Palisade peaches. Apricots. Cherries. Alpacas. Yes, indeed.
Wine grapes? Absolutely!
“…(T)his high-altitude wine region (of the Rocky Mountains) is on the rise. Colorado isn’t just paradise for outdoor adventurers—it has plenty to offer any wine lover as well. At over 4,000 feet in elevation, Grand Junction and Colorado’s Grand Valley AVA should also be high on your must-visit list.”Wine Enthusiast 2018
Colorado’s first wine grapes were planted on the western slopes of the Rockies in 1890. Development of the Grand Valley area gained momentum when canals were built to bring water from the Colorado River to this dry region. Colorado actually led the way into Prohibition, outlawing alcohol four years before Prohibition was enacted. Then, as was true across most of the United States, the Colorado wine industry died for nearly a half century.
The winegrowing thread was picked up again in 1968, when (ironically) Colorado was one of the first states to start building a modern wine industry. The state’s wine pioneer, Dr. Gerald Ivancie, recruited talent from California to get started. Warren Winiarski, who left Mondavi Winery in 1968 to help Dr. Ivancie launch Colorado’s first commercial winery, is better known as the founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, a winner in the 1976 “Judgment of Paris.”
How is it possible to grow grapes and make quality wine in the mountains, you might ask? It is true that Colorado’s main western-slope growing regions range in elevation from 4,000 to 7,000 feet, making them among the highest altitude vineyards in the world. If Argentina can grow Malbec in the Andes, why not Cabernet Sauvignon in Palisade, Colorado? While the growing season is relatively short, the secret sauce of warm, sunny days followed by cool nights makes for ideal growing conditions. Peaches and other fruits are happy too!
Colorado catapulted from having one winery in 1968 to more than 100 today! The “Limited Winery Act” of 1977 fueled rapid growth of estate-grown grape farms. The two primary viticultural areas today are the western-slope appellations of Grand Valley AVA and West Elk AVA. There are 40 wineries clustered in a 120-mile radius stretching from Aspen to Grand Junction. Each AVA destination is about a four-hour drive from Denver, a short hop in the expansive American West.
Not including meaderies (honey), cider producers, or tasting rooms, Colorado offers an additional 65+ opportunities to visit wineries sprinkled across the entire state, including a new crop of urban wineries in the Denver metro area. The best source of comprehensive information about wineries in Colorado, including winery website links and directions, is Colorado Wine. When you visit, be sure to consult a map. Colorado is a big state, and although the wineries are clustered in regions, in reality they are not situated close to one another. Getting there will require GPS.
The Colorado wine scene today is improving as well as expanding. On a recent visit to four wineries in the Grand Valley AVA, I heard two distinct themes from fellow visitors:
- Visitors are about 50/50 locals and tourists. In hopes of increasing the winery experience and destination visitors, winery owners are sprucing up tasting rooms, inviting food trucks to provide nibbles for outdoor seating areas, and building event spaces for weddings and parties. Children and dogs are welcome — perfect for a family outing during vacation!!
- The quality of Colorado wines is improving. In the words of one local visitor: “I moved to Colorado from California 25 years ago. To put it mildly, the wines here weren’t very good back then. But in the last five or so years, the quality of wine in the Grand Valley has gone up dramatically.”
Scott and Theresa High purchased their first vineyard property near Palisade, CO in 1999. According to Scott, Theresa fell in love with the area, likening it to Sonoma, CA during the early years. The couple had been scouting vineyard areas and ideas all over the world, including Argentina, ultimately choosing Grand Valley because the special qualities of high-altitude wine growing were so compelling.
Scott comes by his interest in wine naturally, having grown up in a wine-merchant family, written a weekly wine column in college, and helped to develop the fine wine business of an international spirits conglomerate. He also studied viticulture at Geisenheim University in Germany.
By 2008, the Highs were ready to launch Colterris Winery. The name combines an abbreviation of Colorado with the Latin word terris meaning “from the land.” They hired two winemakers, one with experience in New Zealand and California, and one from Colorado. “This gives us the flexibility to make world-class wines that both respect their spiritual homes in Europe, and allow us to adapt our wine styles to the Colorado environment,” according to Scott.
