the sweet wine. We’re doing very well.

“So far we’ve been right” to grow hybrids, he says, “because we’ve had a crop every year; where nobody else had a crop some years we had one. Now there’s challenges to make a wine that will please the American palette, which is more fruit up front, and vinifera have a little more acidity. Europe took centuries to get it right, so we hope we can do it in a few years. Like the American style, let’s get it done quick, you know.”

wineYvon grows Chambourcin, a French hybrid, and Cayuga, a white grape from the Finger Lake area of New York. “Lately summers have been very hot so we sell a lot of white wine. The future I think here is rosé. If we can make some decent rosé that are similar to the French rosé, with the weather in the summer, all the rich towns like Aspen, Telluride, where people know about rosé… we used to do farmers’ markets in Telluride and people would go ‘ah, that’s not rosé,’ but then they’d taste it and go ‘Aaaah!’”

I’ve never been a fan of rosé but I don’t tell Yvon that. I ask  him exactly what goes into making a rosé.

“Rosé is between white wine and red: the process is different than red wine, you don’t use the skin, you do it like a white wine but you use grapes that produce a light reddish color. The lighter it is the better it is. The challenge with our Chambourcin is quite a bit of tannin in the skin and very purple color. Merlot seems to be one of the best to make rosé, because it’s light, has light acidity. Every year we progress, and maybe we’re going to start being recognized as a rosé area, which would be incredible.”

What’s the ideal time and place to drink a rosé?

“The ideal,” he ponders, “it would be like the south of France, you know, maybe a lunch on your deck, because most of the time you eat lunch outside in the North Fork Valley, and it’s just perfect. You sit down have a light lunch, it could be a free-range chicken from TLC or Karla, just simply roast with a little salad and a rosé, really cold, it’s perfect. It’s more a wine that would be with a light fare, a pizza, something simple, but on a hot day.

“You don’t really drink rosé in the winter,” he continues. “It’s just like you eat fondue in the winter with white wine, you know. So rosé, to answer your question, I see outdoors with good friends just having fun and not really complex food. Some of the rosés actually pair very well with some great food, like something a little spicy, something Provençal, because basically rosé is a staple of Provence. Since we are called the American Provence we got to put all the eggs in our basket!”

Two geese and a gaggle of ducks in a pen greeted me when I pulled up at the Inn, as well as two friendly corgis and a labradoodle who ran to greet me. Joanna tells me they harvest what duck eggs the dogs don’t get from around the pond, and Yvon adds, “I love duck eggs, especially for pastries.”

And the geese? Joanna says, “If we have geese that aren’t friendly or that attack our guests, that’s not really a good thing with a Frenchman in the kitchen, because they will end up in the freezer.”

dining room

She tells me that Leroux Creek Inn offers several types of hospitality. Regular overnight stays and groups of 8 or more who want Yvon to cook a gourmet dinner have been the backbone of the business for years. Last year, they also started offering culinary vacations.

“They start off with a welcome dinner made by Yvon. The next day Yvon will take them to the farms or the ranches and they can pick out the food that they want to prepare that night, and then they’ll come back and Yvon will work with them on preparing the dinners.” What initially began as a vacation package focused on cooking classes, however, quickly morphed into a broader education about where food comes from, featuring tours of the valley’s farms, ranches and wineries.

“We have people from all over the country that come. They’re not used to seeing someone that actually has the goats and then makes the goat cheese… It’s like raising or growing the produce or raising the animals, right through to it being able to be served, they just have never seen that process. The other thing that’s great is that you’re meeting the people who run the farms, their families. Like going to Delicious Orchards, they have the fruit, they’re making the cider, the apple juice. It’s pretty amazing what’s going on here.”

“Seventy percent of our  regular B&B business is repeat clientele and referrals,” says Yvon. “It’s a huge part of our business, because so many people love this valley. And we also recommend a lot of other B&B’s in this valley. We have people who’ve been coming here since before we owned the business.

“We want to stay humble about this thing,” he says thoughtfully, “but when we moved here in 2000, there was really no business here, at the Inn, and even in the valley. The reason I’m bringing that up is, it’s kind of tied up with this thing with the BLM and the fracking, because I don’t think it’s fair to analyze the valley and the agritourism before 2005.

“I want to congratulate the farmers and the people who were here before, all the big names were here, but now there’s small farmers, a bunch of farms that came up and really make the meat of the market, make it interesting for people to come here.”

