There’s no shortage of natural wonder in the Vail Valley. From stunning vistas of expansive mountain ranges to sparkling creeks that meander through towns to awe-inspiring wildlife, the Valley is a treasure trove of local gems, just waiting to be explored. But after a full day of soaking up food for the soul, it’s time to satisfy that other hunger and indulge in some sustenance for the stomach. The culinary scene in the valley has grown by leaps and bounds; almost any craving can be satiated at the myriad of restaurants. Less apparent, however, is the amount of what is presented for purchase is actually locally grown and produced. Though the area started as land for farming and ranching, the discovery of “white gold” changed the landscape of Vail more than half a century ago. Local farmers, ranchers, vintners and fromagers are now demonstrating that it’s possible to feed more than just the soul in the Vail Valley: You can please your palate, as well.
For four generations, Eaton Ranch in Edwards has been home to cows. Mike Eaton is the latest steward, raising cows on the land to maintain agricultural status and keep the land in the family.
“That’s the reason I’m still here,” Eaton says. “My grandpa and Earl (one of the founders of Vail), they were the salt of the earth and I’ve kept the property. They’re looking down happily and I don’t want it sold, so that’s why I keep the cows. It’s pasture for the cows.”
Eaton started selling his beef about 10 years ago, when Avondale first opened in the Westin Riverfront in Avon. He had already been sharing his free-range, hormone-free beef with friends and family, but when local restaurateurs learned that they could purchase a whole steer, Eaton agreed to work with them. Avondale was the first, but it’s Bōl in Solaris that has had the longest relationship with the rancher. “One cow doesn’t really go very far in a restaurant,” says Eaton.
The truth is that it’s difficult for a restaurant to use 100 percent of a cow: 75 percent of the animal is hamburger, Eaton says. Though Bōl will run specials on other cuts of meat, the majority is used in their hamburgers, which makes sense to Eaton. “It is the tastiest burger,” Eaton says, enthusiastically. Raising your steak isn’t a short process. The steers are two years old when they leave the ranch, which is more mature than many cows that are only raised until they’re 12 or 18 months old. Though they graze on hay from Rifle and Parachute for most of their lives, for the last 90 to 120 days, they’re fed all natural, non-GMO grain made from Olathe sweet corn.
The result is “grass-fed, grain-finished” beef; Eaton says the grain gives the finished product marbling and a bit of fat. He doesn’t like the taste of purely grass-fed beef. After being inspected by the USDA, the steers are slaughtered, dry-aged for 15 days (the magic number, Eaton says) and cut according to Eaton’s instructions. Then they’re brought straight back to Vail.
Though Eaton has 60 cows in various stages of life at the moment, only six will be turned into burger and steaks this summer. Four will go to Bōl, and Eaton will sell the other two himself. He provides specific cuts for customers if they ask; he also sells the bones for people to make bone broth or stock. But raising cattle is not a money-maker for Eaton. Instead, he says it’s a way to live in paradise and keep the land that has been in his family for generations. “Do I like doing it?” he asks, rhetorically. “I actually do like doing it. It’s good work. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like doing it. I feel like the luckiest person on earth to be born where I was, where I’m at and that’s why I keep doing it. Some people think I’m nuts to get up at 4 a.m., like I did this morning for feeding… but it’s all about life choices. I would never change anything I’ve done.”
Buttercrunch Farm in Eagle has been operating for a little more than 18 months, where owners Peri Berman and Robert Anthony share the desire to provide fresh, local produce. Instead of growing in the soil, though, they’re focusing on aquaponics. A “closed-loop” system, aquaponics is a growing technique in which both fish and plants are grown together. The waste from the fish goes to the plants, which then use the nutrients for growth and, at the same time, clean the water that gets returned back to the fish.
“I’ve always had a dream of starting a farm,” Berman says. “I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I just always loved the outdoors and animals and fresh food. I always thought it would be really cool to grow my own food.” But it was the idea of bringing aquaponics to the valley that really appealed to Berman and Anthony. They saw a market for fresh greens, which take weeks to arrive at area restaurants from commercial suppliers. Buttercrunch can harvest in the morning and deliver to restaurants on the same day. It’s a service that restaurants from Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard in Vail to Vin 48 and 8100 at Park Hyatt Beaver Creek are utilizing; private chefs like Red Maple Catering also use Buttercrunch Farm’s greens.
With a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse and 1,500-square-foot fish house, Buttercrunch is growing nine different types of lettuces and 10 to 12 types of microgreens. Though the growth slows in the winter (Buttercrunch doesn’t use artificial light, so the greenhouse is utilized in the colder months), Berman says they sell an average of about six to eight cases of heads per week.
“On an average year, we should be able to produce about 60,000 heads of lettuce,” Berman explains. That’s a lot of lettuce from three acres of land, a fact that Berman says makes her proud. “I take a lot of pride in what we do, that we brought this farm into the mountains and there aren’t many places doing that,” she shares. “We’ve done field trips that I can show kids, that although we’re only on three acres of land—you don’t have to have 60 acres to grow as much lettuce as we grow. We show that you can do things differently than the normal way.”
