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A COLORADO WINE TOUR
When it comes to great wines from river valleys, France has the Loire.
Germany owns the Rhine. California claims Napa. In Colorado, it's Grand Valley, nestled between rock walls east of Grand Junction
on the Western Slope. The Colorado River trickles alongside a carved canyon.
Master winemaker Ben Parsons, who got his start at Canyon Wind Winery in Palisade,
says "wineries are located in the most beautiful parts of the world."
If so, then his winery qualifies as one of the most striking and austere.
Palisade lies in a sheltered location snuggled between steep, barren cliffs. The
scenery is arid, dramatic and unmistakably Western. Each spring blossoms of
fruit trees perfume the air.
The small town (population 2,579) is best known for peaches, cherries and
apricots. Trucks destined for the Front Range markets rumble along highways in summer. Customers line up for boxes of tree-ripened peaches. The town’s name
evokes summer pies, jams and jellies. But it wasn’t always so.
Grapes may look like an upstart industry in a fruit-growing valley. But do a
little research into the agricultural history of the area and you’ll discover
that wine grapes once thrived in the Grand Valley. When Prohibition swept the
country, vines were torn out and fruit trees replaced wine for a dry nation.
Only in the last two decades have wineries surfaced, ready to try grapes once
again. Grand Valley has turned into the grand dame in a state that boasts over
40 wineries. "More than the state of Texas," Horst Caspari says
proudly. Horst is the German born viticulturist for Colorado State University.
As the expert for CSU’s Western Colorado Research Center in Grand Junction, he
helps farmers grow wine grapes successfully.
In neat rows outside his office, each strip of planted vines contains 20
varieties of grapes to be studied. Some struggle year after year, their buds
nipped by a late frost, or fail to ripen by the end of summer. "I don’t
recommend those," he says, with a wave of his hand over the drooping vines.
But others flourish. In wine growing regions around the world, climate
determines what grows: warm and dry in sunny Greece, rich and fertile in France,
cool and moist in Germany
In Horst’s experimental garden the Shiraz or Syrah grape (the same vine but
spelled differently depending on location) is a sturdy vine with a lineage
thousands of years old. And the little known Viognier grape is growing well,
too. Horst dotes over the introduction of new grapes yet to be discovered in
Colorado. Too many of the big wineries, he says, are making mass market wines
"that taste all the same. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are
hundreds of local varieties in Spain. And they are all distinctive. We want a ‘terroir’
that encompasses the soil, the environment—what you connect with the
region," he says, "and then within that distinction you will find
Like Horst, Colorado wineries are trying a variety of grapes. Sangiovese, the
grape that makes Chianti in Italy, is borderline, "we struggle to get
color," he says about the ripening process. "Still, some people want
to push the envelope." Plum Creek Winery, one of the largest wineries in
Colorado, is pushing that envelope and making wine from Sangiovese grapes.
Obviously, it’s not easy to grow wine grapes in Colorado. Palisade has a
short growing season compared to California. Many a Chardonnay may be nipped in
the bud by a late frost. But Horst is undaunted. All of German winemaking, he
says, has evolved based on the ripening process of grapes in a cool climate, a
feature not unlike the realities of Grand Valley farming.
Instead of worrying about the climate, he considers what the Western Slope
does offer: few pests, soil high in minerals, brilliant sun and less demand
for water than neighboring fruit trees.
"In California they may spray over 20 times," for pests and
diseases Horst says. "Here we could spray only once for powdery mildew, a
fungal disease. Perhaps not even that." As a practitioner of sustainable
agriculture, Horst sees Colorado as a land without serious blights or insects.
Europe struggles with centuries of diseases that have taken hold on ancient
vines. Not here. The trick for Colorado, he says, is to find the right grapes,
develop them for the market and make distinctive wines that the world clamors to
Distinctions already have surfaced. Not a single winery in Palisade is like
another. While several may be growing Chardonnay grapes, or consider a Cabernet
their best, you’ll find nothing generic about the wineries. They differ
Take Carlson Vineyards, owned by Parker and Mary Carlson. They moved to
Palisade when Parker worked in the ceramics department of Coors Brewing Company.
