Shadows from the Starlight: Visiting Colorado Wine Country
As I get older – I’ll be 52 years old in a couple of days – I really enjoy challenging my ingrained consumerist tendencies by getting out of my comfort zone, pushing myself to try new things. It’s hard to suspend preconceived notions about what one is supposed to like, but doing so sure makes life fun and, at least for me, more exciting.
I started working in the California wine industry when I was 21 years old, and from that point onward I worked solely in that industry. A couple of years ago, I made the switch to writing about wine. When your formative years have been spent working in the California wine industry, you can become quite myopic. There exists a tendency to believe that the only American wines that matter are those made in California. Sure, we may occasionally give a passing nod to Oregon and Washington – maybe the Finger Lakes region of New York – but we Californians can be pretty arrogant about our wines. Outside of the United States, we tend to look mainly to Europe for inspiration. We worship the work done by Burgundian monks hundreds of years ago and chase expensive Burgundies, photographing them for the benefit of our social media followers, oftentimes without pausing to remember that those monks were nothing more than humble risk-takers wanting simply to create something pleasurable to drink. They were pioneers.
The same can be said for the winemakers living and working in Colorado. Talk about risk-takers! They fight severe frosts more than we ever do here in California. They struggle to grow established grape varieties at high elevations. Many of them lay it all on the line to grow lesser-known cultivars, because that’s what Mother Nature is telling them grows best in their particular patch of land. Consider for a moment the humility and strength those kinds of business decisions require. These are just some of the reasons I’m so glad I pushed myself to explore the wines of Colorado.
It can be intimidating to explore a new winegrowing region, so I’ve put together a little itinerary that I hope you’ll find helpful in exploring Colorado wine country. I can’t underscore enough how worthwhile this adventure will be for you if you love good wine, good food, nature and hard-working, creative people.
The relatively new A Line commuter train that runs between the Denver International Airport and downtown Denver makes it easy for visitors to roll into Denver with very little stress involved. The A Line train is clean, easy to access and provides terrific views of the countryside as you head into Denver.
The train stops at Union Station in downtown Denver, where you’ll find an eclectic mix of wine bars, lounges, cafes, restaurants and shops. It’s a terrific way to enter the City – well-lighted, welcoming and centrally located.
My wife and I spent our first day in Denver just getting our sea legs. Neither one of us had been there before. After checking into our hotel and unwinding for a bit, I hopped into a taxi and visited a local pot dispensary to check out the local product. The staff was pleasant, clear-eyed and helpful regarding dosing and strains.
About an hour’s drive outside of Denver, in the rustic country town of Evergreen, we visited our first Colorado-based winery: Creekside Cellars. They source most of their fruit from Colorado’s Grand Valley appellation, which straddles the Colorado River east of the Utah border. The two growing regions of note within the larger Grand Valley AVA are Grand Junction and Palisade.
It was a kick and a joy to try the Creekside Cellars 2012 Cabernet Franc, which was aged 24 months in Appalachian Oak barrels. It’s exciting to try a familiar variety as it expresses itself in an unfamiliar terroir. After tasting this lovely, rustic expression, I felt I knew Cabernet Franc a little more intimately. It reveals itself differently at Colorado’s higher elevations, and the texture, especially, was compelling. Winemaker Michelle Cleveland is turning out some really solidly-made wines that merit attention. Like other Colorado wineries we visited, they’re more than happy to ship their wines directly to consumers in reciprocal states. It’s worth seeking them out.
The food scene can be sophisticated and progressive in Denver, most notably at Beatrice and Woodsley. I lifted this passage from their website because I thought it was so fetching, and it describes this special establishment so well:
“Beatrice & Woodsley is the culmination of a passion for social expression. Love and beauty form from many ghosts and creations. Both life and objects emit colors and heat. Inspired by these notions and the restorative qualities of food, drink, and setting, a poem by D.H. Lawrence was the initial inspiration of the restaurant…
“Things men have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing for long years.
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them.”
