Palisade: The Wine Country Down the Road
Jonesing for an inspiring wine getaway?
I recently returned from a short sojourn to a wine region that boasts great juice, fabulous dining, fun places to stay and interesting wine-centric stories. And it’s only a two-hour drive away from downtown Aspen.
The heart of Colorado’s wine industry is beating under the spring sun just west of here in the Grand Valley AVA where the Colorado River flows into fertile fruit orchards that surround the town of Palisade and Grand Junction. Under the signature rocky outcropping that is Garfield Mesa there is a worthy wine destination that is reinventing itself in myriad ways as it provides visitors opportunities to explore not just the wines but an emerging tourist region.
The modern history of Colorado wine began in the 1970s when Gerald Ivancie, a Denver periodontal surgeon who was making wines in his basement in Denver using juice from California grapes, was persuaded by a young winemaker named Warren Winiarski (who went on to fame in Napa with his Stag Leap’s Cellars) to plant grape vines in the Grand Valley. Since that time the industry here has endeavored to make great wines and develop a unique and memorable identity.
The first generations of wineries in the Grand Valley opted to plant the grapes that are the most popular, including the Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, along with white grapes like Chardonnay and Riesling. These vitis vinifera grapes that are traditionally grown in the world’s great wine regions have served Colorado well as producers like Colterris, Bookcliff Vineyards, Plum Creek and Carlson Vineyards have all created excellent wine programs around their production of the traditional wine varieties.
But there is an emerging new wine scene in the Grand Valley as well, with young producers who are trying their hands at making wines in new styles from non-traditional grape varieties that have been planted with the hope that they may be better suited for the region. Grapes like Chambourcin — a relatively new French/American hybrid grape that makes delicious, fruity red wines — and the Northern Italian red grape Teroldego from the mountains of Trentino along with the Austrian sommelier darling Grüner Veltliner are all being planted.
Producers like Sauvage Spectrum, Carboy Winery and the recently opened “The Ordinary Fellow” (founded by Ben Parsons whose “Wine at the Mine” parties at past Food & Wine Classics were legendary) are creating a new template, not just for their style of wines but for the vibrant, non-traditional tasting room vibe that they bring to the region. Younger and a bit more casual, this could be the next iteration of how people come to view the Colorado wine scene moving forward.
All these wineries, both traditional and nouveau, are worthy of visits and each provides individual and unique tasting experiences.
For traditionalists, Colterris is the most “Napa” like winery. Family owned and operated by Scott and Theresa High and their daughter and sons, this winery with its gleaming steel fermentation tanks, a cellar full of French Oak barrels and a patio surrounded by vineyards, provides the most “wine country”-like tasting environment in the state.
This dovetails with the Colterris philosophy of producing the best classic varieties of wines from 100% estate grown fruit. “We are committed to the idea that Colorado can produce world class wines that can compete with California, or Washington or any place else,” says Scott High about the Colterris wines. The winery also has a second location for tasting high on a hill overlooking the valley, fittingly called “Colterris at the Overlook,” which provides an amazing view of the entire region.
“On a summer Saturday we’ll have over 200 people here to taste wines and have a good time,” says Kaibab Sauvage with his toothy grin about the crowd that descends on the Spectrum Sauvage property to taste their eclectic wines. Grape grower Kaibab Sauvage, who is vineyard manger and consultant for a vast number of local wineries, formed a partnership in 2019 with winemaker Patric Matysiewski who had previously worked at Denver’s Infinite Monkey Therom to produce fresh, innovative wines that are fun to drink.
Their sparkling wine program, under the Sparklet label, has been a smash success and the winery recently was named by the Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology (CAVE) as its winery of the year. “We’re just trying to represent Colorado wine the best we can by doing newer things,” winemaker Matysiewski told the Grand Junction Sentinel about the honor. “To be recognized as blazing the trail for sparkling wine in Colorado is really exciting.”
Of course, any epic wine destination also needs to provide comfort and sustenance for visitors if it hopes to get them back and Palisade has a few new options for that as well.
Jeff Shook and Jody Corey, husband-and-wife transplants from the hospitality industry in Steamboat Springs, discovered a diamond in the rough when Jody came to Palisade for a “girls weekend” to ride bikes in 2017. During her stay at a past-its-prime motel, she had a wine infused “ah-ha” moment and decided that she could make something out of it with a little TLC. “It had good bones, we thought with a little work we could make it great,” she said of the inspiration.
With dogs in tow, they moved to Palisade in 2018 and began the renovation of what is now the aptly named Spoke & Vine Motel. Maintaining its funky vibe but dressed up in a sleek modernist design, the clean, comfortable abode for bikers and wine lovers features blonde wood floors, incredibly comfy beds, and a go-to patio for hanging out with a post ride cocktail as the food trucks drop by. It has become kind of a clubhouse for visitors to the region. On my trip every available room was taken by another group on a girls’ biking trip from Aspen.
Another option for a bit more upscale stay is the also recently renovated and opened TWP Farmhouse and Winery in the countryside just down the road from the Spoke & Vine. Here you’ll find luxury accommodations in a South African wine country inspired home that is a collaboration between another husband-and-wife team, Shari, an interior designer of global renown and South African raised Edwin. The views of Mount Garfield across the pond are spectacular from the patio behind the adobe-style property. It screams romance and is a perfect scene for weddings.
And dining does not get short shrift. The owners of Spoke & Vine have recently opened Fidel’s Cocina (named for their dog Fidel, naturally), a taco and tequila bar in downtown Palisade that maintains the casual ethos of their motel and pours the Savauge Spectrum Sparklet wines by the glass.
Also downtown, and a must reservation, is the outstanding farm-to-table restaurant Peche, operated by CIA trained chef and owner Mathew Chasseur and his wife Ashley Fees Chasseur, who met during their tenure at Chicago’s acclaimed Alinea in the mid 2000s. The meal I had was spectacular with a perfect steak grilled on a tabletop Hibachi, the best sourdough bread that I have had in the last two years and the most creative desserts in the state. Plus, the atmosphere and service were big-city great. Peche, on its own, is worthy of a trip to Palisade.
The sense is that the Grand Valley is in a positive place as an emerging wine region. It has anchors in terms of wineries and support businesses that maybe were lacking in the past.
It’s time to plan a trip to this important — and inspiring — wine region.
While I enjoyed a number of wines on my short visit to the region, this Syrah, which was a Double Gold Award winner at the Colorado Governor’s Cup, was a highlight. Made by John Garlich and Ulla Merz who operate BookCliff Cellars jointly from their Boulder tasting room and winery and their vineyards in the Grand Valley AVA. This wine was an extremely limited release, so I doubt I will ever taste it again. I’ll just have to remember this balanced full-bodied beauty that brought to mind Syrah wines I have enjoyed from the Walla Walla region of Washington. Dark berries, leather, pepper and mocha marked the first sip and there was a suppleness to the tannins as the wine evolved. Fifty cases are all that BookCliff produced but it was the kind of wine that the state should, and maybe one day, will be known for.