Two high shelves in his winery hold a parade of brightly glazed pots that Coors
once manufactured for the home dinnerware market. Today Parker bottles a variety
of wines, from his favorite Gewürztraminer to a sweet Prairie Dog Blush.
There’s a true Palisade connection to Parker’s wines. You’ll find
cherry, apricot, pear, peach and plum wines. Unlike most fruit wines, his are
not sweet. They can be served with dinner—the cherry with smoked oysters or
salmon, he says. The colors of his fruit wines are glorious. By ringing a glass
with warm, melted chocolate, they can serve as a dessert, too. "Of course,
your guests will leave with smears of chocolate all over their faces," he
says, handing a napkin to a chocolate smeared taster, "but that’s part of
the fun." Only semi-sweet chocolate will do, he advises.
"When I was a home winemaker, I used what was available, and that was
fruit. Farmers would give me crushed fruit for free. And while we also make a
Cabernet-Shiraz, our fruit wines still sell well," he says. Parker buys his
grapes and fruit from local farmers, 30,000 pounds of cherries this year.
Parker’s 1940s tasting room is informal and cozy, where a fuzzy cat greets
visitors and a holiday wreath of green wine bottles hangs above a window. The
building is set off from a winding road lined with fruit trees. In stark
contrast, head toward Grand Junction and at the foot of the Colorado National
Monument, you’ll find a grand chateau called Two Rivers. If Parker’s tasting
room feels like an extension of his living room, the Two Rivers Winery gives the
appearance of being uplifted from France and set down in the Western United
The architecture is French inspired with faux paintings of village street
scenes in the large rooms of vats and wooden barrels. Two Rivers Winery offers a
ten-bedroom inn, a conference room and events ballroom for weddings as well as a
grand tasting room.
Brittany Crowell, whose parents own the winery, runs the tasting room. She
says the French décor reflects the French style of wine making they are
striving to emulate: "We use French yeast in the process. Our Cabernet
Sauvignon is probably our signature wine, but 50 percent of our 11 acres is
planted in Chardonnay grapes."
Two Rivers qualifies as one of most romantic places to stay on the Western
Slope with a bridal suite and majestic views of the Colorado National Monument.
Although Brittany calls it a B&B, it’s more like a grand inn,
where you can sip wine on one of the porches and watch a vivid sunset.
Next door the Monument rises, encircling
half of Grand Junction. A popular
destination for bicyclists, the 23-mile loop is for the intrepid only. But
casual bikers can pedal along the top and take in spectacular rock formations
and glorious views. From the crest of the monument, you’ll see for miles, a
view stretching all the way to the snow topped San Juan Mountains. Natural
arches carved from sandstone on 23,000 acres rival Bryce Canyon for remarkable
Visiting Two Rivers and the Monument provide a day outing—and a glorious
one. But then head back east into Palisade and stroll in the winery of Canyon
Wind Cellars. This small winery is set apart from other wineries to take
advantage of its geographic location. "We have a wind that blows through
this canyon that gives us our name," says Ben, who oversees the winemaking
process, "it cools down the vines in the summer and warms them in the
winter. That’s where our name comes from."
Canyon Wind Cellars’ cabernet has garnered prizes from Wine Spectator
Magazine and was featured in USA Today. Ben, a 26-year-old Britisher, studied in New Zealand and
Australia before arriving in Palisade, and prefers New World winemaking to Old.
"There’s a lot of bureaucracy in Europe, where you’re not allowed to
irrigate, for example. Here we can irrigate as the vines require."
Quality winemaking is determined by the quality of grapes. Plucking off leaf
canopy so that bunches are exposed to the sun is just one of the variants that
will give a good grape, Ben says. Canyon Wind Cellars makes a Cabernet
Sauvignon, Merlot, rosé and Chardonnay, but Ben recently planted acres of
Shiraz and Tempranillo, a red grape from the Rioja section of Spain.
"That part of Spain is much like the Western Slope," Ben says,
"so we’ll try it. Other grapes like the pinot noir and Riesling just don’t
do well here. They don’t ripen. We’re not sure that anyone has found quite
the right grape yet."
