Grape expectations ahead of Colorado’s premier winefest

Vineyard worker Roberto Garcia clips ripe tempranillo grapes during a recent harvest on East Orchard Mesa.

With a practiced hand and quick snip of the red-handled pruners, Orlando Herrera deftly separated a dark-purple bunch of tempranillo grapes from the leafy vine.

“Muy gordo, si?” asked Herrera, holding the sun-plumped cluster for inspection before placing it carefully into the plastic bin, where a sizable collection of similar tempranillo bunches already waited.

It’s wine-grape harvest time around the valley and Herrera’s well-practiced moves are being repeated everywhere you find ripe grapes.

And everywhere the grapes are ripe you’ll also find a winemaker or two going full-blast trying to keep up with the crush of crush.

Grapes piling in, crushers going like crazy, grape juice flowing like, well, like wine, and fermentation vats, ranging from giant plastic barrels to stainless steel tanks to concrete tanks you could park a VW in, are starting to fill.

And oh, yes, did I mention it’s time for the 18th annual Colorado Mountain Winefest?

Wine lovers, the wine curious, wanna-be winemakers, and those wise enough to know it’s easiest simply to enjoy the fruits of the labor, are gathering around the valley this weekend to partake of what’s become the state’s premier celebration of wine.

Events start Thursday with golf followed by a wine reception at the Redlands Mesa Golf Club and continue with Friday’s all-day selection of seminars, winemakers dinners and even a fly-fishing expedition.

Saturday, of course, is the day for most celebrants, when after the popular bicycle tour of the vineyards it’s time for the all-time fave, the Festival in the Park. Festivities start at 10:30 a.m. at Palisade’s tree-shaded Riverbend Park.

There will be wine, music, food, more wine, a VIP tent, friends, dancing, grape-stomping, more wine, laughs galore and, let’s see, oh yes, more wine.

With all that ahead of you, it will pay to sample responsibly.

If you have any energy left after that, Sunday offers another seminar or two, the amateur winemaking competition and a do-it-yourself tour of the wineries.

Complete information is at

Whew. Good thing this event happens only once a year.

But while the good times roll at Winefest, there’s much being done behind the scenes to ensure this year’s vintage continues the state’s steady improvement.

The making of wine isn’t always the care-free vision most of us imagine. Starting with that first bud-break in the spring to the draping of cumbersome bird-proof nets over sun-ripened grapes in the fall, a winemaker rarely has a day when those juicy berries aren’t foremost in her or his mind.

“You never forget that responsibility,” said grape grower Neil Guard of Avant Vineyards on East Orchard Mesa. “It’s a decision you make, like having kids. It’s not something to take lightly.”

Neil’s wife Diane spends her real-life job in the emergency room at St. Mary’s Hospital and finds winemaking gives her the break she needs from the ER fast-track.

“I’ll come home after a strenuous shift and take a walk, either down by the river or through the vineyards and it really helps me relax,” she said.

Unfortunately, this particular morning was not as relaxing as some, since it found her with an arm shoulder-deep in a tall bucket of chardonnay grapes, slowly stirring the grapes as they began the fermentation into Diane’s next vintage of Champagne-style sparkling wine.

“It’s a small batch of wine and I found it’s easier to do it by hand,” she said, lifting her arm from the green soup. “But it’s a little sticky.”

Elsewhere in the Guards’ vineyards, Herrera and his co-workers were quickly filling 25-pound bins with grapes. Tempranillo, an early-ripening red grape (“temprano” is Spanish for early), viognier (vee-oh-nyay), chardonnay, and maybe some riesling and malbec, simultaneously were reaching the point to be picked.

“Diane checked the sugar levels this morning and things are awfully close to be ready,” said Neil, and you could see him mentally preparing for harvest. “I hope I’ll have enough people to get it all picked.

“As you can imagine, I’m usually too busy to make it to Winefest.”

A few miles away, at Canyon Wind Cellars, owner Norm Christianson was pondering his almost-ready crop of chardonnay, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc grapes.

The harvest and Winefest are about to converge, and he hopes to have plenty of what’s proven to be a fan-favorite ready for his friends.

“Sauvignon blanc is our most-popular white wine, we sell out of it every year,” said Christianson. “With our sun and ripeness we make our sauvignon blanc more like the French-style sauvignon blanc.”

Many of the 52 wineries at the Festival in the Park sell every drop they bring to Winefest, and the availability of wine storage at the park makes it easy for attendees to buy their favorite wine by the case, which often is less expensive than buying individual bottles.

You can carry that liquid sunshine home, happy in the knowledge that there are people such as vineyard worker Orlando Herrera, winemakers and grape growers Diane and Neil Guard and all the rest of the Colorado wine industry striving to make this weekend an event you’ll remember for the rest of the year.

Dave Buchanan writes a column, “Wine Openers,” for The Daily Sentinel’s food page every other Wednesday.


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