Colorado Wine Country |

Colorado Wine Country

Lauren Glendenning
Kristin AndersonNorm Christianson, owner of Canyon Wind Cellars, pulls off vines to create more space for cabernet sauvignon grapes to grow at his winery in Palisade.

This doesnt happen every day on the Grand Valley wine trail, but on a recent sunny afternoon I drank wine straight from the barrel. Actually the wine tour guide was kind enough to pour it from the barrel into a glass, but nonetheless, it had been in the barrel just seconds before it reached my lips. I ended up going to several wineries on what happened to be a special occasion tasting weekend the Grand Valley Barrel Tour. Wineries opened up their private cellars and let tasters see where the wine fermentation process happens. The wineries put on the barrel tours during slower times of year the lines are short, the weather is lovely and you get to stroll through the wineries rubbing elbows with the winemakers themselves. Colorados 60-plus wineries are all small and privately owned, according to the states department of agriculture, so bumping into the winemakers isnt out of the ordinary on any weekend. The Grand Valley Wine Trail, in the Palisade-Grand Junction area about two hours from Vail, is like Colorados very own Napa Valley. There are more than 20 wineries in the area, most of which are just a five- or 10- minute drive from one another. While the barrel tasting doesnt happen often, the wineries are open many year-round for free tastes of their wines amid gorgeous landscapes and cozy tasting rooms and courtyards.

Grand Valley vineyards are surrounded by mesas and canyons, and with its desert-like landscape, it makes you wonder how wine grapes could grow here.But they do, and theyre flourishing. Colorados Western Slope offers winemakers great growing climates, says winemaker Debra Ray, of Desert Moon Vineyards in Palisade. Things can get tricky though a late season frost in 2007 caused many vineyards to lose much of their harvests but generally the grapes produce tasty and complex wines.Some grapes arent ideal in the Grand Valley climate, but I did notice that cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah are being produced by many wineries in the region.Brad Harmon, co-owner and assistant winemaker at Garfield Estates Vineyard and Winery in Palisade, says he loves making cabernet franc because the region is very appropriate for it and its also a great wine to pair with food. Whats not too popular in the region is pinot noir. The grape is just too temperamental and requires such specific climates that most winemakers in the area arent even attempting it, Ray says. Rhone varietals tend to do well in the Grand Junction area climate as well, Harmon says. Wines like viognier, sauvignon blanc and syrah grow well in the dry climate that is warm during the daytime and cool at night. White wines also do very well in Western Colorado, especially the viogniers, Rieslings, pinot grigios and sauvignon blancs. The climate produces floral bouquets and wonderful fruit great for summertime sipping.

The tastiest thing of all, though, was the fact that every winery I visited in the Grand Valley had a mom and pop feel to it. Small and cozy, with employees who knew what they were talking about, and more importantly, love their jobs and are passionate about wine.At Canyon Wind Cellars, owners Norman and Ellen Christianson were hanging out in the courtyard with guests. At one point, Norman Christiansen wandered over to the vineyards and started weeding some of the vines. Their son, Jay Christianson, who lives in East Vail, gave the barrel tour to groups of about 15 at a time.At Plum Creek Winery, Winemaker Jenne Baldwin was pouring tastes and talking to visitors. At Garfield Estates, a winemakers wife was in charge of the tasting room, while the owners cruised around talking and drinking with guests. The winery has about 11 acres of vineyards, and bottles just 400 cases of each varietal each year. While winemaking and owning a vineyard all seems glamorous and lovely, dont quit your day job and go out and buy a winery just yet. Debra Ray and husband Paul Hilbink, of Desert Moon Vineyards, can tell you the business side of it isnt nearly as fun and drinking it. The couple drives more than 200 miles from Denver on the weekends to tend to their vineyards. They bottle their wine personally and are constantly reading, attending classes and meeting with consultants to perfect their craft. They do it because they love wine, but they also love Colorado.I think we could become a region thought of in peoples minds as the wine-making pockets in the country or the world, Hilbink says. The region is still relatively young in the wine-making world many of the wineries opened within the last 20 years but winemakers are learning the climate and learning how to produce whats best there, he says. Its easy to be intimidated, Hilbink says. Its a lifelong (learning) process. Lauren Glendenning can be reached for comment at 970.748.2983 or

1873: English traveler Isabella Bird first discovered the lush landscape of the Grand Valley during her ascent up St. Vincent Canyon on her way to Estes Park. She later shared her love for the area in her book A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains she later published.1882: Gravity canal irrigation is introduced into the Grand Valley. Colorado River water is diverted into gravity canals at the mouth of De Beque Canyon near Palisade.1883: Arthur E. Pabor first recognizes the fruit producing potential of the Grand Valley and plants grapes, apples, pears, peaches, cherries and plums near Fruita.1890: Governor George A. Crawford, who founded Grand Junction in 1881, plants sixty acres of grapes and other fruit on Rapid Creek above Palisade.1899: U.S. Department of Commerce, Census of the United States – Agriculture reports a Colorado grape harvest of 586,300 pounds and wine production of 1744 gallons.1909: U.S. Department of Commerce, Census of the United States – Agriculture reports a Colorado harvest of 1,037,614 pounds from 254,292 vines of bearing age and 101,332 vines of pre-bearing age. 1034 Colorado farms are involved in grape production.1916: The General Assembly of Colorado enacts a prohibition statute. Colorado goes “dry” four years before the passage of the 18th Amendment, which creates national prohibition. Commercial winemaking ceases in Colorado and wine grape vineyards are uprooted.1933: The 18th Amendment is repealed and national prohibition ends.1968: Gerald Ivancie opens Ivancie Winery, the first modern Colorado winery. Ivancie also develops experimental plantings of premium wine grapes in and around the Grand Valley.1974: Colorado State University’s Orchard Mesa Research center, located in Grand Junction, begins vineyard research.1977: The General Assembly enacts the Colorado Limited Winery Act, which creates a special permit for small “farm wineries” currently the backbone of the Colorado wine industry.1982: Rocky Mountain Association of Vintners and Viticulturists, an association of winemakers and grape growers, is formed.1990: The General Assembly enacts the Colorado Wine Industry Development Act, which creates the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.1990: Grand Valley designated a Federal Viticulture Area.2005: The General Assembly amends the limited winery statute, replacing the requirement to use 75 percent Colorado fruit with a more informative labeling regulation for Colorado wine. Source:

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