The atmosphere of this restaurant is adventurous, whimsical and deeply restorative all at once. The dining areas are all very softly-lit, and wooden walls and ceilings make one feel as if one’s dining in a forest den. The Colorado Striped Bass, rendered in bacon and basil and presented on a bed of lentils, was simple, clean and positively delicious. Perfectly cooked. I should add that this is a particularly romantic spot if you’re looking to reconnect with a loved one in a warm, comfortable setting.
We were excited to get to Grand Junction, which is the gateway to Colorado’s Grand Valley AVA. You can get there by car; it’s about a four-hour drive from Denver, and a gorgeous one at that, breezing through small towns made even smaller as they are set in stark relief beneath Colorado’s breathtaking, seemingly colossal mountains. If you have a little more money in your pocket, you can hop on a chartered flight out of Denver’s Centennial Airport straight into Grand Junction for about $160.
Traveling with kids? If so, you’ll want to stop by Grand Junction’s Dinosaur Journey Museum. This unique museum is located in the “Dinosaur Diamond” – a rich geographical area where much historically significant paleontological exploration has taken place and continues to take place. Kids even get to do some hands-on excavating.
Love to mountain bike? Hike? In Grand Junction, if you’re inclined towards the outdoors, you can tire yourself out during the day by engaging in all manner of outdoor activities. Even if you’re somewhat limited physically, your sense of wonder can be gratified by strolling along Colorado’s National Monument’s walking path, a gentle walk leading to the park’s headquarters. From the rim of the National Monument, you can set your sights upon the 11 canyons within this red-rocked 23,000 acres of natural wonder. Don’t feel like walking? Take the 23-mile drive around the National Monument with the windows rolled down, inhaling the fragrance of high-desert chaparral all the while.
Food lovers will want to visit Grand Junction’s Bin 707 Foodbar, a progressive, contemporary, invigorating menu highlighting fresh, local fare. This restaurant would be a hit in any major cosmopolitan city. Truth be told, it’s one of the better meals I’ve enjoyed in quite a while, including meals I’ve had in California, simply because there was so much effort and thought behind each dish. Balance. That is the word that immediately comes to mind with the food of Bin 707 Foodbar; both visually, on the plate and on the palate nothing seemed frivolous or too precious. It was all delicious, focused and beautiful.
Wine tasting in Grand Junction is truly a pleasure. Perhaps because they haven’t received as much media attention or accolades as have some wineries in California, the winemakers in Colorado seemed a bit more down-to-earth, unassuming and still highly inquisitive. I don’t mean to suggest that winemakers in California don’t possess these qualities – there are many who certainly do – but we just found these laid-back attitudes more prevalent in Colorado wine country.
We really enjoyed wine tasting in the Palisade region, just outside of Grand Junction. One of our favorite stops was Plum Creek Cellars, where winemaker Jenne Baldwin is making some beautifully balanced, energetic wines. We were especially enamored by her Chardonnay – restrained, possessing of great acidity and bright, laser-beam-focused flavors of crisp green apples. I couldn’t get over the fact that her sophisticated interpretation of Chardonnay was just $22. It’s a treat to taste with Baldwin, who knows her way around Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc, too, to mention just a couple of the varieties with which she works.
Carlson Vineyards is another great stop in Palisade. If you can check your wine snobbery at the door, you may very well enjoy their pear wine. Operated by an animated, unfailingly polite young couple, Garrett and Cailin Portra, Carlson Vineyards offers up an unassuming vibe. The tasting room staff make you feel like you’ve just entered a very friendly, welcoming, neighborhood establishment. There’s very little pretense here, and drinking their vibrant, fresh pear wine (made by fermenting pears, not just adding pear flavor to a grape wine) is an experience similar to drinking a very balanced, fresh cider. The Portras served us their pear wine in tumblers out in the tasting room’s backyard. They cut their nearly-dry pear wine with just a splash of soda water and topped it off with a sprig of mint. Sipping on this refreshing drink lead us into a genteel kind of relaxation.
In all, there are about 25 tasting rooms in the Palisade and Grand Junction area. If you don’t feel like driving yourself from one tasting room to another, you can hire a horse-drawn carriage to carry you along their scenic wine country trail. JR’s Carriage Service provides carriage tours of historic downtown Grand Junction, too.