Yvon says that at least 80% of the Inn’s groceries come from the North Fork Valley. What produce they don’t grow in their kitchen garden they purchase from local farms. Clientele for the culinary packages also “spend a lot of money. I had a group of eight, they dumped thousands of dollars a day, between wine, food, art, cheese and stuff, it was amazing. We feel very good to help the valley grow.

guestroom3

“We kicked in in 2004, 2005,” he says, and looks to Joanna. “That’s when you quit your job.”

“That’s when we started getting really busy,” she agrees. He says, “And also, that’s when you started answering the phone.” Joanna laughs, “Yvon never answered the phone, you gotta call people back!”

“So the reservation double just from that,” he chuckles. “Not just a coincidence though, you could feel there was more of an interest at that time.”

Joanna says the demographics of their clientele have changed in the past few years. “There were a lot of fly-fishermen coming, people that knew the Gunnison River for the gold medal fly fishing. In the beginning we had a much older clientele. This summer was remarkable: we had so many people in their late 20s and 30s that were so interested in winemaking and the farming part. Also, there’s so many artisans in the valley, people were interested in going to see the glassblowing, they love the Creamery, they loved going to all the little art galleries in Paonia. Another thing people loved was going to see Monica bake her bread, that’s fabulous. So it’s not just about the cooking vacation, it’s more that agritourism includes everything in the valley, artists, growers, ranchers… and then the music. It really takes in everything.”

Joanna says, “Another thing that helped us with our culinary vacations was that we connected with this website Epitourian.com, and they book culinary and agritourism vacations all over the world. They have us on their website. That’s something wonderful that’s just going to keep growing.”

“This summer was just a big kick,” says Yvon. “We took a sort of a break for two years, but this summer I could see the difference in the curiosity, the people were like ‘We heard, but we didn’t know it was like this, we didn’t know this quality of life that you have here.’ They love to come here, touch it, be a part of it, but they want to go back to the cities.

“There’s a saying here that you don’t pick the valley, the valley chooses you. And I’ve seen it. People come here, stay here one year, they’re like oh wow, but they didn’t understand if you don’t put your hand in the soil, if you don’t live the valley… You don’t talk about your mercedes, or your clothes or whatever, and those people were still in that mode and they couldn’t live here.

“But in the other hand, there’s such an incredible amount of people that move here and discover the soil, and be stewards of the land, and they’re natural, but they never did it before, and they do some incredible stuff. That’s a bonus in the valley, the quality of people that live here.”

Yvon n Joanne farm-to-table banquetIn addition to the Winemakers’ Dinner they host every August during the West Elks Wine Trail, Joanna says they’re planning on doing more and smaller farm dinners this year, and hope to offer box lunches for people who visit the winery. “So we would offer a simple salad, a cheese plate, a paté plate, then people could sit under the tent enjoy a glass of wine and that beautiful view.”

“This year we’re going to take some of the vines over there that are not doing well,” says Yvon, “They were an experimental vineyard through Cornell—and we’ll grow a couple of rows of potatoes because the water is there. I love John Cooley’s potatoes, but I mean when you have your own potatoes…it’s great.”

Joanna says “Rick Zimmerman had green beans that were about three feet long! We’d tie them in a bow when we’d serve them to guests. We support all the farmers.”

Yvon adds, “We use our garden for the small dinners or the classes, but for the big dinners I go to one farm and buy everything. Those guys, we have to keep them going. They can’t just grow, they have to sell. You have to keep them in business, because that’s going to be the cachet of the valley, the vineyards, the farms, the animals, the cheese.”

Joanna mentions Thistlewhistle Farm. “Mark has 150 varieties of peppers, it’s incredible, and eggplants, too; his beets are unbelievable, and his tomatoes, all the flavors and varieties of tomatoes!”Yvon w mushrooms

“It’s wonderful to cook in this valley,” says Yvon, “because you wake up in the morning, you don’t know what your lunch is going to be or your dinner, you have this group of people that are having breakfast saying what are we going to do today, and they’re all excited, and you go to this farm, and simple things like ‘oh I didn’t know that garlic grew like this, or eggplant, wow I thought that was in the ground.’ Things sometimes you take for granted.”

“Like in the morning,” says Joanna, “I’ll walk in with a bunch of eggs and they’re like ‘oh you had to go to the supermarket?’ and I say ‘no, I went to the farm down the road,’ and I open up the box and they’re all different colors, and they’re like ‘oh my god!’”

