Early budding of grape vines at Mesa Park Vineyard
Over the past few years as I’ve endeavored to discover more about Colorado wines I’ve been nostalgic for the convenience of the California wine country. A mere hop from San Francisco I could be in the Russian River Valley for an effortless day outing enjoying smaller wineries, chats with winemakers and practical education through tasting sessions. There are wineries around the Boulder area (and good ones) as well as a bevy of urban wineries in Denver* (good ones). Yet I longed for an amble through the ‘wine country’ as I enjoyed in California.
In late April on a whirlwind tour through Colorado’s two ‘AVA’s’ (American Viticulture Area, a formally designated wine growing region) I hit the mother lode in the Grand Valley/Palisades area which sports about 25 wineries in close proximity. The convenience of the dense grouping of wineries provides ease to hop between them by car, by limo or on bikes. I was filled with that ‘weekend away’ ambiance with the added benefit of the orchards making me dream of my Yakima car box filled with wine cases and peaches after a satisfying short summer trip.
Grand Mesa, a breathtaking prehistoric sentinel over the Grand Valley wine region
It would be very easy to pick and choose from the many wineries in the Palisades area. Each has a different story and selection of wines. The benefit of going to this area is experiencing both the vineyard and the winery in one place. This is where the bulk of Colorado grapes used by the state’s winemakers are grown. The Grand Valley has been going through evolution of trading off peach orchard land for growing grapes, utilizing the labor force for both. Colorado’s optimum grape growing regions are fairly occupied between the two crops and the next discussion on the horizon is growing grape hybrids. This would allow expansion of our grape growing into more fringe conditions traditional varietals may not tolerate however it is a controversial topic for many purists. Growing grapes in Colorado is a bit like calculated gambling in Vegas; regardless of bets hedged and precautions put in place, our malleable climate can wipe out an entire year’s crop with a simple unexpected cold snap. This fragile balance makes the wine ever more precious to me.
Views of the arid Grand Mesa from the air
It would be impossible to detail every winery in the Palisades area so instead I’ll highlight some that I visited and encourage you investigate on your own path of discovery. We have a beautiful wine country punctuated by mountain spires and striking mesas. On one side of the highway (I-70) the landscape is arid, Southwestern and prehistoric with sandy legs of the Grand Mesa pouring toward the road like a lava flow frozen in time. The other direction is the polar opposite; verdant farm land, green and nurturing with edible opportunity everywhere one looks
This area has a relaxed feel but is more down to business than the North Fork Valley in my experience. Every winery has an official tasting room waiting to receive guests. There are many festivals and activities featuring the wineries. The weekend we visited it was crowded with groups Spring Barrel Tasting which is an annual event.
The Colorado Monument providing spectacular backdrop to Two Rivers Winery
Ty Lawson, winemaker for Two Rivers and Kahil winery
Our first stop was Two Rivers winery which was a bit of an outlier and worth a stop. Not only a winery and vineyard, Two Rivers offers a Bed and Breakfast as well as event opportunity under the spectacular shadow of the Colorado Monument. We swung into the tasting room which was offering food paired tastings with their wine along with Spring Barrel Tasting (8 wineries participate). Candidly I was just getting my sea legs on for our trip but found my bearings when wandering back to the barrel tasting and meeting winemaker Ty Lawson. He’s been working at the winery since he was a late teen doing odd jobs and working up to his current role as Winemaker (at the tender age of 26). A more gentle and humble soul I do not believe I’ve met. We tasted some of his Two Rivers Vintner’s Blend (Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009) as well as his personal label, Kahil (named for the popular fly fishing fly, the Cahill, changing the ‘C’ to ‘K’ for his wife’s name), Malbec 2010 and both were impressive. In addition to the award winning wines, Two Rivers is distinctly memorable for their beautiful location, and incredibly kind, helpful approach. I felt very welcome.
Nancy Janes, Whitewater Hill’s winemaker, greeting our group at her winery
Our second stop was Whitewater Hill where were greeted in the parking lot by Nancy Janes their winemaker. A bright, exuberant spirit full of information and the palpable love of her craft. She and farmer husband John Behrs are high tech defectors and when seeing the view from their tasting room no question why. We tried 16 wines at Whitewater Hill, spanning the range of their offerings. There were many stars on my tasting list including their ‘No Oak’Chardonnay (2009), Cabernet Sauvignon (2008), Muscat Canelli (2011) and Ethereal (2008), a fabulous blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz.
