Colorado Wine Country’s 2020 harvest rises above the tenor of our times
For the Aspen Times Weekly
“Every wine region needs a place that celebrates its local wines. And that’s what we do,” said John Sabal, the enthusiastic owner (and de facto sommelier) of the Palisade Café & Wine Bar in downtown Palisade in the heart of the Grand Mesa wine country. With 127 Colorado wines by the glass, Sabal likely has the most complete collection of the state’s wines to be found anywhere.
“No one was focusing on the ‘Palisade Bounty,’” he said referencing the great local foods that are produced in the region. “My wife Marisol and I decided we were living in verifiable wine country, so we bought the café in 2016, rebranded it and began to pair the wines and foods of the region.”
“Slightly Whimsical. Maximum Fresh” is how Sabal describes the combination of wines and the cuisine of Executive Chef Chad Griffin.
Sabal has travelled extensively to the world’s great wine regions: “I compare the Grand Mesa to the Casablanca wine region of Chile. A small area that is built around agriculture and has people who really appreciate the wines of the region.”
As a labor of love and a champion of Colorado wines, Palisade Café & Wine Bar hosts winemakers and also has special wine dinners built around different Colorado wineries. “Everything we do has an educational component,” Sabal said.
If Colorado has a wine evangelist, he can be found in a small café on West 3rd Street in Palisade.
PALISADE CAFÉ & WINE BAR
113 W. 3rd Street, Palisade, Colorado
Turn the page to October.
It’s the time of the season when tourists usually flock to the high country to revel in the burst of fall colors. When football fans annually fill stadiums to cheer for Friday night lights and Saturday afternoon glory. And, for Colorado’s wine growers and makers, it is the time for harvesting the fruits of their yearlong labors and curating the wines of the current vintage.
Unfortunately, due to this unprecedented pandemic, fans of football and fall travel have seen their October outings disrupted. But in the fields and vineyards from Palisade to Paonia to McElmo Canyon, grapes are still ripening on the vines and farmers are now picking with high hopes that the wines of 2020 will rise above the tenor of the times.
“We are very fortunate that COVID has not affected the farming component much, as agriculture was determined essential,” said grower and winemaker Kaibab Sauvage from his home in Palisade, the heart of Colorado’s premier wine region not far from Grand Junction. “Our year has played out quite similar to most years.”
The seasonal pickers who work the harvest come to Sauvage’s vineyards with H-2A visas for temporary agriculture works. They arrive in March, which for 2020 came just before border closures and complications began.
“Farming is outside and, by nature, socially distanced,” Sauvage explained about the current harvest season. “Our farm team is much like a family (in fact most are) in that they live and work together and don’t interact with other groups very often, so the concern for COVID coming in was very low, and so far has not happened.”
Julie Bennett of Paonia’s Qutori Wines, whose 2017 Qutori syrah won the Governor’s Cup for wine of the year this past fall, also has positive things to say about the current harvest: “We are a family-owned business and it had been challenging with having enough staff during COVID. But the grapes are happy and we harvested 8 tons of pinot noir out of our vineyard. We have 10 different varietals that we are pouring and our guests seem impressed with our Colorado wine.”
It is often easy to forget, when contemplating a bottle of wine, that it is the product of farmers. Before the label is put on the bottle, and the marketing campaigns are launched and the reviews written, every bottle of wine begins as clusters of grapes hanging off a vine in a field under the autumn sun. The grapes are subject to the ever-changing vicissitudes of weather and climate, but they are largely immune to the influences of the social landscape. Grapes don’t do pandemics or politics.
That is the good news for the 2020 vintage of Colorado wines.
THE STATE OF THE STATE OF COLORADO’S WINE
Pandemic aside, if you are in the business of making wine in the state of Colorado then this is a great time and place to be.
It has been a half-century, since a Denver orthodontist, Gerald Ivancie, hired a young California winemaker named Warren Winiarski (of Judgment of Paris fame) to help him produce some of the first fine wines in the state and plant the first premium wine vines near Grand Junction. In 1990, there were just five wineries in the state, but since then Colorado’s trajectory has been continually on the rise. And it looks like it is on the cusp of considerable success.
