Business Is Booming for Colorado Wines

If you peruse the wine lists of Denver-area dining spots, be prepared for some surprises. Among the vintages from distant states and provinces, you’ll likely find some bottles of local derivation. A Chardonnay from Palisade, perhaps, or a Pinot Noir from Paonia—even a metro-area Merlot.

While such Colorado labels as Woody Creek, Carlson and many others may be little-known beyond the state’s borders, their reputations are expanding among area oenophiles. There’s a buzz in Colorado’s rarified air that indigenous wines are hitting their stride.

It’s a common belief that winemaking is a recent phenomenon in Colorado. But, in truth, it has centuries-old roots. In the late 1800s, settlers in western Colorado’s Grand Valley found that fruits, including wine grapes, thrived in the area’s “banana belt” micro-climate.

Records from 1909 show a harvest of a million pounds of wine grapes from 1,000 Colorado farms. But the bounty had a short shelf life. During Prohibition, vineyards were uprooted and replanted with other fruits. It wasn’t until 1968 that the state’s first post-Prohibition winery appeared; by 1990, there were five. Since then, the industry has blossomed, and today, 100 mostly family-owned wineries reside within the state.

Colorado has two designated American Viticultural Areas (AVA), grape-growing regions of unique geographic and climatic character. The Grand Valley AVA encompasses Grand Junction and nearby Palisade, and produces 85 percent of the state’s wine grapes. Each September, Palisade hosts the Colorado Mountain Winefest, a four-day celebration of fruit-based fermentation. In the West Elks AVA, around the small towns of Paonia and Hotchkiss, vineyards are dispersed among orchards and organic farms. A few other favorable locations around the state have also sprouted vineyards, and some of the world’s highest vineyards are in Colorado, with elevations approaching 7,000 feet.

Tasting rooms abound among the grape vines, with mountains, mesas and cliffs providing a postcard-perfect backdrop. However, city-based imbibers needn’t travel 200 miles to sample reds, whites and rosés at the source. With the majority of the state’s population residing along the Rocky Mountain foothills, many winemakers have set up shop within urban enclaves, where grapes are delivered in refrigerated trucks, shortly after harvest.

The urban-winery concept can sometimes be disconcerting to visitors expecting a more bucolic sampling experience.

“Customers are looking for vineyards when they drive into our parking lot, and they see buildings and asphalt,” says Mike Thompson, who with wife Jackie, an oenologist and winemaker, opened the Boulder Creek Winery in a business park in 2003.

The location of a winery may not determine quality, but superior fruit is a key component.

“We have extremely good vinifera being grown in this state,” explains June Spero, who operates Spero Winery with her husband, Clyde, in a residential section of northwest Denver. “They make extremely food-friendly and customer-friendly wines.” Vinifera refers to the Old World grapes favored by Colorado growers, and among the many varietals grown in Colorado are such familiar names as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay.

“The fruit is pretty awesome here. Definitely as good as fruit from New Zealand or Australia,” says Denver winemaker Ben Parsons. Born in Britain and educated at Australia’s prestigious University of Adelaide, Parsons plied his trade in Australia and New Zealand before arriving in Colorado. With a flair for finding the limelight, he’s the talk of local wine enthusiasts, both for his finely crafted creations and his edgy marketing style. Shunning the common practice of using a geographic name for his winery, he’s operated the Infinite Monkey Theorem winery out of a Quonset hut located in the city’s slightly dodgy Santa Fe Arts District since 2008.

The winery name was chosen as a name to stand out, and is derived from the concept that a monkey at a keyboard, given an infinite amount of time, will type out the complete works of Shakespeare.

Among Parsons’ unorthodox practices is packaging some of his products in waste-free stainless steel kegs to be dispensed like draft beer, available in scores of restaurants and shops on the Colorado Front Range and beyond.

But even as the visibility of local wines increases, there remain palates to be won.

“We have a very educated consumer base in Colorado,” says Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. “Sometimes they get stuck in the tunnel vision of what a Cabernet is supposed to taste like because of what it tastes like in Bordeaux.”

Evan Faber, beverage director of downtown Boulder’s SALT restaurant, encourages consumers to embrace the terroir as they taste a local wine: “We must taste with context. Don’t taste and look for California or French traits in a Colorado wine. We have to ask ourselves, not is it good or bad, but what is it expressing? How is it different?”

A few miles away at Bookcliff Vineyards, award-winning winemaker John Garlich sees light at the end of the tunnel for the state’s maturing wine industry.

“More and more people are accepting Colorado wine and actually seeking it out,” he says. “It was so hard selling to restaurants just a few years ago. Now they’re calling us up.”

As consumers embrace the state’s grape-based liquid assets, Colorado vintners are looking to the future with a glass-half-full attitude, no matter how long the legs are to get there.