Nancy Janes offering spring barrel tasting at Whitewater Hill
I was enchanted by some of the names, ‘Ethereal’ for instance, and learned from farmer John this was his bailiwick. We chatted about the qualities of unique naming of a wine before he slipped out the door to return to the company of his grapes. I had the opportunity to barrel taste their Cabernet Franc (a grape which thrives in this region) wine which was remarkably delicious albeit young. My parting impression of Whitewater Hill was basking in the glow of Jane, the winemaker, her unending generosity of tastings and information, the spectacular view of the winery under the watch of Grand Mesa. A ‘must stop’. They offer a breadth of wines from white, red to dessert with some unique blend and varietals.
The Mesa Park vineyards bordered by peach orchard and the Grand Mesa in the background
I am completely smitten with Mesa Park’s labeling; a sort of modernized Audubon Society motif
Next stop was Mesa Park Vineyards. We pulled up to a red barn which is their understated tasting room, completely setting the tone for Mesa Park’s approachable, young style. The story of this couple’s (Brad and Brooke Webb) acquisition of the winery left me with mouth agape. In the spring of 2009 when they bought the winery the prior owner packed up and left on a sailboat around the world leaving them a few barrels of this and that. The vineyard was immediately pummeled by a hail storm and then a now infamous surprise frost of 2009 that wiped out 100% of their crops. They were left with the prior owner’s barrels and the grass roots opportunity to make this vineyard/winery their own. And built it they have. The grapes were in beautiful shape and their views possibly the best in the valley between the proximity to the Grand Mesa and the surrounding orchard land. They are a smaller winery featuring Bordeaux-style wines, all estate grown reds and a Riesling.
Our last stop was Grande River Vineyards a notably larger establishment. By example Grande River was the largest producer of Colorado grapes from 1992-2006 supplying their own needs as well as other winemakers (in Colorado and 8-10 other states). Their portfolio of their French-style wines is extensive, as you might imagine, spanning the entire spectrum of offerings. We were fortunate to enjoy a taste pairing with their newly joined chef who dished up exceptional eats to complement the wines. Grande River Vineyards is what I think of as a larger, more traditional winery with ample tasting room, self guided tour as well as an abundance of events from the crush to summer concerts. Perhaps one of the most conveniently located a stone’s throw from I-70 on exit 42.
Our final Grand Valley wine experience was with Plum Creek Cellars. We did not visit Plum Creek but rather they joined us for a fabulous meal in Grand Junction at Il Bistro Italiano where they paired wine to our courses and the winemaker, Jenne Baldwin joined us for a chat along with owner Sue Phillips. I first marveled at yet more knowledgeable, substantial women-in-wine. In Jenne I loved the idea of yet another Colorado transplant that’d been drawn to the area but was now committed to the craft of winemaking. Plum Creek also has an extensive number of wines representing the finest of Colorado reds, whites and dessert wines. The quality of their wines was noteworthy as was their down to earth style, clear expertise and passion for their vocation. Plum Creek wine AND the exceptional, all ‘from scratch’ Italian food from Il Bistro Italiano (a completely exciting and unexpected dining find) were the perfect notes to end our full day of immersion in the Grand Valley wine region.
Photo courtesy of: Whitewater Hill
This spectacularly beautiful area is chock full of award winning Colorado grown-and-produced wines. The wineries offer varied wine styles and grape varietals providing variety and an opportunity to learn more through tastings. The feeling of the region begs for a lazy meander, on winding back roads lined with orchards and vineyards, under the splendor of the Grand Mesa. With the density and proximity of the wineries this area is rife with a ‘mix and match’ opportunity to tailor your own vacation getaway to fully meet your interests. There is no doubt in my mind; any combination will be blissfully unforgettable.
For more information on the Grand Valley Wine Country, maps, events, lodging and more, click here.
*This week is Colorado’s Urban Winefest featuring events and tastings with Colorado’s urban wineries. The culminating event will be held Saturday June 9 at Denver’s Sculpture Park (at the Denver Center for Performing Arts). It’s a great opportunity to get to know even more great Colorado wineries all in one place. For more details and ticket information, click here.