Today Colterris is the largest estate winery in Colorado. The Highs own 80 acres in Grand Valley AVA planted to the nine grape varieties that define the Colterris specialty in varietal wines (with a few blends). All nine are classic, familiar international grapes — none of the French hybrid or native American grapes that are often planted in cold climates:
- Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris
- Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Syrah, and Petit Verdot
The tasting scheme is very flexible. A “Sneak Peak” includes a choice of three current-release wines for $5, while “Encore” includes seven wines for $10.00. Limited Release estate and library collection wines are occasionally available for tasting before purchase. Visitors are treated to a post-tasting set of laminated cards describing the wines they chose to taste, fastened together with a memorable branded charm.
For my “Sneak Peak” I chose three options, all of which are generally not available from other wineries:
- “Coral” White Cabernet Sauvignon. Made with limited skin contact, and thus white rather than red, the wine was refreshing — dry yet aromatic with surprising notes of red summer berries and a hint of spice and citrus on the nose. It was quite simply delicious!
- “Coloradeaux” is a classic red Bordeaux blend of about 2/3 Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc. While still a young wine, this 2017 is smooth and balanced, and drinkable now.
- Varietal Petit Verdot (2016) was a treat, not only because few wineries make it, but because it was full-bodied and resonant with dark fruit, coffee, and chocolate notes (some from oak). This wine won a double-gold medal at the 2018 Colorado Governor’s Cup competition.
To visit Colterris:
3907 North River Road
Palisade, CO 81526
Hours: daily year-round 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Colterris also hosts the Overlook Tasting Room seasonally (June – August)
3548 E 1/2 Road
Palisade, CO 81526
Like the Highs of Colterris, Linda and Gary Brauns had some experience with California wines. With the Brauns, however, it was more in the vein of serious wine enthusiast with a deep appreciation of fine wines.
After living in California and working in corporate finance in the Bay Area for more than 30 years, Linda’s job ended abruptly during the volatile financial times of 1997. She and Gary visited Colorado to decompress, fell in love with the area, and within a month had moved to Evergreen. Gary’s passion for restoring old Mercedes cars was portable, as was Linda’s passion for restoring properties, so off they went.
Fast forwarding through another difficult economic cycle, in 2012 the Brauns decided to buy and restore a distressed vineyard in Palisade. The previous owner had planted the vineyard in 2007, just as the “great recession” was getting under way. Neighbors called it a “stick vineyard” because it had lain fallow for so many years. According to Linda, “Our plan was to fix it up and flip it. But then we realized it could be a viable vineyard and decided that our second act would be to start making wine. We were hooked on the concept of ‘dirt to bottle’ winemaking.”
Wine + Cars = Restoration Vineyards
Linda and Gary sought help from neighboring wineries and farmers to restore the vineyard. The owners of Talbott Farms advised flooding the scorched vineyard to determine the true state of its underlying root structure. To everyone’s surprise, most of the vineyard sprang back to life. With the decision to begin making wine, the Brauns sought advice from experienced winemakers at Maison La Belle Vie Winery and Red Fox Cellars. They were able to start making wine their first year in business because the vines were viable. “This is a very collaborative community,” said Linda. “People are eager to see the whole industry succeed in Palisade.”
Since then, the Brauns have added 15% new vines on the 10-acre property, and weathered two straight years of early freezes in 2013-14. Since 2015, with better growing conditions, they have been able to fully develop the operation. Initially producing their wine off-premise, in 2018 they were able to move all production to the current facility. With ample outdoor seating, inviting a food truck to add to the experience was a natural move. Aspiring to become a visitor destination, future plans include an Air BnB opportunity for wine club members.
At present, Restoration Vineyards offers five varietal wines (and, while it lasts, a Barbera Reserve available only to wine club members). The varietal wines include Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon (with the possibility of a Bordeaux Blanc-style blend), Chardonnay, Barbera, and Merlot.
Linda has taken a light touch with the white grapes, producing a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc with savory herb and lime notes; what I would consider a classic Sémillon style with a deep reservoir of earthy flavor; and lightly oaked Chardonnay, somewhat flinty with only a portion undergoing malolactic fermentation. The Barbera grape apparently performs quite well in western Colorado. I tasted both the current release (2016) and reserve (2015). My personal preference was the bright young Barbera. Finally, the Merlot is a rich, ripe, full-bodied wine aged 33 months in French oak. Bottle prices range from $22 to $29 ($38 for the wine club reserve).
