A Colorado Wine Tour

palisadevines7258When 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.

palisadehorst7169Only 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 differences.”

palisadeplumcreek7253Like 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 buy.

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 vastly.

palisadecarlton7188Take 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.

palisadetworivers7226Parker’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 States.

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.

palisadebrittany7206Brittany 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.

palisadebarrels7214Next 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 rock formations.

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.”

palisademonument7233Canyon 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.”

palisadecanyonwind7260Horst 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, is research.

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.

palisadeorchardhouse7198Stop 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 main roads.

palisadetableoutside7177So 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.

Helpful websites:

Restaurants in Palisade:

  • Palisade Café and Slice O’ Life Bakery, 105 W. 3rd. St., 970-464-0577

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