Vagneur: The grapes of past

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Take a journey with me in your mind, and think back to the early 1900s and try to imagine the fall of those years: short, cool days and golden leaves quaking against the winds of autumn, D&RGW railroad boxcars full of grapes, lined up at sidings along Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Emma, Woody Creek and Aspen, and maybe points in between. They’d be full of muscatel and zinfandel grapes, destined for local ranches and farms so that the Italians could make enough wine to replenish their wine cellars.

By the 1900s, folks from northern Italy, specifically Val D’Aosta, had taken over most of the ranch and farmland between Aspen and Glenwood Springs. They were hardworking, innovative, and they weren’t about to do without their wine. Billy Grange — a lifelong friend whose family also came from that region — and I like to kid each other about growing up in the Aosta mob. His great-aunt, Elvira Grange, who long ago worked for a co-op of the valley group, told Billy how difficult it was to get the ranchers to pick up their freight — such as equipment — livestock salt, and other necessities at the railroad sidings, but when the grapes hit the valley everyone hurried down with their wagons so they wouldn’t miss out on so much as a handful-sized bundle of grapes.

I’m not sure how the grapes were bought in the very early days, but in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, including Prohibition, the Bosco family from Glenwood Springs (they owned Hotel Denver) would come around during haying season, the trunks of their cars stocked with tubs full of ice-cold soda and beer, and they’d be taking orders for fall grapes — grapes that mostly came from California and Oregon. The Italians may have had the corner on the grapes, but other nationalities in Aspen made their own wine, many turning to whatever was available locally, such as chokecherry, serviceberry and a perennial favorite, dandelion.

Sunday was a good visiting day as it was a wine-tasting day, as well, and some of those old folks kept some nice surprises in their basement wine rooms for favored guests. Hard booze was made, too, perhaps the most famous being “grappa,” which some mistakenly call wine. Grappa is distilled from the solid residue (pomace) left over from the fermentation of wine, and even though served primarily as an after-dinner drink, it’ll knock you on your ass quickly if you’re uninitiated.

As kids, we drank wine whenever we felt like it, for it was always around and nobody really thought too much about it. I don’t think the terms “vintner” or “sommelier” were in anyone’s vocabulary, or the concept of “pairing” wine with food. However, it should be noted that those early Italians could make some excellent sausage and cheese to pass around. If you have a hankering, try the Fontina at the Butcher’s Block or Whole Foods to taste what some of the homemade cheese was like in those days. My granddad and I often made our sandwiches from cheese he’d made when heading out for a day on the cattle range.

Margaret Arlian, of my grandfather’s generation, used to make some good “sweet brandy,” back in the days when she owned the ranch that today is unremarkable for once housing Hunter S. Thompson. By sweet brandy, it was meant that she’d take it out of distillation a little early and end up with brandy about 80 proof instead of the more common, approximate 110 proof. The younger adults (of my dad’s generation, teenagers included) liked this lighter brandy better than the stiffer stuff, and kept Margaret on notice to keep a bottle or two around.

Sometime back in the ’50s, the feds let it be known that stills no longer would be tolerated, and home wine-makers would be required to pay a $50 annual permit fee to make wine. Basically, all of Woody Creek and Basalt were in an uproar, and after much conversing and colluding, the ranchers kept a low profile by hiding the stills and let the feds outsmart themselves. In the end, life went on much like it had before.

Just like most of the old Italian ranchers, wine-making died a slow death in Woody Creek, and truth be told, it’s much easier and most likely less expensive to buy a jug from the store than it is to make your own.

With apologies to Kelly J. Hayes. Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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