Aspen Times Weekly: Colorado Uncorked |

Aspen Times Weekly: Colorado Uncorked

by Amanda Rae & Jeanne McGovern


140 wineries in Colorado today (versus 5 in 1990)

28 wineries in the Grand Valley AVA

9 wineries in the West Elks AVA

88% of Colorado wine grapes grown in the Grand Valley AVA in 2015

7% of Colorado wine grapes grown in the West Elks AVA in 2015

148,500 case equivalents (9 liters each) of Colorado wine produced in 2015

180 days, on average, in the Grand Valley growing season (April to October)

130 days, on average, in the West Elks growing season (May to October)

6,400’ elevation of Terror Creek Vineyards in Paonia, the second-highest commercial vineyard and winery in the Northern Hemisphere

Like wine? Then head west! Not to California, though—that’s at least 15 hours by red convertible. Colorado is home to more than 140 wineries, with at least 80 percent of vineyards located on the Western Slope in two federally designated American Viticultual Areas (AVA), each boasting a unique climate, geology and topography that influence grape characteristics. The arid, high-desert Grand Valley AVA stretches along the Colorado River from the mouth of DeBeque Canyon in Palisade to the foot of the Colorado National Monument in Grand Junction; the West Elks AVA runs beside the North Fork of the Gunnison River in cooler, high-elevation farmland surrounding Paonia and Hotchkiss. Compared to other winemaking regions in the US and Europe, the Grand Valley and West Elks AVAs are just blossoming, established in 1990 and 2001, respectively.

Dappled with fruit orchards, these lands are ideal for growing wine grapes — which are beginning to replace commercial acreage of apples and stone fruit so easily decimated by early frost. Hot, sunny days, cool nights, low humidity and river drainage from the snow-capped Rocky Mountains yield robust crops of late-harvest varieties common in Bordeaux, the Rhône, and Napa Valley, plus a few up-an-coming “cold-hardy” types (See p. 28 for a full list).

Though grapevines were first planted in Colorado in the 19th century, Prohibition wiped ’em out. (And with that the Grand Valley peach industry was born.) By the late-1960s, Mondavi winemaker Warren Winiarski had moved to Denver’s Ivancie Cellars (later founding Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in California and winning the Judgment of Paris in 1976 with his 1973 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon). “He was instrumental in restarting grape growing in Grand Valley,” says Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.

In 1974, Colorado State University used a government grant to plant test plots of grapes near the Four Corners, effectively reestablishing modern Colorado winemaking. Now Colorado produces about 1.34 million liters — 149,000 cases — of wine per year, a volume only expected to increase. In fact, output has grown by 15 percent annually since 1992 — significantly greater than industry average.

“California probably loses more wine to evaporation in a day than Colorado produces in a year. However small, Colorado wines distinguish themselves from the ocean of undistinguished and indistinguishable wine in the market by expressing a sense of place, pride and personality. Perhaps because our growers and winemakers have to dance around the idiosyncrasies of Mother Nature in Colorado, our industry works harder but nevertheless achieves brilliance and outstanding balance in our wines.” —Doug Caskey, executive director, Colorado Wine Industry Development Board

Still, many family wineries in the Grand Valley and West Elks AVAs remain small and lack distribution. Instead, vintners sell their award-winning wines directly to imbibers in boutique tasting rooms ranging from garage or basement bars to restored barns and industrial warehouses. More often than not, the only way to get a taste is to visit.

Look beyond our list when choosing your own adventure — the magic of Colorado wine country is found by setting out on the open road, following curiosity and freeing yourself to the whims of winemakers. Cheers!



Bon vivants find a kindred spirit in France-native John Barbier, a chef who closed restaurants in Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction to grow wine grapes on 4.5 acres in Palisade in 2002. Adored for small-production (2,000 cases), single-vineyard reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot), rosé, and muscat dessert wines fortified with peaches and walnuts — the latter made from family recipes dating to the late-1800s — Maison excels at “balanced, unmanipulated winemaking with low sulphite content,” says winemaker Corey Norsworthy. Seemingly plucked from a French fairy tale, the rustic, elegant tasting room in a converted barn with tree-shaded courtyard is an oenophile’s paradise. Taste rare Marechal Foch and sample Barbier’s impressive charcuterie spread, too.



