Snowmass Wine Festival draws Colorado winemakers

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoWestern Slope natives Billie and Bob Witham established Two Rivers Winery after deciding against opening a seniors community on their Grand Junction land.

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. Wine-making can seem like a romantic, even glorious though expensive hobby. Stories are beginning to pile up of the wealthy turning their dough into wine, for the thrill to put their name on a label, and the not inconsiderable satisfaction of drinking something they have had a hand in creating.Its hard to put Bob Witham into that category of hobbyist winemaker. Witham does, indeed, seem well-off financially, having spent many of his 60 years as president of a Texas-based company that operated several hundred long-term senior care centers. But Witham is also an MBA, and if that werent enough to ensure that he keeps his eye on the bottom line, his wife, Bobbie, is a CPA. When Witham speaks about Two Rivers, the Grand Junction-area winery he established in 1999, he is as likely to talk about numbers (such as his goal to produce 15,000 cases a year, which he has nearly hit), and about management techniques (Two Rivers nine employees aim for three quality improvement goals) as he is about the flavors of his wine.And creating Two Rivers which also goes by Chateau Deux Fleuves was very much a business decision. Witham originally bought the space, 15 acres of previously unoccupied land in the Redlands neighborhood between Grand Junction and Fruita, with every intention of building a gated community for seniors. But the year was 1999, just before the 2000 census, which the U.S. Constitution mandates must be taken every 10 years. The businessman in Witham was nervous about relying on 9-year-old demographic data, and pulled the plug on the housing for seniors idea.

But he still had the land. And to him, it wasnt just any land, but acreage that he knew was capable of producing exceptional fruit. Looking at his patch of western Colorado, Witham, a native of Craig, flashed back to his days in the military police, in the early 70s. Part of his detail then was guarding the presidents airplane, and from that perspective, he was privy to classified information like the fact that the president typically stocked peaches from Palisade, Colo. on board. Surveying his land, Witham saw cherry and peach pits, evidence that his property had once flourished with trees. He surmised that the trees had been devastated by the deep freeze of the mid-80s that killed the root systems of many trees, turning the farming neighborhood into the bedroom community it had become.Around the time Witham was wondering what to do now that his housing project was a no-go, he and Bobbie happened to enjoy a bottle of the local wine. Although enjoyed might be the wrong word.Someone gave us a bottle of Colorado wine. And it wasnt very good, said Witham, who described himself and his wife as at best, enthusiasts when it came to wine expertise. I asked my wife, How was it possible that they could grow peaches that were good enough for the president, but not make decent wine?

But along with the lousy wine, Witham had also tasted some Colorado bottles that were pretty good. Knowing that it was at least possible to make good wine from Colorado grapes, Witham took the leap into viticulture leaping, in his case, meaning taking a serious look at the numbers.The next day, we started researching in earnest, and spent a couple of months looking into the business of a winery, and also discover whether this was a business we wanted to get into, he said.One of the first things the Withams learned was that merely growing grapes was a sure way to avoid profitability. You cant make much money growing grapes, he said. You have to make wine, too. Thus was born Two Rivers Winery & Chateau, a complex that includes not just vineyards and, by Colorado standards, a large-scale winemaking facility, but also a bed-and-breakfast, and a conference center, where Two Rivers hosts more than 50 wedding parties annually.When youre in the wine industry, theres a certain amount of brand recognition going on. So you want as many people as possible tasting the wine, especially in a celebratory setting, said Witham of hosting events at the winery.Two Rivers does grow grapes but only about 15 percent of the grapes they use to make their wine are grown in the estate vineyards. The rest are purchased from area growers, a calculated plan by Witham in case his crops dont do so well one year. At Two Rivers, he grows grapes for his chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon; his port wines are made entirely of estate grapes. Two Rivers recently changed wine-makers, as former employee Rob Hammelman took a job at a 600-year-old winery in France. But Witham is upbeat about his replacement, Tyrell Lawson, who put in five years as Hammelmans apprentice, and will soon graduate from Mesa State with a degree in chemistry and biology.Our knowledge base just increases all the time, said Witham.