Yvon tells this story: “I had this couple here for about five days. The last day they said, ‘We have a long trip, we don’t want to eat too much. We just want scrambled eggs.’ I say ‘Do you want cheese in it?’ ‘NO! We just want scrambled eggs,’ so I make them scrambled eggs, I don’t know if they were from Linda, or from Paul. The guests looked at me like they were almost pissed off, ‘What did you do to the eggs? What did you put in it?’ ‘I didn’t put anything, this is natural eggs!’ You almost have to wear sunglasses to cook them because they’re so bright and beautiful.”

Further diversifying the Leroux Creek brand, Joanna also makes a line of all-natural skin care products under the name Leroux Creek Spa. All her products from cleansers to lotions to aftershave are based on grape seed oil, and many include the wines Yvon makes. “It’s all made to order,” she says. “The most inventory I have is basically what you see on the shelf. The shelf life would be probably a year, but you could prolong it by putting it in the fridge; I call it food for the skin, you treat it like food. It makes your skin feel amazing.”

Yvon mentions their new neighbor to the east, Bill Koch, who recently purchased a 2500-acre ranch now running horses and “very expensive cattle” that will turn into Kobe beef. The ranch connects to BLM land and then to the 7X ranch to the north, which Koch also bought to facilitate his company’s development of the Oak Mesa coal mine.

“I know there’s controversy about Bill Koch,” he says, “but that part I like. I’ve met the manager of that ranch, and he’s really into growing some incredible meat that’s going to put us on the map too. So that’s a positive part of it. The other part about the mine… that’s another thing about the valley, you cannot be too extreme about it. We definitely take a position being extreme on the fracking, I don’t think it has anything to do in the valley. But the mining was also here, so there’s a fine line.”

Joanna and Yvon express concerns about potential light and noise pollution from development of the coal mine, and worry that the possible conveyor belt to transport coal from up on the mesa down to the railroad tracks will ruin their business.

“It’s gonna to change our lives,” says Yvon ruefully.

vineyard

“But the gas and oil drilling, the fracking, I’m really afraid of that,” says Joanna, “because that will ruin the entire valley. I mean, the coal mine is going to ruin 3100 Road in terms of agritourism, with people riding their bikes or sitting out on our deck. But the fracking, we don’t know what will happen to the aquifer. Without water here we’re really in trouble. With all the truck traffic, the evaporation pits, all the things that go hand in hand with gas drilling…

“I know people are not going to drive five hours to sit on our deck and look at a conveyor belt,” she says. “That we know. But they’re not going to drive five hours from Denver or Boulder to come to the valley to see gas wells. They’re coming to see the farms, they’re coming to see the ranches, they’re coming to see the wineries. And the sky.”

“That’s why the BLM is not fair as far as the Resource Management Plan,” says Yvon. “That should start from zero. They should go around and talk to people, do research on the resources. The numbers on what the wineries bring to the area, what lodging brings to the area; we don’t have enough lodging now, I mean if there is a festival in town or something people have to stay in Delta. But the good thing is there’s more and more Bed and Breakfasts. It’s developing and it’s going further and further and if something like this… I talked to realtors when this news first came up about the BLM leasing, boom, it was a stop in real estate. It’s the same thing with tourism. People coming here, we have a nice conversation, but then they say we heard this, we heard that, something’s happening here.

“Joanna is right when she says people come here for the farms, for the land, for what people do with it. I don’t know what the fracking is going to bring to this valley as far as revenues, but it’s going to bring more harm than good.”

Joanna adds, “The thing is, agritourism and the farms and all of that here can generate so much more business long term than the gas and oil is going to do because that’s just going to change the whole complexion of the valley.”

“But there is a couple people that make money off that,” says Yvon, “and it’s just a couple people and they destroy the life of thousands. It’s a big curve right now, a big fork. If we could live through this, get the fracking behind us, the mine, make them do the right thing, we’ll be ok. Right now there’s so many snowballs throwing at us. Why so fast? Why at Christmas? Why all these things?”

“The peace and the tranquility of this spot,” says Joanna, “People write things in the guest book. One woman from Germany wrote ‘there’s a place between heaven and earth and it’s called Leroux Creek Inn.’”

“We’re going to all be impacted by this,” says Yvon. “The major wineries, Stone Cottage, Terror Creek, Azura, they’re really going to be impacted. This is national; we should be on 60 Minutes.”

Our conversation draws to a close on this anxious, somewhat mournful note. We should, indeed, be on 60 Minutes. For the time being, however, Joanna and Yvon muster their good spirits and forge ahead with their dream. Joanna gives me a bottle of “Grape Seed Skin Emulsion” as I leave, and the dogs walk me to the car. Clear air, sparkling snow, and deep silence surround the Leroux Creek Inn, for now.

entrance w rainbow

 

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