October 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

Is Colorado the New Washington?

by Paul Franson

  • Colorado has 65 wineries and its wine industry is growing very fast-- but from a small base. It has 750 acres of winegrape vineyards.
  • Colorado's growing conditions are similar to those in Washington.
  • Quality is compromised by the shortage of trained growers and winemakers. Most winemakers are self-trained amateurs who've gone commercial.
With the explosive growth of winemaking all over North America, it's interesting to speculate on which state will be next to emerge as a major producer.

Visit Colorado's vineyards and wineries, and you're immediately struck by the state's similarity to Washington, clearly the second big commercial success after California. The parallels are many:

  • Both states' vineyards receive high levels of solar radiation, Washington because of its northern latitude and extended daylight, Colorado because of its high altitude.
  • The prime grapegrowing areas of both states are desert regions totally dependent on irrigation.
  • Both states have limited water available, and grapes are the least thirsty of all agricultural crops.
  • In both states, the major population center is a few hundred miles from the prime grapegrowing areas. The climate for grapevines is unfavorable near Seattle because it's too wet and cool, and near Denver, because of severe winter temperatures.
  • In both states, the vineyard areas are only starting to develop their tourism potential.
  • The Grand Valley of Colorado and the Yakima Valley of Washington are uncannily similar--productive valleys transected by flowing rivers and surrounded by steep mountains.
  • In both states, governments strongly encourage grapegrowing and winemaking as engines of economic development.
  • Both states can grow a wide variety of grapes in different conditions, from delicate Riesling and Gewürztraminer to hearty Syrah and Cabernet.

With that, however, the comparisons end.

Washington has far more vineyards planted--30,000 acres vs. Colorado's 750.

Eastern Washington gets its meager rain in the winter, while Colorado receives it year-round.

Washington has major wine companies producing large volumes of excellent wine, notably Ste. Michelle Estates, which encourages and supports its smaller competitors. The largest wineries in Colorado make less than 20,000 cases, and little is inexpensive or exceptional.

Washington has aggressive wine education programs and many trained winemakers and viticulturists, while only a few of Colorado's 65 wineries even have university-educated or experienced winemakers. There's no enology school, though a small research center is performing valuable work, and the state has a respected viticulturist and recently hired a consulting winemaker. Washington has a large number of boutique producers making renowned wines that sell for high prices, which have spread the state's fame throughout the country. Colorado's winemakers are mostly former hobbyists, with some professional farmers who depend primarily on tourists and other visitors for sales. Few export their wines to other states, and even the state's restaurants and wine stores rarely feature Colorado wines.

A Recent Revival

Winemaking began on Colorado's Western Slope more than a century ago, in 1883 in Grand Valley. Colorado was one of the first states to embrace Prohibition, however, and the early vineyards were uprooted and replaced with orchards.

In the last few decades, winegrapes have been re-established in the state's fertile valleys and mesas. In 1968, Gerald Ivancie opened Ivancie Winery, the first modern Colorado winery. He also developed experimental plantings of premium winegrapes in and around Grand Valley. Other growers and wineries followed him.

The Colorado Wine Development Industry Board, an agency of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, has been tracking grapegrowing only for the past 13 years. The numbers for the 2004/2005 fiscal year indicate a 16.5% growth by volume, making for 750% growth in Colorado wines since 1991.

The valleys of Colorado's Rocky Mountains enjoy warm days, cool nights and low humidity, perfect conditions for growing winegrapes. The signature of the state's vineyards, of course, is their altitude. Even higher than Mendoza in Argentina, the world's largest high-altitude appellation, Colorado's vines grow above 4,400 ft. The state's viticultural landscape is varied, however, from the hot valley floor where Syrah and Viognier thrive along the Colorado River near Palisade at 4,400 ft., to the nation's highest elevation vineyard at 6,400 feet in Paonia, which grows Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir.