To visit Restoration Vineyards:
3594 E. 1/2 Road
Palisade, CO 81526
Hours: daily year-round 11:00 am – 5:00 pm
Maison La Belle Vie Winery & Amy’s Courtyard (“House of the Beautiful Life”)
Owner/winemaker John Barbier hails from Loire, France, and many generations of family winemakers. He came to the United States in 1996 after living and working in Australia and Asia. With destination USA in mind, John landed in Aspen, CO because it was a beautiful ski resort. Not long after moving to Colorado, he decided to open a restaurant in Glenwood Springs, followed soon by Le Rouge Restaurant in Grand Junction. Le Rouge is still in operation, but John sold the business to devote time to making wine in Palisade. He planted vines in 2003 on a small 4.5 acre plot using traditional dry farming methods, and has been producing wine since 2006.
Maison La Belle Vie specializes in big red wines, with particular focus on Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. Most wines are blends of three to five red grapes. A delicious Rosé wine called “The Queen” is a blend of traditional and lesser known grapes including Marechal Foch, Crimson Cabernet, Merlot, and St. Vincent. The winery also offers varietal Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, and is experimenting with Albariño in Colorado’s growing conditions. Red grapes Cabernet Franc and Barbera are also making their way into the lineup for wine club members.
Three specialty wines distinguish the offerings of Maison La Belle Vie from other wineries:
- Vin de Peche is a wine made from the Muscat grape and peaches, a recipe that has been handed down through the generations of John’s family since the late 1800s.
- Pineau des Montagnes is a sweet white port-style wine made from Riesling grapes, lightly fermented, fortified with grape spirit, and aged 2 1/2 years in Bourbon barrels.
- A new addition to Maison la Belle Vie is Vin de Noix, a handcrafted walnut wine fortified and aged for six years.
As a chef, food — and pairing food with wine — is very important to John. Amy’s Courtyard, named for his daughter, offers a focused menu of charcuterie boards and daily lunch items for visitors to enjoy under a cooling canopy of trees. Amy’s Courtyard is available for catered special events, ranging from casual to formal, including weddings, reunions, and retreats.
To visit Maison La Belle Vie & Amy’s Courtyard:
3575 G Road
Palisade, CO 81526
Hours: daily year-round 11:00 am – 5:00 pm (open until 6:00 pm on weekends)
Red Fox Cellars
One of Grand Valley’s newest wineries, Red Fox Cellars, has a distinctly playful personality. The winery’s tag line says it all: “Bold, adventurous wines — respectful but unbound by tradition.”
Red Fox is a family affair. Owners Scott and Sherrie Hamilton, along with son Kyle as full-time winemaker, are true to the distinctive brand they developed five years ago. Son Chad and daughter-in-law Kelly were also part of the start-up team.
A rustic, welcoming tasting room completes the brand experience, providing a lively setting in which to taste Red Fox’s three styles of wine:
- traditional, with an emerging specialty in award-winning Italian varieties such as Nebbiolo and Teroldego rated 90+ points by wine critic James Suckling;
- “avant garde” made using non-traditional barrel aging methods such as bourbon barrels; and
- aged hard ciders, including a high-alcohol apple wine and a sparkling wine.
The ciders and fruit wines are served chilled on tap. In addition to these three wine styles, Red Fox offers refreshing wine cocktails. A food truck selection may rotate as well, but on the day I visited, the food options included tacos and fish & chips. And if you want to stay a while to visit the Palisade area any time of year, “The Den at Red Fox” on the winery property sleeps 6-8 people (discounted for wine club members).
All grapes are either estate grown or from Grand Valley AVA. Five different wine flights are available in specific groupings, or visitors can mix it up to construct their own tasting panels across the recommended flights. Highlights of Red Fox’s unique wine selections might make your mouth water and compel you to visit to enjoy your own experience!
- “Mangy” is an interesting name for a sparkling wine that is the product of collaboration with a brewer. Barrels used to age wine are then used by a brewer, and then returned to Red Fox for use in making sparkling wine. You can smell and taste the beer as well as the wine, making for a unique and oddly refreshing combination.
- Long Day Rosé is made from Tempranillo grapes. Dry, with refreshing acidity, this wine is a beautiful deep color delivering wild strawberry notes on the palate.
- Bourbon Barrel Merlot is the winery’s best-selling wine. Much has been written — pro and con — about this style of wine across the country. If you’re a fan of the style, the nose of this wine is full-on Bourbon, but gives way to a light touch on the palate.
To visit Red Fox Cellars:
695 36 Road
Palisade, CO 81526
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Hours: daily year-round 11:00 am – 5:00 pm (open until 7:00 pm on weekends)