Tasters barrel into spring at first part of limited event

A decidedly chilly spring weekend welcomed the first installment of the Grand Valley Winery Association’s two-part 2014 Barrel into Spring wine tasting.

The second weekend, which already is sold out with a waiting list for possible openings, is set for May 17–18.

More than 275 wine enthusiasts were out Saturday in spite of the occasional rain and unseasonably chilly wind in the east part of the valley, and I know that only thanks to Steve Smith of Grande River Vineyards, who bothered to count.

“I like to say we get between 250 and 275 people on the first day,” said Smith late Saturday afternoon. “I just looked at the numbers and we’ve had 281 today.”

It probably was closer to 290 by the time the winery finally closed its doors on the last few stragglers at 5 p.m.

Tickets are limited to 400 each weekend and, as usual most of the rounds were made Saturday, evident from the number of limousines parked outside some of the wineries.

“We were pretty swamped (Saturday morning) but today it’s still pretty quiet,” said Sue Phillips, owner of Plum Creek Cellars, in the first hour or so of Sunday’s open house. “But Sunday always starts slow.”

This popular wine event, a way for wine enthusiasts to taste and compare young, still-in-the-barrel (or tank) wines as well as the same wines a year or two after release, is developing a foodie side to match the range of wines each winemaker decides to highlight.

Each year, there’s a sense the wineries are taking their food pairings a bit more seriously and this weekend was particularly good.

Chef Jill Peters (daughter of Naomi and Steve Smith at Grande River and a graduate of the well-known culinary school at Western Colorado Community College) has been preparing food pairings for Grande River for 11 years and this year she went with a Thai-inspired menu.

Starting with a watermelon-miso soup with a green curry crème fraiche to pair with the winery’s 2011 Viognier, she moved to a smoked duck breast Banh Mi sandwich with a caramelized mayo aoli for the 2011 Malbec.

Finally, there was a lemongrass galangal (a type of Thai ginger) soup with a red bean-rhubarb gelée for the 2009 late-harvest Viognier.

Over at Plum Creek, Phillips takes advantage of the winery’s professional kitchen to do the cooking.

“I just grabbed a recipe out of the Julia Child cookbook,” she said with laugh. “Then, I made ‘Whatever Sue likes.’”

Apparently, Phillips likes things such as sun-dried tomato tapenade on ciabatta wedge (paired with Plum Creek’s 2011 Merlot); pistachio paté on a potato wafer (2012 Chardonnay); and duck a l’orange on a buttermilk polenta pancake (2011 Cabernet Franc).

By the time I waddled over to Carlson Vineyards for the beet-stuffed ravioli with a gorgonzola and ricotta walnut sauce and grilled, marinated Colorado lamb by Brunella Gualerzi of Il Bistro Italiano, there wasn’t much time, or room, left.

“We come back here every year, just for the lamb,” said one of the guests, heading off to the tasting table with a plate in one hand and wine glass in the other.

Gaulerzi, who’s had her restaurant in downtown Grand Junction for 16 years, just smiled and pulled her coat collar a little higher to ward off the wind.

“What are the other wineries doing?” she asked as she eyed the lamb on the grill. “I never get to the other wineries because I’m here all the time.”

I couldn’t answer. My mouth was full.

The other wineries belonging to the Grand Valley Winery Association are Canyon Wind Cellars, DeBeque Canyon Winery, Garfield Estates Winery, Graystone Winery and Two Rivers Winery and Chateau.

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