Colorado’s wine industry green and growing
September 20, 2005
Wine grapes form tight clusters on the vine, beads of flavor just a bit smaller than marbles in shades of muted green and deep purple.In the Grand Valley, just east of Grand Junction, the grapes grow within sight of Mt. Garfield, one of the tallest mesas in a county named for mountains shaped like tabletops. The landscape connotes the Wild West, and grapes seem a little out of place when compared with France’s lush Burgundy region, or the flowing fields of chardonnay grapes in California’s Napa Valley.Colorado Wine Country, as the Grand Valley has been marketed since the late 1990s, is a two-hour drive from Aspen. Interstate 70 winds along the Colorado River through De Beque Canyon before opening into the Grand Valley, sprawling with green orchards, vineyards and tall cottonwood trees.From the highway, heading west to Grand Junction, the well-irrigated greenery and vineyards lie to the left. It’s easy to rip right by the area at 65 mph while keeping eyes on the horizon beyond Grand Junction. But increasing numbers of visitors are heeding signs that advertise wineries and pulling off I-70 to get a taste of a growing Colorado industry.There are now 15 wineries in the small town of Palisade, at the mouth of De Beque Canyon, and Grand Junction. Most of them grow their own grapes, and grapes to supply other wineries in places like Loveland and Denver.
The charm of Palisade’s wineries starts with a casual, homegrown atmosphere of gravel driveways, small tasting rooms and winery owners with dirt under their fingernails. Reclining in a wooden chair on the back lawn of his Carlson Vineyards winery, Parker Carlson pets one of his three cats and takes a break from the busy fall harvest. “We are what California was 50 years ago,” he says.There’s big money in California wineries, Carlson said, and corporations have flocked to the Pacific Coast to follow the big money to be made from the ideal growing conditions. But things aren’t (yet) corporate in Palisade.Visitors to Colorado’s Wine Country can find a winery owner in the tasting room, pouring a best-selling vintage, chatting about the recent harvest and asking them where they’re from. And because of the cachet behind discovering new vintages from small, lesser-known vintners, and maybe even the success of the movie “Sideways,” rambling from Colorado winery to winery has become a popular adventure.
Colorado’s wine industry is young, dating just to the late 1960s, but grapes in the Grand Valley date back more than a century.Bonnie Richards, who gives wine tours through the area with American Spirit Shuttle, said the Ute Indians were moved out of the area and onto reservations in 1881. Settlers brought vines and roots to the region, named it Vineland and had their first crush of grapes flowing by 1885.”By the turn of the century, 1,000 farms in the Grand Valley were growing grapes for wine, and a tax paid on the legal sale of wine showed that 1,744 gallons of wine were sold in 1900,” she said.Business was booming, but it vanished nine years later when Mesa County abolished alcohol. And the U.S. Congress drove home the point 11 years later by enacting Prohibition. Richards said farmers ripped out their grape vines to plant other fruit. Palisade, of course, is well-known for its peaches as well as plums, pears, cherries and apples.Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but the Great Depression meant that nobody had the funds to restart wine production.It wasn’t until 1968 that Ivancie Winery in Denver became Colorado’s first modern winery. Dentist Gerald Ivancie began making wine as a hobby, but it got out of control, said Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.In 1977 the General Assembly enacted the Colorado Limited Winery Act, permitting small “farm wineries” in the state. A year later Colorado Mountain Vineyards opened in Palisade; now operating as Colorado Cellars, it’s the oldest existing winery in Colorado. The industry has been growing, in Palisade and statewide, ever since.
