Wine Harvest in Colorado

Originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of Spoke+Blossom

PHOTO COURTESY NATHAN BILLOW

PHOTO COURTESY NATHAN BILLOW

Colorado wine is tasting better than ever, and it’s not because the mountains are getting more hospitable to grapes. In fact, growing seasons have been cut shorter due to the state’s vastly unpredictable weather (cue heat spikes, hail, frost, heavy rainfall or drought). Especially as a newer player in the nation’s wine industry, many Colorado wineries can’t afford the advanced technology you often see in Napa Valley. But this has not proven to be a limiting factor in Colorado — it’s this difficulty that has inspired innovation and creativity amongst the existing 160 wineries in the state, making their wine intentional, meaningful and uniquely delicious.

“Colorado is finding its voice and people are listening to it,” says Jayme Henderson, co-owner of The Storm Cellar, located in the West Elks AVA (American Viticultural Area).

The Colorado Association for Viticulture & Enology (CAVE), the only nonprofit in the state that exists to support the education and advancement of Colorado grape growers and wineries, says the Colorado wine industry boats $300 million and counting. Every year during the third week of September, CAVE produces the Colorado Mountain Winefest in Palisade. In 2017, USA Today named it the “Best Wine Festival” in the country.

Some argue Colorado is actually at an advantage — Colorado radiates sunshine over 300 days a year, prime for Bordeaux- and Rhone- style grapes, and the soil is watered by nutritious mountain runoff. Scott High of Colterris Winery, located in the Grand Valley AVA, says the intense sunlight contributes to the concentrated sugars and rich, complex flavors that allow optimal fruit harvests and wine production. Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Colorado’s Grand Valley AVA one of the Top 10 Wine Getaways of 2018.

PHOTO COURTESY NATHAN BILLOW

PHOTO COURTESY NATHAN BILLOW

Cold alpine air infiltrates through Colorado canyons while snowmelt drains down the Colorado River; that same air heats up throughout the summer days with the high UV radiation; at night, it cycles eastward back up to the crisp mountains. This cycle is the key to create conditions that produce distinctly Colorado wine.

This shift in temperature, says Steve Steese, husband to Jayme and co-owner of The Storm Cellar, is known as the diurnal shift, the difference between the coldest and the hottest part of the day. In Colorado, the difference is high. The cold temperatures help preserve the acidity and prevent grapes from ripening too fast, if worked with the right grapes for the land. Colorado wine can be described in many ways, but jammy, or too sweet, is not one of them.

Colorado vineyards vary from the West Elks to the Grand Valley to the Front Range, and each land is capable of producing different wine varieties. Finding the right grapes that can ripen in the correct growing season and can deal with the cold is essential, according to Henderson. Due to Colorado’s high elevation, wine profiles often end up quite acidic, which typically translates better to whites than reds (but, more acidic reds like Pinot Noir have potential to thrive, too).

It’s about being in touch with each producer’s vineyard, and not comparing it to others. The Storm Cellar specializes in cold, hearty white varieties and rosé. On their vineyard, Pinot Gris is not produced as a white wine, but a rosé. The high UV radiation gives the grapes a darker red skin, and according to Steese, it’s gorgeous. Colorado wineries must celebrate their own uniqueness, celebrate that each harvest will be different, like it is almost everywhere else, too.

Nathan Littlejohn, owner of Monkshood Cellars in Minturn, says the risks that Colorado poses with its growing season are no more of an unsurmountable obstacle than what other wine regions face. It’s Colorado’s shorter wine history, he says, that is more of a hurdle.

While Colorado is starting to raise its voice, there is still room to discover more of its identity, adds Littlejohn, by honing in on exactly why wineries are using specific grapes for certain wine styles.

There’s a lot to celebrate in Colorado, like the lush fruit and unique soil complex. Many Colorado wineries celebrate their own uniqueness by insightfully and efficiently producing wine and grapes. Yet, others are still copying other regions’ style of winemaking, stripping the industry of its consistency and continuity.

All this is why CAVE uses funds from the Colorado Mountain Winefest to help produce VinCO. Founded in 2011, VinCO is a grape-growing and winemaking conference that hosts educational seminars on topics pertinent to the wine region. Accredited speakers lecture to advanced and beginner growers alike. Wine tastings are also a major component — samples from other wine regions in the nation are compared to Colorado’s, giving them a benchmark on where they stand in relation and to also stay updated with what others are producing.

In this year’s conference, VinCO brought together wine and grape growers to mingle and connect in a “speed dating/networking” session, where they were given the space to discuss what type of grapes they want to see grown and how to control the quality and content. Discussions like these cultivate the intention behind Colorado grapes and wines that advance the industry year after year. The session is scheduled to make a reappearance in 2020.

Because the ticket price is a fraction of the cost of similar conferences in the country, wine and grape makers from over 10 states emerged to Grand Junction for this yearly conference last January, adding more insight and knowledge to the experience.

“In Colorado, we have wineries all throughout the state, making it easy to buy local product and support local growers,” says Cassidee Shull, executive director of CAVE. “It’s easy to feel good about Colorado wine.”

Lexi ReichDrink