Wander the stalls at the Vail Art and Farmers’ Market or peruse the dairy aisle at Village Market in Edwards and look for AnnaVail’s sage green label. Behind the label, you’ll find Ann Kurronen’s artisan sheep and cows’ milk cheeses. With several varieties of fresh cows’ milk cheese and aged sheep’s milk options, Kurronen’s creations are a gastronomical link to her past, connecting her to her grandparents while satisfying her love of cheese. Making cheese is seasonal, Kurronen explains, with summer finding her working in high gear. It’s not common to find sheep’s milk cheese like AnnaVail’s, as not many ranchers raise sheep for milk and the milking season itself is short, following the natural cycle of lambkins being born and then weaned.
But sheep’s milk cheese is what Kurronen likes. “I wanted to create something unique and I prefer the taste of sheep’s milk,” she says. “I like it the best and I want to make a cheese I enjoy eating.”
Sheep’s milk cheese has a creamier texture than goat or cow’s milk cheese due to the high fat content: Sheep’s milk has double the fat content, but it’s good fat. It also has a mild, yet distinctive, taste with a little bit of sharpness, Kurronen explains. Also, it’s found to be easier to digest due to the lack of casein which is found in cow’s milk. AnnaVail currently produces several types of sheep’s milk cheese, both fresh and aged. After several years of experimentation and a close eye on what customers seem to enjoy, Kurronen says that she’s comfortable with the different types of cheeses she creates. And, she sells as many as 1,200 units during the Vail Farmers’ Market. One of Kurronen’s most popular cheeses is the Tomme de Vail, an aged sheep’s milk cheese that is crafted in the same way it’s made on the mountains of Europe. Aged 60 days, it has a nutty flavor and rich, smooth texture. However, Baamoozola is one of Kurronen’s favorites: The half- heep’s milk, half-cow’s milk cheese is a type of gorgonzola, but the blend of the different milk creates a mild flavor that is both subtle and buttery. AnnaVail also makes fresh cream cheese made with cow’s milk that comes in several flavors like dill-and- chive, jalapeno-chipotle and the popular Timberline, with basil, currants, garlic and walnuts.
Kurronen is not a full-time fromager she still has a “day” job. But creating her cheese for AnnaVail allows her to connect with her past, to childhood memories of time spent on her grandparents’ Iowa farm.
“I think of my grandparents every day when I make cheese… it’s a part of who I am,” Kurronen says. “I love it—it’s connected to that farming lifestyle that I care about and love.”
Alfred Austin said, “To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul.” In the Vail Valley, nurturing a garden is even more soul-fulfilling than in other locations. The high altitude, temperamental weather and other challenging aspects makes the bounty produced seem even more precious than that from other locations. And The Farm at Knapp Ranch in Edwards is certainly watching the lettuces of its labors grow.
For Bud Knapp, The Farm at Knapp Family Ranch grew slowly from a small kitchen garden at 8,700 feet in elevation. “The kitchen garden was exactly that: It was a garden for the housekeeper, Judy Rau, and she grew things she wanted to cook with and grew flowers to have cut flowers in the house,” Knapp explains. “It was an all-purpose garden for her. It was so prolific and so easy to gro —that’s what I said, but I wasn’t taking care of it,” he says, with a laugh.
As the kitchen garden was thriving, Betsy and Bud Knapp started to think about growing food to eat, rather than spices or herbs. They began a plot garden and started experimenting with growing various vegetables. “Some we won, most we lost—it just didn’t work up here,” Knapp says. “As time went on, we narrowed it down. We had some vegetables that really would work.” Knapp wasn’t growing to sell. Instead, the food that was grown was given to neighbors and staff and was eaten by the family. Through several years of experimenting, the Knapps grew to understand what the land could provide given the various challenges of altitude and the shorter growing season.
They invited several local chefs to visit and take a look at what they were producing and make suggestions as to what they could grow that might be helpful in their kitchens. The chefs sampled and were so pleased by what they tasted that the Knapps agreed to start supplying a few restaurants with greens. Hooked in Beaver Creek was one of the first. A section of a hoop house (a series of large hoops or bows—made of metal, plastic pipe or wood—covered with a layer of heavy greenhouse plastic) became a collaboration between Brian Gandy, Hooked’s former sustainable agriculture manager, and Chef Riley Romanin. The results—“gourmet greens” such as mizuna, shiso, purslanekale and a variety of lettuces as well as some root vegetables—were phenomenal. The different roduce the Knapps were able to grow, at high altitude in what was essentially the Knapps’ backyard, tasted better and stayed fresher longer. It was a success.
Now, The Farm at Knapp Family Ranch includes a one-acre vegetable farm, two growing hoop houses, a one-acre orchard, five test gardens, an apiary, weather data collecting stations, stream conservation and sawmill operations. It has supplied more than 50 local restaurants like Hovey & Harrison with more than 20 varieties of lettuce blends and greens, 30 varieties of micro greens, herbs, edible flowers, garlic, squash and cucumbers, four varieties of potatoes, onions, cauliflower and root veggies including five varieties of carrots and three different types radishes,beets and turnips.