In the fiscal year 2020 that ended in June there were over 150 registered wineries producing close to 260,000 cases of wine a year, according to the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, which not only keeps track of such things, but also fosters the industry’s rapid emergence. Since 1992, Colorado wines have seen 14% annual growth, exceeding the industry average. And wine has contributed more than $300 million to the state’s economy, when impacts on tourism activities on the Front Range and the Western Slope are factored in, according to a 2017 study by WineAmerica.
“Just this past year we saw increases of up to 30,000 cases in total reported production in the state,” said Doug Caskey, the executive director of the wine development board. Much of that has been a result of newer Front Range wine facilities, like Denver’s Infinite Monkey Theorem and Carboy (with two Denver locations and one in Breckenridge). In fact, over 50% of Colorado wines are now made or marketed on the Front Range.
But the beauty, and the grapes, that make Colorado such an intriguing wine destination are products of the western part of the state. Established wineries, like Two Rivers Winery, Plum Creek Cellars and Carlson Vineyards Winery, continue to produce ever-improving wines in the Grand Mesa AVA near Grand Junction. And they are being joined by emerging wineries, including Sauvage Spectrum and Colterris. In the West Elks AVA, wineries like Qutori and The Storm Cellar are adding to the mix. And let’s not forget the Four Corners area, home to Sutcliffe Vineyards, which makes great Bordeaux-style wines in one of the most rugged and daunting wine regions to be found anywhere.
Aside from economic growth, there are other tangible indications that wine in Colorado is in a good place for future growth, with the introduction of both new educational programs and wine tourism opportunities.
In Grand Junction, Western Colorado Community College, a division of Colorado Mesa University, became the first college in the state to offer a two-year associate’s degree in viticulture and enology. The goal is to provide a source for training future wine growers with a commitment to advancing the industry’s quality, consistency and prosperity by academic collaboration.
“Jenny Baldwin (former wine maker at Plum Creek) has done an incredible job with that program, bringing a practical hands-on approach to students,” Caskey said.
WELCOMING THE WORLD
An important component for a significant wine region is a wealth of opportunities for wine tourists. “The best wine experiences provide context and a story that bring visitors to the wines and the places where they are made,” Caskey said. “It is the best way to establish loyalty and enthusiasm with customers.”
Throughout the state, wineries are opening tourist-friendly tasting rooms and welcoming guests to taste, purchase and, most importantly, experience wine where it is made.
In Gunnison, Buckel Family Wine recently opened a winery in an industrial section of town with room for an outdoor tasting area where visitors can taste Joe Buckel’s new “pet nat” (naturally made sparkling wine). In Palisade, Sauvage Spectrum has brought the vineyard experience to guests.
“We have a very cool experience as our tasting bar is right in the middle of our production facility that sits on a 9-acre vineyard,” said Kaibab Sauvage. And not far away in downtown Palisade, John Sabal’s Palisade Café & Wine Bar proudly pours 127 Colorado wines on their extensive list (see factbox) in a charming downtown eatery that celebrates the foods and wines of the region.
But that is just the beginning. Caskey notes that there are many varied experiences offered for visitors throughout the state, ticking through a top of the head list. “Snowy Peaks in Estes Park emphasizes music and during the shutdown they had virtual online experiences. Aspen Peak Winery in Bailey focuses on food and wine. In Palisade, there is a wine trail where you can ride a bike to seven vineyards. And the settings of The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey in Cañon City and Two Rivers at the foot of the Colorado National Monument are stunning,” he raved.
In the West Elks AVA, a two-and-a-half-hour drive over McClure Pass from the Roaring Fork Valley, there are a number of wine tasting opportunities. The Storm Cellar, a 3-year-old winery in Hotchkiss opened by big city sommeliers Steve Steese and Jayme Henderson, focuses on riesling and rosé. It will be inviting guests on weekends through October to experience their wines beneath a covered tasting overlook with dramatic views of the West Elk Wilderness and North Fork Valley.
The Root & Vine Market on Highway 133 offers wine tastings from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. daily, except Tuesdays. Check out the West Elks website for more information (Westelksava.com). “We have been having an awesome summer!” said Julie Bennett of Qutori. “It has been super busy and people seem to be finding our little spot in the world. As we are sort of off the beaten path in the North Fork Valley and Paonia, people are looking for somewhere to get away and they found us and the West Elks AVA.”