Withams focus on the financials and business plan dont seem to have had any negative effect on the wine itself. Two Rivers earned three gold medals last year, in international competitions in San Francisco and New York. This year, his chardonnay earned silver at the San Francisco International Wine Competition and at the International Eastern Wine Competition.Two Rivers wines will be offered at this weekends Snowmass Wine Festival in Snowmass Village. The festival opens Friday with a dinner at the Artisan restaurant, featuring wines from the Australian maker Penfolds. The Grand Tasting is set for Saturday, Sept. 13, from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. on the Snowmass mall. Among the winemakers will be three from Colorado, all located in Mesa County: Plum Creek, Garfield Estates, and Two Rivers, whose full array of varietals cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, riesling and chardonnay, plus a port will be featured. It is a rarity for the Colorado wineries to be included, as the Snowmass event typically coincides with the Colorado Mountain Winefest, in Palisade. In total, some 200 wines from around the world will be featured at the Grand Tasting in Snowmass. The event will also feature food items, a silent auction, and music by Bobby Mason & Friends. The event is a fundraiser for the Snowmass Village Rotary. The festival coincides with the 33rd Annual Snowmass Balloon Festival, which runs through Sunday, Sept. 14.Witham is not so focused on the past performance of his wines; he doesnt even recall the details of which of his wines won which awards this year. Thats not such a big deal, he said. But it is an affirmation that youre doing things correctly, that youre on the right path.Like most of those who make wine in Colorado, Witham is looking ahead. And why not? The states wine industry is in rapid acceleration mode. Even in the nine years since Two Rivers was established, enormous strides have been taken. There is now a full-time state oenologist, available to teach and consult with the regions winemakers; there is also a full-time director of the Colorado Wine Development Board.If not, you wouldnt see people like myself putting their lives into this, and you wouldnt see the level of investment being put into this industry, said Witham, who is producing roughly double the volume that he expected at this point. That kind of investment in the future says were optimistic about this industry.Witham observes that the timing has been good for Colorados winemakers. The industry has begun to establish itself at a time where wine-drinking overall in the U.S. is on the rise. It has also coincided with the recent trends toward buying and consuming local products, so a visitor to Aspen, say, might want to sample local winemaker Kevin Doyles Woody Creek Cellars products, rather than a Napa Valley wine.Of paramount significance, Colorados wines are good, and getting better. Oftentimes it is pointed out that the growing conditions in Colorados grape-producing areas the Grand Valley directly west of Aspen; Delta County, south of Carbondale; and to a lesser extent, the Four Corners region feature a climate similar to Californias Napa Valley, with hot, sunny days and cool nights. (The wild cards in Colorado are the several thousand feet of altitude, and the less predictable autumn temperatures.) The climate is ideal, said Witham, who is joined in the operation of his business by a son, a daughter and a son-in-law. The hot days and cool nights gives the fruit a chance to sugar up and rest, sugar up and rest. Theres no reason, in our minds, that we couldnt make good fruit.In the current edition of edibleAspen, a magazine devoted to the local food-and-beverage world, Richard Betts, a master sommelier and former director of the wine program at the Little Nell, did a survey of Colorado wines, and found … a very pleasant surprise. (Of Two Rivers 2006 Riesling, he raved: It is lip-smacking and totally delicious. Gotta have it! Gotta have it!)It is on the map, at least in the wine world, said Witham. People know there are good wines coming out of Colorado. Its still relatively small and young. But its a wine industry, and were on the map.The feeling of Colorado wine has improved. Its not there yet. But Two Rivers has done a lot to raise the bar of how Colorado is perceived.The truth is, no one, Witham included, knows where Colorado is headed as a wine region. Global warming could have a perverse beneficial effect on the high-altitude grapes. Or, other upstart regions like New York may yet eclipse Colorado. The upward trend in wine drinking may cool off.The industry, and the wine itself, are still too young to give any clear indication of its upper limit. We really dont know in Colorado, said Witham. There are a lot of myths about drinking wines, how long they should be aged.The picture should get clearer in a few years. Witham, for one, has saved three cases of each of his vintages, so that he can conduct linear tastings 10 years after each bottling. Then he will have a better idea not only of how his wines have aged, but also how they might be improved in the future.No matter how it turns out, Witham is enjoying himself, and its hard to imagine that he would have been so pleased had he entered the senior residence business instead of opening a winery. On the morning we spoke, he said he had been out at 7 a.m., tasting chardonnay grapes, to gauge when they should be bottled. (He guessed he was still about two and a half weeks away.) And he reflected on the earlier years of Two Rivers, a time which defied charts and numbers and plans.Id like to describe it as, the first four years were like a Halloween party in an insane asylum: You just didnt know anything, he said. You knew youd have to put your mind, body and soul into


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