The Smallest Vineyard in the West … and a big liquor store to boot | AspenTimes.com

The Smallest Vineyard in the West … and a big liquor store to boot

“Welcome to Willits, home of the Smallest Vineyard in the West.” Or so the sign could read.”The original plan was to simply grow wine vines up this brick wall. You know, to make it look nicer,” begins Bob Hite, owner-operator of Willits Wine & Spirit in Basalt. “And then someone said, as a joke, why don’t you just put in a little vineyard?”With that, Hite was off and running. On the small strip of grass between the sidewalk outside his store and the street leading to it, is a small – very small – vineyard. But it’s a real vineyard, with neatly manicured rows, trellis work on which the vines will eventually grow, and a handful of young vines, all covered in leaves but still hugging the ground.

“It’s what everyone passes by on their way here,” says Hite, who opened up shop in June and planted his grape garden not long after. “So it made perfect sense to me.”What may have appeared tongue-in-cheek to some was serious business to Hite. Thus, he made sure his little vineyard could stand the test of time by becoming an amateur oenologist (a person who studies wine and winemaking).Among other things, he installed a drip irrigation system aside his store and oriented his rows of vines north to south. He also learned to plant nonwine grapes first.

“You have to get an established root system before you do anything,” he explains. “Then you graft the wine grapes on to that.”Of course grapes aren’t something Hite learned to love just recently. A wine connoisseur, he’s long had a passion for the purple.”I love grapes, have always loved grapes. I even grew them when we lived on Basalt Mountain,” says Hite, who has since moved to Willits and rides his bike to work every day. “Since I knew you could grow grapes at 7,600 feet, I knew it could be done at Willits.”In fact, his tiny garden has already produced its first crop: two bunches. And how were they? “Delicious … tons of seeds … so juicy,” he says with great pride.

Of course with 1/40th of an acre to work with, it’s doubtful wine shoppers will ever see a “Willits Wine” or other such concoction. Rather, Hite hopes to piggyback his yield with other local vintners. The valley is home to at least two wineries: Carbondale-based Baharav Vineyards and Snowmass Creek Winery in Old Snowmass.”We’ll talk to them about what types of wine grapes they recommend growing and see if we can work with them,” Hite says. “Imagine if one of the local wineries produced a wine that was, say, made with 0.0009 locally grown grapes.”Hite, who has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for 30 years and has been in the restaurant business the whole time (his most recent venture was El Jebel’s Capitol Deli, in which he recently sold his final share), is thrilled with his newest endeavor. As owner-operator of the liquor store, the Willits General Store, as well as the adjoining car wash and gas station (his partners in the development include Michael Lipkin, Paul Adams and Clay Crossland), he says he’s had a blast getting new businesses off the ground.

Willits Wine & Spirit caused some controversy before opening, as neighboring liquor purveyors protested the new competition and pleaded with the town of Basalt to withhold Hite’s permit. Now that Hite’s in business, though, the liquor store seems to have become his pet project.A modern, almost-industrial feeling space, the store was designed with oenophiles in mind. Upon entering, customers face an impressive “wall of wine,” complete with a sliding library ladder to reach the finest vintages. The rest of the store is similarly well organized, with the back wall filled with wine for under $10 and the center tables stocked with wines ranging from $10 to $20.”This is a wine-knowing valley, which plays really well for us,” admits Hite, adding it also puts the pressure on his staff to select and sell quality wines. “I’ve learned a lot, but it’s been so much fun that it hasn’t always seemed like work.”

The fun doesn’t stop with simply selling wine, either. Throughout the summer, Hite offered a “wine special” for each Thursday night concert in Snowmass Village. And he’s currently waiting for the green light to host in-store wine tastings.”The state recently OK’d doing these, and the town of Basalt just has to approve it and off we go,” says Hite, standing in the store’s “tasting area,” a stone-top table surrounded by bar chairs and complemented by a rack of hanging wine glasses and an array of wine-related magazines.”We built the shop with tastings in mind,” he explains. “We wanted it to be a place where people stop by and actually talk about their wine purchases.”Of course man cannot live by wine alone, so Willits Wine & Spirit offers the usual suspects: beer, liquor and mixers. Of course, the shop’s decor includes the typical selection of schwag – and a not-so-typical doorman.

“Yes, that’s Jack Daniels there at the door,” says Hite of the life-sized statue at the store’s entrance. “He was schwag, but we kinda liked him and thought he looked good there.”So if the winemaking end of his enterprise never takes off, Hite, for one, will be perfectly happy with the fruits of his labor.”First, I love grapes. And second, grape vines are just so cool,” he says, holding a budding plant into his hand. “Believe me, these leaves will be as big as dinner plates. And the vines will be cascading off the top of the posts.”

There’s also the sheer PR value of having the “smallest vineyard in the West.””It’s quite a conversation piece,” concludes Hite.Jeanne McGovern’s e-mail address is jmcgovern@aspentimes.com.


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