Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
June 17, 2011
Colorado is a beer state.
It is the home of Coors, the iconic American brewery that, before the days of craft and corporate takeovers, touted their location in the Rockies as a reason to drink their beer. It is the home of New Belgium, an iconic American craft brewer that launched Fat Tire, using great graphics and feel-good labels that made people want to buy bottles and ride bikes. It is home to The Great American Beer Festival. Even the governor, John Hickenlooper, comes from a brewing background.
So for a Colorado winemaker to rise above the suds and make a name for himself and his wares requires a combination of a barrel full of creativity and lots of quality juice.
Meet Ben Parsons, founder of the quality-driven and creatively named Denver winery, The Infinite Monkey Theorem. In just three years, IMT, as it is sometimes called, has blended attitude, enthusiasm and Colorado grapes to establish the most talked-about and written-about winery in the state. All from an operation that has no vineyards of its own and sells just 5,000 cases of wine a year. Chalk it up to Parsons ingenuity, innovation and a healthy dose of either ego or self-confidence, depending on who is doing the talking.
The particulars: Ben Parsons is a 35-year-old Englishman who studied wine at Australia’s University of Adelaide, one of the wine world’s most prestigious institutions. After stints in Australia and New Zealand, he answered an ad for a position at Canyon Wind Cellars on the western slope of Colorado. Working several vintages in Palisade and a few more in McElmo Canyon at Sutcliffe Vineyards, Ben learned the ins and outs of Colorado’s best grape-growing regions. Then in 2007 a personal tragedy led him to reconsider his priorities and set him on the road to becoming a Colorado winemaker.
With a twist.
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Rather than settling on a desolate patch of high-mountain vineyard land he found a desolate (though up and coming) patch of big city land in Denver’s Santa Fe Arts District. He erected a Quonset hut on the property, built a winery, and began trucking in grapes from the other side of the Continental Divide to make wine. That was in 2008. Today his wines are served in all of Denver’s best places, the wine geeks are raving and the Wine Spectator has taken notice, offering an 88-point rating for his “100th Monkey” blend of 40 percent Petite Verdot, with equal parts Malbec, Syrah, and Petite Syrah, making up the difference.
At first glance, everything at IMT is about attitude. The urban winery concept is über cool and oh so au courant. Ben’s delivery truck looks like it was tagged by graffiti artists sent by King Kong. The graphics that adorn IMT’s bottles, featuring the faces of primates and scribbles about grapes, winemaking regimen and anything else that strikes Parsons, are unlike any ever seen. And the “100th Monkey” flagship wine, IMT’s most expensive offering at $50, is built on a base of Petite Verdot, a Bordeaux grape that is usually used for finishing off Cabernet Sauvignon. Who does that?
And yet, when you taste IMT’s wines it’s obvious that there is more than attitude at work here. Ben is clearly a talented winemaker who takes the best juice he can find and makes standout wines. The “100th Monkey” is a revelation that was a result, Ben says, of simply taking the top barrels in his winery and mixing to make a blend that was balanced. No attitude, just good taste.
Consider also that IMT provides a donation of $1 from the sale of each of his wines to the University of Colorado Cancer Center. The personal tragedy mentioned earlier that inspired Ben to re-examine his life was the death of his father from the disease. The loss helped him make a decision to realize his dream and open his own winery. He climbed into a truck and drove 20,000 miles around the country picking up the equipment he needed and eventually settled and opened the hut that is home to IMT.
Ben has big plans for the future. He will debut a Black Muscat wine in a can this month, and he hopes to grow the Colorado business to 10,000 cases. He is also considering opening operations in Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, where IMT could make wines with locally sourced grapes.
To me, Ben and IMT share more in common with Colorado craft-brewer mentality than that of the Colorado wine industry. His exuberance and passion for doing what interests him, whether it is making a unique wine or creating a counterculture-esque brand, is what makes The Infinite Monkey Theorem stand out in an industry that could use a little help.
In a state best known for its brew, Ben Parsons is making people take notice of Colorado wines.