Horst is fond of reminding wine lovers that 85 percent of wine quality comes
from the quality of grape. "Of course," he says, "anything can
happen in the fermentation process." Ben agrees. If irrigation is key to
growing excellent grapes, sanitation is key to making good wine. "Probably
95 percent of my time is cleaning and constantly taking samples to be sent to
labs in California. We also place our wine in underground cellars so that
barrels don’t start splitting." Another key to excellent wine these days,
Even winemakers are turning to clones of vines. Ben expects to profit from
the new clones available for Cabernet. "Cabernet is the grape we have the
most experience with," he says, but recognizes that he is in uncharted
waters—full of promise for the future. "In 20 years Grand Valley could be
important. We’ll never be the size of California, and it’s tricky to raise
grapes here, but we might be able to make an organic wine. We are similar to
other great wine making places 50 years ago."
Meanwhile, Canyon Wind Cellars qualifies as a classic small outstanding
winery. Their wines sell out quickly. Wine aficionados recently purchased the
entire stock of rosé. Ben says that Colorado wine drinkers prefer sweeter wines
and their rosé was designed to fulfill that desire. Set away from the highway,
the tasting room is hushed, with only the sound of wind or birds in the
background. Rows of grape vines cling to their wire structures and cliffs
surround the planted acres.
Stop by other wineries and you’ll find the rare Voignier, Lemberger, port,
honey mead and other unusual wines. Many are unobtainable outside the valley
since many of the wineries sell the bulk of their best to visitors. Each year
Palisade hosts a peach festival in August that is followed by a wine festival in
September. The two months attract enough enthusiasts to swell the small town,
filling the few bed and breakfasts and snarling traffic in the three or four
So if you’d like to take a wine tour, consider the off-season. Begin at the
Tourist Information Booth off I-70 and Horizon Drive in Grand Junction and ask
for wine tour information. Most wineries are open nearly every day all year and
are within close proximity to each other. The Palisade Café offers hearty
dinners on Friday and Saturday nights only, with prime rib a local favorite. The
Slice-o-Life Bakery serves excellent coffee and pastries. But during the
Festival, the wineries pair with Grand Junction restaurants--Chefs, La Dolce
Vita or Il Bistro for fancy fare.
The B&Bs in Palisade are in private homes with usually two to four
bedrooms. Stephanie Schmid, who owns The Orchard House, says that the festival
weeks are booked months in advance. If you show up during those weeks, there’s
simply no chance of finding accommodations so visitors usually head to Grand
Junction for the strip motels along the highway. But if you go in the
off-season, Stephanie’s impeccably clean home is typical of B&Bs in
Palisade—a quiet refuge off the beaten track. Her B&B provides a friendly
dog outside, a clear starry sky at night, delicious coffee from a neighbor who
imports Arabica beans and a wide vista of trees and mountains. Breakfast is
sumptuous in the dining room of her house, which is nestled in a peach orchard.
And while the Wine Fest offers a bike tour of the wineries, with a simple map
in hand, you can duplicate the tour. Should you want to buy wine, the wineries
will hold your purchase to be picked up later.
www.palisadecoc.com, Palisade Chamber of Commerce, 319 Main St. 970-464-7458
www.visitgrandjunction.com, Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau,
740-Horizon Drive, Grand Junction, 800-962-2547
www.coloradowestbnb.com Bed and Breakfasts in Palisade
www.canyonwindcellars.com Canyon Wind Cellars
www.tworiverswinery.com, Two Rivers Winery
www.carlsonvineyards.com, Carlson Vineyards
www.coloradowine.com Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, 3168 B ½
Road, Grand Junction, 970-523-1232 provides a list of all Colorado wineries
www.coloradowinefest.com Colorado Mountain Winefest, Palisade, held each year
the third weekend of September, 800-704-3667
www.colostate.edu/programs/wcrc the Western Colorado Research Center for
Colorado State University, 3168 B ½ Road, Grand Junction, 970-434-3264
Colorado National Monument, 970-858-3617
Restaurants in Palisade:
Palisade Café and Slice O’ Life Bakery, 105 W. 3rd.
In Grand Junction:
Dolce Vita, 336 Main St.
Il Bistro, 400 Main St., 970-243-8622
Chefs, 936 North Avenue, 970-243-9673
WW Peppers, 753 Horizon Court, 970-245-9251
Recommended reading: "The Guide to Colorado Wineries" by Alta and
Brad Smith, Fulcrum Publishing, 2002