But really, when does the wine tasting begin?A sip here, a sip there …Most of the 15 wineries in the Grand Valley feature tasting rooms where bottles of everything they make are uncorked and poured on the spot for visitors.Joyce Bowen, who pours at Garfield Estates in Palisade, said about half of her visitors seem to know their wines, but most everyone leaves with a bottle.”Most people coming here are really impressed with this wine – we have a really good lineup, and that makes my job easy because the wine sells itself,” she said. As in many of the tasting rooms in Palisade, Garfield Estates’ oak barrels and fermentation tanks sit mere feet from where the finished product is swirled, sniffed and then sipped.Rainer Thoma is the professional winemaker at Garfield Estates, one of a few professionally trained winemakers in the state’s 60-or-so wineries. He was born and raised in Germany, working in his parents’ winery, and now prides himself on making unique wines for the Grand Valley, including a dry rosé and a sweet, hard-to-resist dessert wine known as “ice wine” because it is made with frozen grapes.”Martin Luther said that beer is made by man, and wine is made by God,” Thoma said on a recent afternoon in the tasting room. “There is no recipe for this. We don’t have a huge portfolio here – just about six wines that we try to make perfectly.”
But if you’re going to play God with winemaking, the first thing to consider is why growing grapes works as well as it does in Colorado. The wine board’s Doug Caskey points first to the state’s high elevation.”That gives us more intense heat during the day and cooler nights,” he said. “The temperature swings help ripen the grapes and preserve their acidity. Grapes from Colorado have more acidity than grapes from hot climates like the Central Valley of California and Australia.”Colorado’s dryness helps farmers with good irrigation systems give grapes the exact amount of moisture on an as-needed basis, and with fewer pests and diseases in the state there aren’t a lot of chemicals placed on the grapes. Caskey also notes that Colorado was once an old seabed, so the soils are rich with minerals and are more alkaline than in California, making the grape juice more like that from Europe.When it comes to the Grand Valley, conditions improve even more, Caskey said. Palisade is lower in elevation than other Colorado grape-growing locales, including Delta and Paonia. The warmer climate suits varietals like Shiraz and Viognier, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.In fact, Caskey notes, more “adventuresome” grapes like semillon and sauvignon blanc thrive in the Grand Valley, attracting a discerning clientele. In blind tastings, he finds it gratifying to know that Colorado wine holds its own with more experienced wineries in California and Washington.”When people go into our tasting rooms, they’re amazed,” he said. “One of our greatest marketing tools is getting our wines into people’s mouths.”
Caskey manned a table representing 12 different wineries in the state at this June’s Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen, and was pleased by the response. Furthermore, Colorado wine has been recognized on an International level: A 2003 Riesling from Carlson Vineyards bested Rieslings from all over the world to win last year’s World Riesling Championship at the International Eastern Wine Competition.”I’m still shocked,” said Parker Carlson of his win. “One clue about how good it was, was that it was selling like crazy out of the tasting room, but it actually wasn’t a style I liked a whole lot. I guess it did the trick for somebody.”Despite the accolades, Colorado wines still have a long way to go before they earn the lofty reputation of California wine, or even the hype behind the wines of New Zealand and South Africa. Plenty of wine from the state and Palisade have received awards, but vintners in the area are still hobbyists at heart – finding their niches, and not feeling too pressured by the demands of the marketplace.
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Parker Carlson, as with Gerald Ivancie in 1968, had a hobby that spun out of control. Carlson bought a house in Denver in the ’70s that had a bunch of old apple trees on the property, and bought a kit to start making hard apple cider.He kept telling his wife how much fun it would be to have a winery, until she told him to “put up or shut up.””We’re one of the few winemakers that live off just the winery – we have no other source of income,” he said. “I haven’t missed any meals, which is the ultimate bottom line, but we’re not going to get rich.”Carlson Vineyards is one of a few wineries located among the fruit groves of Orchard Mesa, a bench above Palisade and the Colorado River. The home that Carlson and his wife purchased in 1981 now simply holds their winery operation and a tasting room, and he grows grapes on three acres while buying roughly 17 more acres of grapes from other growers.The winery sold its first crush in 1989, and Carlson used his sense of humor to market wines like Tyrannosaurus Red, Pearadactyl and Prairie Dog Blush. They currently have around 15 different wines, including popular fruit wines made with local produce.With help from a distributor, Carlson sells wine all over the state and to six upper-end produce markets in Wisconsin – a relationship hatched when the chain owner discovered Carlson Vineyards on a fruit-buying trip to Palisade.Life as a winemaker is busy, always keeping up with production and distribution, Carlson said, and not as bucolic as it may seem on a warm September afternoon. The peach harvest keeps Orchard Mesa hopping in the summer, but it also brings in tourists to buy fruit and taste wine.”We sell half of our wine out of the tasting room, and at full retail, that’s very beneficial,” he said.