Before heading out of the Palisade/Grand Junction area, check out Reeder Mesa Cellars, where father-and-son winemaking team Doug and Hank Vogel make beautiful, age-worthy Rieslings. They were also so earnest and warm that it was hard to leave behind their quirky, yet deeply kind, sort of hospitality.
From an enological perspective, though, my mind was positively blown when we started to explore the wines of the West Elks AVA. It’s about a two-hour drive from Palisade – a breathtaking, vast journey, dotted along the way with unrelentingly, contiguous stands of Aspen trees. Colorado’s highest-elevation vineyards are in the West Elks AVA, which is surrounded by the townships of Paonia and Hotchkiss, along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.
I love Riesling, and the Riesling at Jack Rabbit Hill Farm, located just outside of Hotchkiss proper, was a revelation. The vineyards at Jack Rabbit Hill Farm are biodynamically farmed by husband-and-wife team Lance and Anna Hanson, who are also the winemakers and owners of this special estate. The 2009 Riesling we tasted took six years to ferment dry. It offered up just the right amount of petrol aromatics, and the acidity on this wine was exhilarating. How they were able to suggest a sublime level of viscosity while still achieving such great balance in the acids of this wine, is…well…beyond me. For $50 a bottle, if you can track one down, you may find it to be – as I did – one of the finest American Rieslings I’ve ever tasted. I also couldn’t get enough of their CapRock spirits, all organically distilled with the help of that pure, mountain-top snowy water. Make no mistake: despite their dilapidated winery sign and hard-to-find remote country location, this is a top-notch estate that merits much serious attention. The owners are serious, uber-focused and committed to creating wines and spirits that capture the magic of Colorado’s high-elevation terroir.
I’m also obsessed with Pinot Noir, and the best Colorado Pinot Noir I had was made by Alfred Eames Cellars, located at Puesta del Sol Vineyards just about three miles south of Paonia. Made by Devin Eames Peterson, the 36-year-old son of winery namesake Alfred Eames Peterson, this estate Pinot Noir literally grows in the shadow of snow-capped mountains at about 6,000 feet elevation. Once again, the run-off water coming down from these mountains is so pure and invigorating that the wines, as a result, are equally lively and fresh. I would put Devin’s wines side-by-side in a blind tasting with the best Pinot Noir that the Sta. Rita Hills or Sonoma Coast of California have to offer – or the Santa Cruz Mountains, or the Willamette Valley (or insert other viticultural region of merit here). Their underground wine cellar is particularly charming and intimate. This feels like the place that time forgot. Our visit to Alfred Eames Cellars was a particularly soulful one; Devin’s mom, Pam, occasionally offers up lunch to visitors and their home is just feet from their cellar, leaving one with the impression of having just visited an old-timey family-run farm that just happens to produce stellar Pinot Noir.
A visit to the West Elks AVA, however, is not complete until one makes the time to visit Stone Cottage Cellars, the most visually lovely winery we visited in Colorado. Their 30-year-old Gewürztraminer vines are planted at about 6,400 feet elevation. My wife and I just couldn’t get enough of this brisk, balanced, charming white wine. Immensely quaffable yet sophisticated with regard to aromatics and flavor profile, this wine was a real winner, as was their Chardonnay. The winery itself is housed in a small, stone…well…cottage, just as the name suggests. The tasting room, a few feet away from the cellar, is warm, inviting and very well run by an unpretentious staff. As was the case at several of the wineries we visited, the wines here are affordable. Their beautiful Gewürztraminer, for example, is $22 and worth every penny. It’s great with food or by itself, and is a fine example of Colorado’s meritorious wine offerings and wine culture.
Upon returning to Denver, and before you depart for home, try setting aside a day to visit the Denver Art Museum. Current exhibitions include Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume, and their permanent collections are strong and compelling, especially those in the Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery. There are also numerous breweries and beer pubs in the area, serving up some of Colorado’s best craft beers by breweries like Ratio Beerworks, Odell Brewing Co., Left Hand Brewing Co. and Avery Brewing Co., to name just a few.
*All photos by Jodene Garrison.
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