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Q&A: John Barbier, the Colorado cook-vintner

“I have never followed a recipe in my life, I’m a man of instinct”, declares Colorado cook-turned-winemaker John Barbier.

Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

Born on 28 May, 1972, in Arpajon, France, nothing predestined John Barbier to become a winemaker in the remote plains of Colorado. And yet, here is a portrait of an American success story; a man as manic as discreet, as demanding as generous, primarily Epicurean and vinifying by conviction, to the delight of our palates.

Wine Explorers: Can you tell us about your unusual career?

John Barbier: My name is a tribute to John Wayne – my father loved him. In a way the United States and I were made to live together! After my studies in the restoration sector, I joined the army as butler of the General of Bourges. After that, I put my bag on my back and headed towards Australia and Asia. I have always wanted to travel, to explore the planet. I did everything from being a waiter in Adelaide to cooking in the bush, to being a touristic guide. I had to earn my daily bread. This was followed by a period of two and a half years where I furrowed the Caribbean and Bermuda serving on a cruise ship.

WE: How did you start Maison la Belle Vie winery?

JB: I arrived in the US in 1996. I decided to try my luck there, because travelling opened my mind and gave me a thousand dreams. I chose to work in Aspen (Colorado), a beautiful ski resort. Restaurant work has always fascinated me and I quickly wanted to open my own business. I had the opportunity to open my first restaurant in Glenwood Spring in northern Colorado. It immediately turned out well and I opened a second one nearby, in Grand Junction. Maison la Belle Vie came into being naturally and in the continuity of my two other businesses.

WE: Is wine always related to gastronomy for you?

JB: I grew up on a farm and I love local produce, the history behind it. I also love the French know-how and all that goes with it. Food and wine have forever been two great friends. My family taught me about life and respect. Being at the table is a very important moment for me, where a good meal is consistent with a good wine, but also with the place and time. Cuisine is a mix between savoir-vivre and how one receives people.

Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

WE: Do you still have time to cook?

JB: I cook when I have friends at home. I take time for them and it’s a real pleasure. I love creating dishes according to the season and especially depending on what I find in my garden. Knowing how to combine the elements of a dish together is an ongoing challenge. Besides, I have never followed a recipe in my life, I’m a man of instinct.

WE: Why do you defend the concept of “oenotourism“ so fervently?

JB: For me, oenotourism is all the little extras added to the wine tasting. This is essential today to differentiate one from others in a market as competitive as the wine industry. My vineyard is small but very welcoming. My guests feel at home and never want to leave. We offer them a charcuterie platter with local ham and sausages, good cheese, traditional baguette, antipasti. We recreate a friendly mindset that people have lost and which everyone wants. We even do dinners on the farm, with very simple and friendly food and wine pairings, in a warm atmosphere. To get back to basics for a more serene life during an evening is very important for our customers who like to say “this is real life.” We also organise weddings half of the year, often up to two per weekend as the demand is high.

Pictures by Ludovic Pollet

WE: What do you think of Colorado wines?

JB: The wine industry in Colorado is young. We began producing wine in the early 80’s. After many adjustments and experiments, wines have gradually improved. We have made a lot of progress over the last 10 years, especially with red wines. They are delicious. Today we have reached one hundred wineries throughout the state.

We now have programs that help us to develop and to become more competitive. This teaches us not only to make wine but also to grow grapes in altitude: we are at 1600m above sea level and we must adapt! We cannot plant anything we want, only what the earth wants to offer us.

However the State of Colorado has seen the financial potential of the wine industry and that’s why a research centre was created in order to help us in terms of viticulture, but also in the development and marketing of our wines.

WE: What do you hate most?

JB : Snobbery!

WE: Your motto?

JB : Do what we love. Do not drink moonshine wines. Do not keep the most beautiful glasses and dishes only for special occasions.

WE: Do you have a favourite wine?

JB : Hmmm…my favourite wine. I particularly enjoy wines from B&E Vineyard in Paso Robles, especially their 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon. On the French side, I adore a good Gigondas, and even though I’m not very focused on white wines, I like to open a Condrieu from time to time.

WE: What do you like most?

JB : Sharing a good meal and my favourite wines with friends.

Follow the Wine Explorers’ adventures on their website, Facebook page and blog.  

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