Bennett Price: Colorado’s wine industry was planted in 1974
Portrait 2011 — Volume 1: Leaving a legacy
In 1974 Richard Nixon was about to become the first U.S. president to resign, gasoline cost 42 cents a gallon and Gloria Gaynor topped the disco charts with her hit “I Will Survive.”
That summer, too, Bennett Price, along with his friend Jim Seewald and several local farmers, began planting wine grapes around the Grand Valley and near Cañon City.
Those vineyards were the first of what would become countless thousands of grape vines Price shared in stringing across Colorado.
Today the state’s wine industry has grown to some 100 licensed wineries strung up and down the Front Range, across the Continental Divide to the Colorado and Gunnison river valleys and edging into the Four Corners region.
Bennett Price, directly or indirectly, has had a hand in nearly all of them.
Thirty-six years ago there weren’t any Colorado wines made with Colorado grapes because no one was producing wine-making grapes in commercial quantities.
The necessary grape production and first of innumerable wines carrying “Colorado” on the label wouldn’t appear for another seven years or so.
But grapes or no, Bennett and his wife, Davy, shared a vision, one they continue to foster nearly four decades and at least that many vintages later.
Denver dentist Gerald Ivancie in 1968 established Ivancie Winery, recognized as the first post-Prohibition commercial winery in Colorado, using California-grown grapes to produce around 8,000 bottles a year.
Ivancie sold his winery in 1972 and it closed in 1975 but by then a handful of other Coloradans had the winemaking bug.
Today, Bennett and Davy, both 75 and owners and operators of DeBeque Canyon Winery in Palisade, are much-respected pioneers of Colorado’s fast-growing wine industry.
It all really started 61 years ago, said Bennett, when he made his first wine at the age of 14 while was growing up on a farm near Eureka Springs, Ark., now a popular year-round resort destination.
He wasn’t old enough to legally drink the wine, but that didn’t stop the inquisitive farm boy.
“I just wanted to try it, I guess,” he said with a shrug. “My dad wasn’t a wine drinker, I think he was more like white lightning drinker, and that one wine was the only one I made for years.”
He met Texas-native Daveline (shortened to Davy because it’s Texas, Bennett explained) after moving to Dallas to finish high school and they’ve been together since, except for a “summer job” Bennett took in Venezuela in 1955 that turned into a 2 1/2-year stint.
He grinned while relating that story and cast a shy glance at Davy after admitting he stayed so long because “the rum was good” and the natives “friendly.”
When he returned to Texas, his plans included marrying Davy and attending veterinary school, but the later was dropped because costs were too high.
Instead, he got degree in geology from Texas Tech while Davy got her R.N. degree.
Bennett did some graduate work at Tulsa University and bounced around the oil patch in Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Montana before landing in Denver in 1971.
In those days, Denver was a fast-paced, high-rolling town where oil was king and the state’s wine industry nearly nonexistent.
In the mid-1970s the federal government funded the Four Corners Grape Development Project, an economic stimulus plan testing the viability of wine grapes being produced commercially in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Bennett was right in the middle of the research.
“Colorado got, I think, $15,000 to do research and two men came into the (Grand Valley) to identify microclimates where grapes might grow,” recalled Bennett. “I helped plant a lot of the 3- to 5-acre plots.”
Not all of the grape varieties succeeded but some of those plots Bennett planted nearly 40 years ago still are producing grapes today.
His fast-paced conversations are sprinkled liberally with memories of those early vineyards.
“Let’s see, I think Curtis Talley still has some and Rusty Price, too, if I remember right,” said Bennett. “We tried all kinds of varietals : Riesling, pinot noir, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, Napa gamay. That one didn’t do very well.”
“I planted my first grapes in 1982 after buying Fred Bracken’s vineyard planted in 1974,” Bennett said.
Despite that early, hands-on beginning, it wasn’t until 1996 that Bennett made his first wine in Colorado.
Between 1982 and 1996 he was busy planting other vineyards and consulting for other wineries with is consulting and winery supply company, Lone Cedar LLC.
“He continued consulting for other winemakers until about three years ago,” said Davy. “He was planting gobs of vineyards and I was working at the hospital.”
Shortly after the Four Corners Project, the state wine industry got its start when in 1977 the Colorado Limited Winery Act was passed.
This law required winemakers to use Colorado grapes if they wanted to use “Colorado” on the label.
Soon after the act was passed, Bennett and Davy partnered with Seewald to found Colorado Mountain Vineyards (now owned by Rick and Padte Turley as Colorado Cellars, the state’s oldest continually operating winery).
The original winery was in a small storage building in Golden and the first vintage was 1978.
“Boy, that was a tough time to sell Colorado wines,” Davy remembered. “You’d say ‘Colorado’ and people would give you a blank stare.”
But perseverance is native to these two souls.
The winery moved to the Grand Valley in 1981, the same year Bennett and Davy purchased a piece of land at F and 36 roads.
Fred Bracken had planted that vineyard in 1974 with pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and Napa gamay as part of the Four Corners Project.
The Prices eventually separated from the Seewalds and Colorado Mountain Vineyard in 1984 and two year later that corporation, which filed for bankruptcy.
A glitch in the bankruptcy left the Prices holding the bills.
It took them nearly 20 years to pay off the debtors.