Vineyards in Colorado are mostly nestled in the temperate, high elevation river valleys and mesas of Mesa and Delta counties, with some acreage in Montezuma County in the southwest. They face hot days followed by cool nights, with typical wide diurnal temperature variations.

The long warm daylight hours of intense high-altitude sunlight mature the fruit and build natural sugars, while the cool evenings allow the grapes to retain their acids. However, the high altitude can also present a challenge to grapegrowers, in that the average frost-free growing season is only 150 to 182 days.

A 2004 study by CSU Cooperative Extension estimates that there are 750-850 acres in winegrape production among 120 to 130 growers, almost evenly split between contract growers and wineries. In 2004, the three primary varieties grown in Colorado were Merlot (21% of the acreage), Cabernet Sauvignon (18%) and Chardonnay (16%).

Most of the vineyards are in five distinct wine regions, two American Viticultural Areas: the Grand Valley AVA, along the Colorado River between Palisade and Grand Junction, and the high West Elks AVA along the North Fork of the Gunnison River between Paonia and Hotchkiss.

The majority of the grapes are grown in the west; the Front Range east of the Rockies suffers extreme cold snaps to -30°F, which can kill even hearty vines.

Other vineyards are in the southwestern Four Corners region, around Cañon City in the central south and Loveland north along the Front Range.

The typical active Colorado vineyard has 6.2 acres, with an average yield of 2.5 tons of grapes per acre. The average price received for a ton of grapes was around $1,300, with an estimated total crop value of $1.6 million.
Canyony Wind Cellars
Canyon Wind Cellars, in the scenic Grand Valley, is one of the few Colorado wineries with a professional winemaker: Napa Valley's Robert Pepi has made wines there since 1996.

Colorado now has about 65 wineries, 10 added in the last year. Many of them lie close to or in population centers such as Boulder, a university town and center for the counterculture, open to new ideas. These wineries primarily buy grapes from the Grand Valley and transport them to the wineries for winemaking. A few have vines on the Front Range, but can't depend on them for fruit because of the weather.

Following the California Model

Among the wineries in the state, Canyon Wind in the Grand Valley is among the most "California-like." Located on 33 acres on a bench next to the Colorado River, it lies in a favored location where constant breezes both cool and protect the vines. The vineyard was planted by geologist Norm Christianson in 1991, with the winery completed in 1996. It has a cut-and-cover cellar used for aging wines in barrel.

Winemaker Bob Pepi from Napa Valley has made wines for Canyon Wind since the beginning, and makes six reds and three whites totaling 4,000 cases, though the vines could support twice that.

The soil contains substantial cobbles and is well drained. The vines are planted 5 feet by 9 feet and 5 feet by 7 feet, all vertical shoot positioned. The winery does a lot of thinning; the reds could produce 6 tons, the whites 10, but Christianson limits them to 2.5 and 3.

He says they have few problems with disease, just a little powdery mildew that they can control easily. There are a few leafhoppers and mealybugs, but no sharpshooters because it's so dry. Bears, however, are a challenge. Christianson has spent $10,000 on bear fencing, after the year bears ate 4 tons of ripe grapes designated for a Port-style wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon has been the winery specialty, but new Syrah shows great promise and Christianson thinks his Tempranillo will do well. The Pinot Grigio is also a very nice wine.

Two other wineries with professional winemakers are nearby Garfield Estates in Palisade and Sutcliffe Vineyards near Mesa Verde Park in the southwest. Both, like Canyon Wind, produce wines that show what can be accomplished with the proper training, experience or counsel.

Turning Professional

Some other good wines are being made by farmers branching out into grapes, and some amateurs-turned-professionals have learned well. One example is Guy Drew, who produces a variety of credible wines in desolate McElmo Canyon near Mesa Verde, carefully preserving Anasazi Native American sites while studying them to learn where the ancient people found favorable conditions to grow crops. With vastly differing conditions in the small valley, he finds frost management key. He says, "I believe this valley is capable of producing world-class wines. I imagine a trained winemaker could do much better than me, however," he admits.

