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Vying grapevines

Keala Francis
Dominique TaylorThe Minturn Cellars on Minturn's Main Street is listed on the new Colorado Wine Trail system.
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Minturn Cellars is like many wineries in Colorado: interesting, boutique and unprofitable.

Owned by Bruce and Taffy McLaughlin, Minturn Cellars is located in Minturn just off Highway 24 in a ramshackle building complete with a tasting room, barrel room, cellar, dining room and “Taffy” room, where McLaughlin stays when she’s tending to Cellars business.

The McLaughlins have several other wine ventures, including Wines of Colorado, a $1 million-a-year retail and dining business located off Highway 24, but far from Minturn in Cascade, Colorado. The McLaughlins also run Pikes Peak Winery, a 110-acre estate, which was formerly Sinton Dairy land. Taffy McLaughlin’s mother is a Sinton. Bruce McLaughlin’s family own Minturn Realty. Land is partly what drove them into the wine business.

The first opportunity came in the late 1970s, when 160 acres of family land in Connecticut came into their hands.

“We wanted to preserve the land, so we hired a consultant,” McLaughlin said. “Bruce found out he had a green thumb, and an employee at the McLaughlin Research family firm knew how to make wine, so we started the winery. Bruce worked all day and then sat in the bathtub for three hours every night reading books. He’s basically self-taught.”

The McLaughlins’ wineries are among the 60-or-so wineries in Colorado. The state’s wine industry is still tiny, ranked 37th in the U.S. for acreage and hovering around 2 percent of national wine sales. The wine board has set up the Wine Trail system, designed to help tourists see wineries as a destination. Quality and awareness are two issues the industry is working on, bringing in top viticulturists as consultants and flying in national food and wine editors.

The wine industry in Colorado has a checkered history, essentially drying up for more than 50 years because of prohibition. It wasn’t until the 1980s that wine began to make a comeback, helped by the 1977 Colorado Limited Winery Act, which created a special permit for small farm wineries. In the last five years, said Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Board, the growth has been strong, with the number of wineries doubling to just more than 60.

Wineries here have unique challenges. Colorado’s vineyards are planted usually between 4,000 and 7,000 feet, some of the highest vineyards in the world. According to Caskey, this geography means climate changes can have a bigger impact here than somewhere like California. “For example, in 2003, a 60-degree temperature drop in a 24-hour period so quickly after warm weather affected even adjoining vineyards differently, in each vineyard a different varietal got hit.”

Colorado State’s Orchard Mesa Research Center began vineyard research in 1974, but the wineries are still discovering how and why certain varietals fare better in Colorado.

For example, the amount of Chardonnay plantings was 30 percent of all varietals planted in 1995. By 2002, that was down to 18 percent, with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and “Other” making up the shortfall. Perhaps the biggest success story has been Riesling. In 2004, a Colorado Riesling won first at the International Eastern Wine Competition.

Minturn Cellars’ 2004 Riesling was its bestseller this year. Like many Colorado wineries, the good wines are sold out quickly, mainly because production numbers, especially of the lesser-known varietals, are bottled in such small quantities.

According to Caskey, the reason Colorado is limited to mainly small farms and boutique wineries is the cost. A good basket press costs around $500; a more efficient bladder press costs $20,000. He said a few Colorado wineries are at the tipping point between small winery and big winery, but equipment costs are “daunting.”

“There is no question that equipment can make a huge difference in quality,” Caskey said. “But a lot of wineries make really fine wine with cheaper equipment because if they know what the strengths of the grape are, they can probably compensate. In some cases, you find people pay even more attention to the wine making.”

Caskey said the McLaughlin wineries have a “broad range in quality.” He declined to name those he was not so fond of, but did mention the very high quality of their Rieslings.

Neither one of the McLaughlin’s wineries is an award winner, but McLaughlin said she buys the grapes she likes and makes the wines she likes.

Pia Vidal, a Minturn Cellars employee and Minturn resident, said she loved wine and appreciated that the McLaughlins liked to experiment with new grapes, such as Pinot Devon. “It’s a fun job,” she said. “I get to socialize and drink wine. I love working for Taffy. I feel like a part of the Cellars, as if I own it, too.”

Minturn Cellars is a very small producer, with only $80,000 in wine sales per annum, not enough to turn a profit. According to Caskey, profit is not why many people have bought wineries in Colorado. “Looking at the 60-some wineries, I’d say probably four support their owners,” he said. He noted that most wineries sell through their own tasting rooms, which provide a larger profit margin than going through the retail distribution system and also reduce marketing costs. “I think we will start to see bigger investments and larger wineries,” he said. “But will we ever have a mega winery like Chateau St. Michel? No.”

“It’s a lifestyle choice,” McLaughlin said. “[Minturn Cellars] keeps me busy, builds our brand, provides consistency and is a vacation home.”

Keala Francis is a regular contributor for The Vail Trail.


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