A stone’s throw from I-70 Exit 42 in the shadow of the Book Cliffs Mountains, Grande River Vineyards was Colorado’s largest grape producer until 2006, when owner Naomi Shepherd-Smith downsized farming operations to focus on craft. Today she maintains 10 acres of Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah, and Viognier grapes, plus an additional 15 acres of Sauvingon Blanc, and Cabernet Franc on borrowed acreage, producing about 5,000 cases of wine per year. Festooned with award ribbons, Shepherd-Smith’s tasting bar and retail shop is at once intimate, convivial, and cool. Yoga classes on the property’s manicured lawn, followed by winetasting brunch in the cavernous fermentation room- turned-event space, are an uncommon treat.



When Kenneth Dunn, Jr., made dandelion wine in grade school, his priest was not impressed. Fast-forward a few decades, and Dunn’s limited-edition wines are some of the most sought after among insiders. In 1994 he replaced his farm’s apple orchard with 17 varieties of grapes (and 15 kinds of cherries), licensing Hermosa Vineyards for commercial production in 2001. Inside his five-year-old garage tasting room, Dunn shows visitors how barrel aging affects wine (Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, especially) and samples a signature dessert quaff he calls, “cherry pie in a glass.” There’s no wine club, no shipping, and no staff — just a lone wolf living the dream in “Palidise,” Dunn says.



The self-proclaimed “first family of wine” at Colorado’s oldest (1978) commercial vineyard — a claim contested by Plum Creek Cellars — Richard and Padte Turley and sons Kyle and Cory pump out some 25,000 cases of wine in 28 styles annually. These include award-winning, whimsical reds (Roadkill Red under the Rocky Mountain Vineyards brand), fruit wines, and the state’s first port and honey mead, some of which enjoy relatively wide distribution. Abutting the winery’s state-of-the-art fermentation and aging facility, the tasting room pours most of them when available, including Colorado’s original method-Champenoise sparkling wine.



Located at the foot of the Colorado National Monument in the Redlands suburb of Grand Junction, this 15-acre winery and destination event venue was built from scratch in 1999. Today Two Rivers Winery produces about 15,000 cases of wine from six grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Syrah, and Port. Having amassed more than 60 awards, these wines are widely distributed across Colorado and shipped to 15 additional states. Ten spacious, French-country-style guest rooms, plus group meeting areas, provide a convenient landing base near Junction’s budding food scene.


866-312-9463 OR 970-255-1471 | TWORIVERSWINERY.COM


Winemaker Glenn Foster pours a glass of his lavender wine and simply says, “It’s aromatherapy in a bottle.” And it is — a unique experience like the Meadery’s other offerings, which comprise honey wines that range from dessert to fruit blends to traditional. But honestly, what is traditional about a honey wine? Not much. With deep roots to the Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma, which his father Reed founded in 1976, Foster has chosen to strike out on his own with Meadery, of the Rockies, Talon Winery and St. Kathryn Cellars — all in the heart of Colorado’s wine country. “It’s fun, it’s different, it’s a chance to experiment,” he says. Which is what Colorado wines are all about.



Jenne Baldwin was on a mission when she first attended the Colorado Mountain Winefest in Palisade in the late 1980s: Use her skills as a chemist to make wine. Today, Baldwin is the hands-on driving force behind one of Colorado’s oldest wineries (debate continues over which winery is actually the “oldest”). A family-run brand — Doug and Sue Phillips have owned and operated Plum Creek since they first started growing wine grapes in 1980 — this professional, yet welcoming winery is ingrained in the Colorado wine scene. Says Baldwin: “We help each other.” With acreage in both the Grand Valley and West Elks AVAs, Plum Creek consistently churns out award-winning Rieslings, Sauvignon Blancs, Cabs and more, making it the go-to wine for many Colorado restaurateurs and wine shops.



Set high above Palisade on a mesa overlooking the vineyards and meandering river below, the expansive East Orchard Mesa is a breathtaking glimpse of Colorado’s Wine Country. Originally known for its Palisade peach production (and still growing the sweet fruit), this fertile acreage has been transformed by the High family into a winery that mimics Napa in atmosphere, quality and creativeness. Take in the vineyards: the hallmark Theresa’s Vineyard, a gift from her husband Scott; daughter Katie’s Vineyard (two Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Franc and Malbec); and Two Brothers’ Vineyard (so named when the boys realized they had not been gifted any acreage). Even more telling: the gazebo at the plateau and the perfectly appointed shed-like tasting room and dining space, which speaks to the rustic, yet classy, winery that Theresa continually strives to make a cornerstone of the Colorado wine scene. “This is our home; this is what we do,” she says. “We want to share this amazing slice of Colorado — and Colorado wine — with others. It’s time for people to explore what’s right in their backyard.”