Another self-trained winemaker who is producing good wines is John Garlich, who grows grapes and makes wines with Ulla Merz. They planted grapes on 33 acres at BookCliff Vineyards in Grand Valley starting in 1995, and sell grapes transported the 250 miles to the Front Range, including their own facility in Boulder. Like other growers in the area, they use furrow irrigation from silt-laden rivers, but have applied modern deficit management to enhance quality. Because of the extensive sunlight, they don't pull leaves on most varieties, in order to protect the grapes.

The vines, like most in the state, are self-rooted, which can be a big advantage if the trunks freeze. Some growers maintain renewal canes just in case. Birds are a common problem, and BookCliff has to net. BookCliff's wines tend to be light-bodied and European in style, though Garlich is going to produce a heavier wine to match current demand. He warns that wines can get very tannic in Colorado, however.

Expert Resources

One of the brightest spots in Colorado viticulture is the Western Colorado Research Center, which is conducting extensive studies on growing grapes in the state. Dr. Horst Caspari, the viticulturist, chastises growers planting late-ripening varieties in the wrong sites, and suggests that they have overplanted Merlot because of its popularity; the state actually had a surplus last year.

Caspari thinks Gamay and Riesling are excellent choices for the state; apparently someone is listening, because the latter was the most planted grape last year. He thinks Bordeaux, Rhône and Spanish varietals best match the climate, and notes that Malbec seems to excel in winter hardiness. He suggests avoiding Sangiovese, Zinfandel and Nebbiolo.

The viticulture expert is pleased with how things are proceeding in the state, but notes that many growers don't have a farming background. The same is true of winemakers. "Many are home winemakers out of control," Caspari says. "It's pretty remarkable what they have done, but imagine what would happen if we had trained viticulturists and enologists like those Ste. Michelle has in Washington."

Fortunately, the state has hired a winemaking consultant, Bill Musgnung, who has experience in the Northwest, and he is available to assist the industry.

According to research by Caspari, in fiscal year 2004/05, Colorado wineries produced approximately 75,000 cases, about 1.5% of all the wine sold in Colorado by volume. If the average retail value reported by Colorado wineries, $12.86 per bottle, is assumed (Colorado wine tends to be higher priced than the U.S. average of $6.14 per 750ml.), the retail value of Colorado wine was around $11.8 million or a little over 3% of total market share by value.

Local wineries sell at farmers markets, and can be open on Sunday when liquor stores that sell wine are closed. For most Colorado wineries, tourism is key. Based on surveys of wineries, more than 150,000 people visited the state's wineries or attended a wine-related event in 2005. Mesa County (Grand Valley) wineries attracted a large share of the total, representing 58% of visitors, even though they are in a less populated area than wineries on the Front Range. A new wine train that takes visitors from Denver to the wineries in Grand Junction for an overnight stay is another indication of this interest.

Though it started in the 19th century, Colorado's wine business is in its infancy. A number of wineries are making excellent wines, particularly those with trained winemakers and a few talented, self-trained amateurs, but many are also producing garage wines in the worst sense. In many cases, attempts to make hearty wines from under-ripe grapes led instead to tannic and oak-laden products. Lack of experience--or only tasting their own products--results in wines like a Gewürztraminer with 16% alcohol and three years spent in American oak, or Chardonnays where nothing can be tasted but oak and oxidation.

As is true in many other emerging regions, the wineries that produce excellent wines demonstrate what can be done. With more experience--and more training--Colorado is likely to develop a thriving wine business. Along with creating more credible wines--and greater amounts of them--the state also needs to convince its own residents to embrace the local product. That's the best way for the Colorado wine business to succeed, even if water limitations may keep it from ever becoming another Washington.

There's an extensive guide to growing grapes in Colorado, The Colorado Grape Growers' Guide, available for free downloading at coloradowine.com/grape_growing.html. It would be useful in many other locations as well.
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