And this doesn’t even take into account the burgeoning Front Range wine scene, which has seen a number of outdoor tasting opportunities flourish in Denver and Boulder, as tasting rooms pivoted in response to the pandemic restrictions.
In 2018, Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Colorado’s Grand Valley AVA one of the top 10 wine travel destinations in the world. The rest of the state is not bad, either.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
If there is one word to describe what differentiates Colorado wines from those of other premium wine-producing states, it would be “altitude.” The majority of the state’s vineyards range from 4,000 feet to as high as 7,000 feet, making them the highest fine-wine vineyards in the Northern Hemisphere. Only the Argentine vineyards in the Andes are higher. When people talk of “mountain wines” in California, they are referring to wines from vineyards that top out at around 2,500 feet.
Elevation provides both advantages and disadvantages. The growing season in the state can be notoriously short and freezes on either end of the summer season can be devastating. On the other hand, the dry climate and the exposure to intense mountain sunlight can have positive affects on the grapes. Grapes grown at altitude often have thicker skins, deeper color, and more antioxidants and tannins.
There are around 1,000 acres of wine grapes currently planted in Colorado. That may not sound like much. California, the big dog in American wine, has over 500,000 acres bearing wine grapes. But Colorado is home to small family-owned wineries that do not produce the bulk wines that are found in larger states.
While there are vineyards throughout the state (see map) the vast majority of grapes come from two areas designated by the federal government as American Viticultural Areas defined as having unique geographic, geologic, and climatic features. The Grand Valley AVA in Mesa County near Grand Junction is home to over 70% of the state’s production.
While cabernet sauvignon and merlot and riesling are the most planted grapes in the state, there are a number of wineries experimenting with other varieties. Teroldgo anyone? (It’s a red Italian varietal grown in the Alps.)
THE 2020 HARVEST
As you would expect, 2020 has already been a difficult year, both financially and emotionally, for many vintners in the state. The early-season statewide tasting room closures and the late-season fires, which created smoke issues and shut down I-70 — the gateway highway to the region — both took their toll.
And ironically this year’s harvest has been greatly affected by a freeze event from last Halloween, when temperatures in the Grand Valley dropped into the teens, even colder in some locations, freezing the leaves on the vines. The prognoses on the Western Slope calls for a lighter harvest than in past seasons, but one that still has the potential for great quality.
“This is the earliest crop that I have seen in the last 20 years,” said the aforementioned Kaibab Sauvage, whose vineyard management company, Colorado Vineyard Specialists, supplies a number of wineries in Colorado. “We are three weeks early and should be completely finished in two weeks. A normal season would wrap up at the end of October.”
Jaymie Henderson of The Storm Cellar echoes those thoughts, noting, “The dramatic heat and drought this year accelerated ripeness in the grapes in the Grand Valley (Palisade) to a super-early harvest. We began pressing grapes from the Grand Valley in late August, five weeks earlier than we did last harvest season.”
Still, winemakers are farmers and both exude optimism even in the face of adversity. For her part, Henderson hopes the season provides opportunity for a new wine.
“It looks as though we are still a ways off from our first frost. Because of this, we might be able to make a late-harvest riesling this year,” she said.
And Sauvage sees a bright side to the early harvest as well: “Aside from everything ripening at once and creating a labor bottleneck, the early maturation of the fruit is a good thing. It ensures some late-season varieties will achieve complete phenological ripeness, meaning the wines from 2020 should be outstanding.”
While the harvest of 2020 may be down as much as 50% in total tonnage, the outlook still looks good for the quality of the grapes despite the challenges provided by mother nature.
Overall, the future looks exceedingly bright for Colorado wines. Doug Caskey has watched the evolution of the industry firsthand as it has matured and is excited about what is to come. “There is this influx of youthful innovation in Colorado wine at the moment,” he exclaimed. “The new packaging methods, be it cans or bag or boxes, really expands the market to outdoor activities. There are new styles and new grapes being introduced. It really is an exciting time.”
It just may be that 2020 will begin the Roaring 20s for the wines of Colorado.