“We never once thought about filing bankruptcy ourselves, although it might have been easier,” said Davy. “But we just don’t do things that way.”
While Davy continued her nursing career, Bennett kept planting grapes around the Western Slope, commuting from his oil business job in Denver to the Grand Valley every weekend until he and Davy moved here in 1986.
“We would have moved here earlier but it took us seven years to sell our home,” she said, recalling the mid-1980s when Denver’s economy collapsed along with the world oil markets.
Steve Smith, founder of Grand River Vineyards, said it was a wine made with Grand Valley grapes that convinced him to build his winery in Palisade.
“I had been interested in wines for a while and had looked around at other parts of the country for a place to make wines,” Smith said. “Watching what Bennett was doing over here got me interested in the Palisade area.”
Smith said he and some friends in 1986 purchased some grapes from Bennett and made a red blend “that was a real stunner.”
“It drove home the point that it’s all in the grapes and I indicated an interest in buying some land to grow grapes,” Smith said.
In 1987, Bennett and Steve Smith planted the first of Smith’s extensive vineyards on a plot of land now called the Riverside vineyard.
On land that previously had been peach, pear and apricot orchards, the two men soon were growing chardonnay, merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon.
Many of those vines still contribute to Grande River’s wines.
“I was already studying grapes and winemaking but Bennett had the practical knowledge and experience and the practical ability that was so beneficial,” Smith said.
But it wasn’t all so easy.
In 1989, just two weeks after Bennett and Davy purchased five acres on Orchard Mesa, the Big Freeze of 1989 hit the valley.
“That was a real stunner,” recalled Davy. “People used to talk about the freeze in 1963 as the worst the valley had but this was even worse.”
Reports say temperatures in the valley plunged to 24 below zero. Trees burst in the cold and grape vines died back to the ground.
“It reminded us why people say the way to make a small fortune in farming is to start with a large one,” said Bennett.
Throughout the years, Davy kept working at St. Mary’s Hospital and Bennett made ends meet in the oil field, all the while helping other winemakers get their start.
Among those was Plum Creek Cellars, which began in Larkspur south of Denver before moving to the Grand Valley in the late 1980s.
While working with the late Doug Phillips and the late Erik Brunner, Plum Creek’s founder and winemaker, respectively, Bennett started experimenting with pinot noir and by late 1989 he had some 46,000 plants growing in a greenhouse near the site of the present Palisade High School.
In 1996 he and Davy took the plunge and along with some investors opened DeBeque Canyon Winery.
As luck would have it, that was a freeze-shortened growing season.
“Maybe we should have taken the hint, but we didn’t,” Davy said with a laugh. “And we’re still here.”
Their role in the state wine industry can’t be overstated, said Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.
“They’ve been part of the original vision for a wine industry in Colorado and (they’ve) lasted as long or longer than anyone else from that original group,” Caskey said.
“Bennett has probably touched or come into contact in some way with at least 50 percent of the vines now producing in the state, and that’s all over the state,” Caskey said. “He’s also directly or indirectly influenced a whole generation of winemakers and the development of their wineries and vineyards.”
Now the Prices again have their entire operation under one roof, ensconced in an immense, century-old warehouse with oak barrels stacked on the cement floor under heavy wooden beams supporting a vaulted ceiling that springs toward the sky.
The Prices moved their entire operation here last fall after closing their tasting room on U.S. Highway 6 east of Palisade.
“I really miss that location but the economy just wasn’t there,” said Davy. “We were there for 10 years and a lot of our customers were very familiar with us there. But I think we’re going to do all right here.”
Bennett continues to be the marketer and chief salesman for DeBeque Canyon Winery, a talent he first displayed years ago.
Caskey recalled: “I remember when I first started in this job Bennett and I were pouring Colorado wines at an event in Denver. And he was just charming the customers with his Southern drawl and his grace and wit. People were drawn to his table and were loving the wines.”
On this particular night in late January it’s a brisk 47 degrees inside the winery, a temperature decidedly more suited to the wine filling the 300-some oak barrels crowding the expansive winery.
Each of the barrels — a mix of French and American oak — has a strange hieroglyph on one end, a shorthand Bennett uses to note what each barrel holds and any adjustments he makes to the wine.
“Now, this one is this year’s chardonnay,” said Bennett, putting a hand on a nearby barrel. He explained that aging chardonnay in oak smooths the wine and adds buttery notes.
“But American tastes are changing,” said Davy, who runs the sales and tasting room. “Not all chardonnay “I call that (unoaked chardonnay) my ‘Cash Flow Chardonnay’ because I can sell it sooner than the barrel wine,” Bennett said.
Still recovering from recent surgery, Bennett hasn’t been moving many barrels lately or crawling into the tanks to clean them.
“I’m feeling pretty good but I better not try to climb into those tanks yet,” he said, beckoning a visitor to peer inside the polished steel tank.
The opening in the side of the 750-gallon tank is oval and a pinch smaller than a sunroof, so getting inside requires a bit of wriggling. It’s one of the unheralded must-do jobs at every winery.
Bennett looked at Davy.
“Maybe ...” he started but Davy was quick to interrupt.
“I don’t clean tanks,” she firmly and laughed. “But that’s about all I don’t do around here.”