On a terraced hillside in Edwards, chickens cluck contentedly as they peck and scratch; two barrel-bellied goats clamber over fences and onto the roof of a low lean-to; two large brown cows and one calf gaze imploringly at you with liquid eyes as you offer treats. This is Blue Sky Farm, a place where Jimmy Brenner gets to experiment and explore, and where Karen Oberholtzer finds joy in early morning milkings. “I was looking for something, some joy and happiness again, and my friends said, ‘Do what you love,’” Oberholtzer says. “I didn’t love anything at that moment.” Oberholtzer was going through a rough time, personally. But when she found a book on how to make cheese in your own kitchen, she thought, “maybe I’ll go to cheese school.” So she did. She traveled to farms that taught heritage techniques for cheese making and started buying raw milk and making cheese.
Then she decided that she needed her own cows. After finding pasture at Blue Sky Farm, Oberholtzer rented a truck and a trailer and drove to Montana by herself to pick up her Brown Swiss cows. Considered the oldest of all dairy breeds, these large and beautiful brown cows were developed in the northeastern part of Switzerland and have the second-highest milk yield. They seem to be at home in our mountains.
Oberholtzer hooks Tabitha up to an old-fashioned Babson surge milker from the 1950s, a contraption that looks like a giant teakettle with multiple spouts. Leoba, named after the German saint of miracles, looks on with a bored expression. Vail Valley Creamery is a biodynamic farm. Oberholtzer milks once a day in the morning with a yield of about three gallons per day; the calf, Spaetzle, gets his share during the rest of the day. Their diet consists of organic hay and spent grain from Vail Brewing Company, a great source of protein, Oberholtzer explains. She then sells the raw milk to families and individuals around the valley. “It tastes so much better than store-bought,” she says. But watching Oberholtzer talk to the cows, seeing the care and love that she lavishes on them, it’s obvious their relationship goes deeper than just “milker” and “milkee.” Oberholtzer seems to have found her niche here and shewants to share what she’s learned and not just about milking.
“I really want to teach someone to step out of the box and do something they’ve never done because it can really change their life,” Oberholtzer says. “I mean, I’m a city girl, high heels and lipstick, and I would rather be doing this. It’s so much fun.”
Patrick Chirichillo has winemaking in his blood. He started learning the craft from his Italian grandfather when he was 10 years old; he made his first barrel at 17 and, at 18, he got to open and taste it.
“He always made a zinfandel with a muscato,” Chirichillo says. “It had some style to it: The zinfandel was spicy and the muscato was sweet, so it was a pretty original blend.” This love of winemaking and, specifically, blending continues with Chirichillo, who is the owner and winemaker at Vines at Vail Winery, located at 4Eagle Ranch in Wolcott. Vines at Vail opened in 2014, but Chirichillo has been making wine in the valley for 27 years.
Originally from the New York/New Jersey area, Chirichillo vacationed in Vail in the mid-70s before moving to the area in 1989. When 4Eagle Ranch opened in 1991, he opened Churchill Wine Cellars, allowing people to come in and experience winemaking first-hand. In July 2014, Chirichillo opened the doors of Vines at Vail to the public, selling his 2013 vintage by the glass, bottle and by the case. Since then, he’s been operating at 4Eagle Ranch, crafting 40 to 50 barrels of wine a year, which translates to 1,000 to 1,200 cases. Chirichillo gets his grapes from Lodi, Stockton, or from his brother in Amador, California. In September, the 20 to 22 tons of grapes arrive in Wolcott and Chirichillo has a harvest crush party. Friends and guests come and stomp the grapes; there’s even a “Lucy lookalike” costume contest. Then, Chirichillo conducts his wine-making magic. His technique is more “old world,” a whole berry fermentation. This gives his wine more color and more flavor, he explains, but it’s well balanced and smooth. As well, no sulfites added, which adds to the drinkability. The varietals at Vines at Vail vary, from Petite Sirah to Sauvignon Blanc. Chirichillo has inherited his grandfather’s penchant for blending: the Vail Ink, a blend of Petite Sirah and Syrah, is big, bold and dark with lots of spicy character; the Super Tuscan is made up of 50 percent Sangiovese and 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Other wines are named after local ski runs, like Riva Ridge, Lover’s Leap and Davos.
Creating wine and sharing it is a gift that Chirichillo’s grandfather gave him and he continues to pass it on today.
“When you come to my winery and you step over my threshold, you’re in my house,” he says, joyfully. “I like to share my passion, my wine… I get to share a lot of myself and my heritage that I grew up with. It’s been very rewarding to meet people and share my wine.” From the opening cheese course to the meat and veg main to final glass of wine after dinner, Vail Valley artisans are ensuring that feeding the soul is as simple as filling the stomach with locally grown fare. So raise your glass and save room for just one more bite.