3548 E 1/2 RD., PALISADE | 970-464-1150 | COLTERRIS.COM


There are many ways to stake your claim to fame in the wine world. Stone Cottage Cellars, situated high above Paonia in the West Elks AVA, might well use altitude as its.“While there are higher vineyards in Salta, Argentina, and a new winery at almost 7,000 feet above sea level at Big Bear in California, we can confidently say that Terror Creek Winery and Vineyards in Paonia, at 6,400 feet, and its neighbor just down the hill, Stone Cottage Cellars, are some of the highest wineries in the world and the second highest in the Northern Hemisphere,” says Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. But Stone Cottage (both its tasting room and barrel house) are embraced in — of course — charming stone cottages, have so much more to offer. A family operation from its inception, Stone Cottage pours a flight from Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer to Syrah and Merlot, all blended as a labor of love and as a way to stay “connected” to the land.

41716 REDS RD., PAONIA | 970-527-3444



Lance and Anna Hanson love the land they farm and the fruits of their labor. Whether it be their CapRock Spirits, New Avalon Cider or Jack Rabbit Hill Wines, their focus is on bringing the earth they call home into the drinks they bring into your glass. “When it comes to making tasty products, we have our noses in the dirt as much as in the glass, because all great foods start with clean growing practices,” says Lance. On their remote farm are 18 acres of grapes — eight acres dedicated to the CapRock Vodka and Bitter programs (if you visit, be sure and check out the copper stills), and 10 acres for its JRH Farm bottled wines. But even more smooth than Jack Rabbit Hill’s organic and biodynamic Rieslings and Pinot Noirs is the Hansons’ approach to building Colorado’s wine and spirits culture. “We are the real deal; part of the earth,” Lance says. “We believe that our job is to bring this to a broader market…Colorado is doing some great things and will only continue to flourish.”

26567 N RD., HOTCHKISS | 970-361-4249 | JACKRABBITHILL.COM


Doug Vogel is far from your typical wine guy. He’s a farmer, a small-town man, a creative cowboy. But as owner, vintner and viticulturist at Reeder Mesa Vineyards, he figured out how to get people to notice the wines he was making: “I put a bottle in my neighbors’ mailboxes.” And then his neighbors — and others ­— asked for more. So much more that he became an award-winning winemaker before he knew what hit him. It’s easy to believe when you see where Reeder Mesa Vineyard is located, in the foothills of the world’s largest flat-top mountain, the Grand Mesa, at an elevation of 5,600 feet. But the tasting room — with its neon “OPEN” sign, because “folks might not now we’re open if they pull off the road and I’m at the house doing work,” explains Vogel — makes for a perfect place to taste Colorado’s finest wines (insider tip: Vogel is trying to sell vineyard, so now is the time to get a case or two of what will likely be a collector’s item).



There is something very special about a home-cooked meal accompanied by Colorado wine, all served up in what feels like someone’s backyard (because, well, it is). Here, at Puesto del Sol Vineyard — home to Alfred Eames Cellars — it’s easy to savor the surroundings. The high-altitude wine is rich and inviting, crafted to meet the demands of the rugged terrain surrounding its vines Explore the offerings — a smooth Pinot Noir and slightly spicy Tempranillo tempted the taste buds — of this and other

West Elk AVA vineyards (Black Bridge Winery stands out) —

and you won’t be disappointed.

211931 4050 RD., PAONIA | 970-527-3269



“Those crazy kids!” That’s what Palisade’s old guard might say about Red Fox Cellars, which turns two years old in September. Founded by three brothers, the Instagram-hip brand has earned a cult-like following among younger generations and novice drinkers alike, thanks to bold red wines and nontraditional, experimental sips poured in a funky, friendly tasting room. Try the spectrum, from top-selling Bourbon Barrel Merlot and Cabernet Franc aged in rye whiskey casks to unfiltered, infused hard ciders (tasting is believing when it comes to bestselling Roasted Chile) and cocktails that blend, say, rosé with muddled strawberries and balsamic vinegar.

695 36 RD., PALISADE, 970-464-1099, REDFOXCELLARS.COM


Where Neil and Diane Lane ends on East Orchard Mesa, follow the signs (or sounds of a backyard party, on weekends) to the Guard family’s brand-new basement tasting room. This is the hub of nine-acre Avant Vineyards, managed by Neil Guard and his winemaker wife, Diane. She crafts dry, silky wines from

11 grapes, most notably Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Viognier, and Roussanne, plus rosé from Syrah or Tempranillo grapes, method-Champenoise sparkling wine and a tasty take on Super Tuscan blended from Cabernet and Sangiovese grapes. This is their home, so call ahead for an appointment, just in case.


For a full list of the 143 wineries licensed by the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, visit

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