Patty Turley appears in her winery’s tasting room clad in ripped jeans, sneakers and a black sweatshirt with the Colorado Cellars logo. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail and she’s gearing up for a busy day in the heart of the harvest season.She and her husband Rick have owned the winery since 1989, and produce some 24 different wines, champagnes and ports each year.At about 10,000 cases per year, they say they are the largest winery in Palisade. It’s an enormous number, considering that Patty and Rick run the operation with two other people and their high school-age sons.”This is what feeds our family,” Patty said. “I think people get this image of winery owners walking through the vineyards, watching the workers picking grapes and standing in a tasting room with your fireplace … but, no, this is a lot of hard work.”The Turleys live 11 miles away from their winemaking operation, surrounded by acres of their own grapevines. At this time of year, they pick and crush grapes every day and get the juice into fermentation tanks, and sometimes barrels. Rick does all of the winery’s distribution around the state, logging 75,000 miles per year in sales and delivery alone.Owning the winery is a year-round operation; once harvest is over, vines are pruned back, and in the winter, the Turleys keep up with bottling and labeling. In the spring, vines are tied to wires to support the weight of the grapes, and young plants must be tended. When they’re not weeding fields by hand, the winery also hosts sunset dinners and weddings.”I love that I’m never doing the same thing twice, but I have to stay focused to get things done simultaneously,” Turley said. “You’re always thinking about what’s coming and what you’re doing now, but it’s incredible. Just walking the vineyards and knowing all the grapes you’ve pruned will come back, and it’s different every year.”
Besides having easy access to local wine that’s fresh out of the barrel, Grand Junction benefits from the visitors who roll through the area, intent on exploring wineries.The Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau started to capitalize on this draw in 1998, when it copyrighted the slogan “Grand Junction: Colorado’s Wine Country.”The VCB began in 1990, when there were just four wineries in the area. Research soon showed that wineries were the area’s second biggest visitor attraction behind Colorado National Monument.About 17.5 percent of all people who come to Grand Junction go to the wineries, said Debbie Kovalik, executive director of the VCB. The organization’s primary marketing target is the Front Range, but they also do some national and international marketing through trade shows and travel trade publications.”I think the greatest appeal for visitors is actually being where the grapes are growing, and having the ability to see everything from the vine to the bottle,” Kovalik said. “And this is a less expensive way to tour wineries, since they are less than four hours from where most people in the state live.”
The state has also conjured a way of promoting Colorado wines. The Colorado Wine Industry Development Board formed in 1990 after the General Assembly passed the Colorado Wine Industry Development Act; Director Doug Caskey operates under the authority of the Department of Agriculture to promote the industry.The board is funded by a fee on wine grapes and all other winemaking produce, as well as a fee on all wine sold in the state. The budget is divided up for several purposes, one of which is promotion and marketing.The board also tracks the size of the fledgling wine industry. In 2001, for example, Colorado had 450 acres of vineyards and 33 licensed commercial wineries that sold more than $4.2 million worth of wine the prior year. (For comparison, California’s 1,294 wineries shipped some $14.3 billion worth of wine in the United States in 2004, according to the Wine Institute).Additionally, the board funds Colorado State University research into the agricultural aspect of winemaking – weather, soils, fertilization and other factors – to help vintners select the right varietals and growing methods.”Hopefully in the next couple of years, we’ll discover what the correct varietals are,” Caskey said, noting that initially, most of the state’s vineyards featured Merlot and Chardonnay grapes. In the future, winemakers might decide that Sirah or Tempranillo and Riesling is the way to go. “It’ll be interesting to see what the new discoveries are. We’re fine-tuning all the time.”For now, it may be an imperfect science, but it’s definitely a tasty one.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org