Grape Expectations: High Hopes For Colorado's Wine Country

Photography: Kate Doerksen  Words: Julie Martin Sunich

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Miners seeking their riches not only packed their pick-axes to southern Colorado, but brought along their grapevines as well.

Makes you wonder: A good backup plan, perhaps?

Apparently, the vines established more than a seed in the mind of Governor George A. Crawford, who in 1890, planted 60 acres of grapes and fruit alongside Rapid Creek near Palisade in Mesa County. By 1910, Colorado was producing about 1 million pounds of grapes by an estimated 1,000 farmers. There were no true winemakers per se; the grapes were sold to locals who processed and fermented the fruit to share with family, friends, and neighbors.

In 1916, just as Colorado’s early settlers were perfecting wild game wine pairings, prohibition put the brakes on the state’s burgeoning wine-making industry. It wasn’t until some 50 years later that Colorado State University parlayed a grant from the United States government to plant test plots of vineyards in the now renowned Grand Valley area. Today, in the shadow of the Book Cliff Mountains, some of the state’s original wineries still exist.

Then in 1977, the Colorado General Assembly enacted the Colorado Limited Winery Act, permitting small “farm wineries,” ultimately opening the door for future commercial ventures. Within the year, Colorado Mountain Vineyards—now operating as Colorado Cellars—opened in Palisade and still operates as the oldest and largest winery in the state. Fast forward to the 1990s, when the Grand Valley region became Colorado’s first federally recognized Agricultural Viticultural Area (AVA)—the first step towards establishing a geographical pedigree for Colorado wines. At around the same time, the Colorado Wine Industry Act was passed with two-fold implications: It created the Colorado Wine Board and placed a one-cent per liter tax on all wines.

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Despite the government bandwagon effect, there were still doubters and critics that maintained Colorado’s high altitude and often inhospitable climate could not produce a grape worth a swirl in the glass. Experts argued that the state’s terroir—a fancy French noun denoting geographic environmental conditions—could not sustain a respectable wine. In reality, the reverse was true.

Take Alfred Eames Cellars in Paonia. For the past 25 years, their noble pinot grapes have flourished in the North Fork Valley’s rugged terrain. Owner, winemaker, and namesake, Alfred Eames, believes the challenging climate gives the  grapes character. His 2010 Pinot Noir and Estate Pinot Noir are among the most respected red wines in the state. “The vines struggle in the cooler climate, but ultimately produce a very distinct flavor that’s different in the industry,” he explained. Asked to describe his finest wines, the experienced yet self-deprecating Alfred said simply, “They are really good.” And in the wine world, quite rare. In an abundant  year, his cellar bottles 2,000 cases, most of which are distributed locally at shops and restaurants in and around Gunnison, Aspen, and Crested Butte.

Further to the east in Poncha Springs, sits Vino Salida Wine Cellars, a rapidly emerging, vibrant winery that, like the majority of wineries in the state, (is harvesting) harvests its grapes (grown) from the fertile Palisade’s area—77 tons alone from the Grand Valley AVA. Their most popular wine, Vino Russo di Salida, offers an authentic Rocky Mountain take on an Italian-style red table wine. According to Jessica Shook, Vino Salida’s sales and marketing director, this wine surprises both locals and tourists, who, after a day rafting the Arkansas or summiting a 14’er, drop into the winery for a barrel tasting tour. Said Jessica,  “People don’t expect to find dry red wines in Colorado, but our wines aren’t always sweet.”

But many are. The prolific fruit orchards on the Western Slope just beg for inclusion in the rising popularity of Colorado’s diversifying wine production. Wineries willingly mingle peaches, pears, apples, and cherries with their grapes to create sweet and semi-sweet fruit wine varieties with names that serve to enhance their reputation. Among those include: Colorado Cellar’s Roadkill Red, a semi-sweet light red wine with raspberry undertones; Prairie Dog Blush, Colorado’s largest-selling Blush rosé; and Pearadactyl, a combo pear and apple wine. The latter two are both out of Carlson Vineyards.

Kelly Parliament, owner of Wines of Colorado at the base of Pikes Peak in Cascade, sees hundreds of tourists come into his wine shop each year. He surmises that his clienteles’ palate preferences align with their home state. “Our customers from Texas and Kansas and further south like the sweet wine,” he explained. Kelly also sells the popular Mead wines—those made from fermented honey and often blended with fruit—that have their own loyal followers among those who seek out their unique handcrafted taste.


At the other end of the agricultural spectrum, in the back alleys of Denver’s RiNo Art District, is the Infinite Monkey Theorem (IMT), an urban winery housed in a 15,0000 square foot warehouse. IMT takes its name from the pop culture hypothesis claiming that at any given time, monkeys randomly striking keys on a typewriter will ultimately bang out a copy of Hamlet. Or Shakespeare. Or in this case, a nice bottle of wine. IMT has successfully coordinated the self-described chaotic variables of “importing” grapes from the Western Slope to produce such best-selling bottles as The Blind Watchmaker Red, Petite Sirah, and their fruity Riesling. Owner and founder Ben Parsons has become a local legend of sorts for his efforts for not only bringing Colorado wine to the tables of Denver’s trendiest restaurants, but also to the beverage carts of Frontier Airlines and baseball fans at Coors Field.

Today, Colorado’s wine production may be considered a bonafide industry. With over 143 wineries and 120-plus grape growers, the state’s wine development board continues to work within the Colorado Department of Agriculture while local wineries have collaborated to establish the Colorado Association of Viticulture and Enology (CAVE). Both serve to educate, support, and advance Colorado wineries through agricultural seminars, legislation, and wine festivals. One of the state’s biggest wine events, The Governor’s Cup, is sponsored by the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board and is held every August at the History Colorado Center in Denver. The only statewide competition for Colorado wineries, the event features wine tasting and pairings with local chefs, a panel of distinguished sommeliers, and a chance to meet awards presenter, Governor John Hickenlooper.

Colorado wine has a history, but it also has a future. It’s much like the young girl at school, unnoticed until 20 years later, when her full-bodied merits and sweet, complex finish made her the perfect dinner partner. Sometimes, the very best of life’s simple pleasures are in our own backyard.

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Originally published in Colorado Collective Volume 4, June 17.