Grand Valley-based enologist tracks, promotes Colo. wines
Mesa County correspondent
Vail CO, Colorado
GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado ” Stephen Menke is a “wine geek.”
As the state enologist, Menke studies and tastes wine. It’s all part of the job.
Menke travels a few thousand miles a month visiting wineries around Colorado, surveying the quality and flavor of wines and advising vintners about wine-making and business practices.
Menke was hired by Colorado State University last February to research the unique characteristics of Colorado grapes and help develop the Colorado wine brand. His office is at the Western Colorado Research Center on Orchard Mesa.
Menke hadn’t always planned on studying wine.
“My family didn’t drink. I come from a long line of teetotalers,” Menke said.
Menke grew up on a farm in Nebraska where his parents raised animals and crops, including cherries, apples, apricots, peaches and berries. Because of that upbringing, Menke said he has “always loved the flavors of fruit.”
“For me, wine is an expression of fruit,” Menke said. “It’s one of the few products sold exclusively on how it smells and tastes.”
To keep track of where wines are heading, Menke judges several wine competitions in the state each year. At some contests he’s smelled and tasted 150 different wines in a single day.
He doesn’t swallow it when he’s judging.
“Even if you spit it out, there’s residual alcohol that gets absorbed,” Menke said.
“You have to space it out, do it slowly. It may take several minutes to analyze each wine. You can get through the whole day without the wine affecting your judgment too much.”
While Menke admits to a “natural ability” to smell and taste wines’ subtleties, he’s been trained to taste many types of wines from various places.
“It actually is work. You’re trying to give a point value to things you are tasting and smelling in wine. There’s a set of sensory research criteria that you use,” Menke said. “You apply standards for certain kinds of wine.”
Menke’s job is also to educate the public about Colorado wines; match up grape varieties with good growing locations; provide current research to people in the industry; as well as conduct and publish his own research projects. Menke’s primary focus this year is raising the quality and profile of Colorado’s wine industry.
He also teaches enology classes each spring semester for CSU’s horticulture and landscape architect department.
Menke also makes experimental wines from grapes grown at the Western Colorado Research Center, where state viticulturist Horst Caspari also works.
Caspari cares for the grapes there, researching such things as hardy varieties, pruning systems and irrigation methods. And while Menke advises winemakers, Caspari advises grape-growers.
Wine-makers often seek Menke’s advice when they have a technical problem with their wine.
Parker Carlson, owner and winemaker at Carlson Vineyards, said he’s glad the state’s enologist is based here in the Grand Valley.
Carlson said Menke came to his vineyard within minutes after Carlson called him with a question about one his wines.
“He helped me solve the problem,” Carlson said. “We sat down and talked. We hashed it out and worked out a program that seems to be working.”
While the Colorado wine board has paid for contract consultants at times, Carlson said he thinks having a full-time staff person in the area will be beneficial for the industry.
“He’s easy to work with. He’s a great guy, seems to know his stuff,” Carlson said. “I’m really glad he’s here.”
Menke’s position is funded by CSU and the Colorado wine industry, a commodity board within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Funding for research also comes from the Rocky Mountain Association of Vintners and Viticulturists.
The enologist position is generally a cooperative arrangement between the state, a university and industry, Menke said.
The state wants to promote its wine industry; the university is interested in research and providing information; and the industry produces and promotes the product.