Neil and Diane Guard start winery adventure with their East Orhcard Mesa farm
Between fostering 3,000 peach trees and cultivating and selling nine varieties of grapes, Diane and Neil Guard of Avant Farm on East Orchard Mesa have their lives well-immersed in the agricultural world of the Grand Valley.
Add to that mix Diane’s “real” job as an emergency department physician at St. Mary’s Hospital, and you might wonder why this couple is embarking on yet another time-demanding adventure.
The Guards, known in the state’s wine industry for the high quality of grapes they provide to wineries across the state, are opening their own winery.
From fewer than 10 wineries 20 years ago, the Colorado wine industry has grown to more than 100 licensed wineries stretching from the Four Corners to the Front Range.
If you wonder why the Guards would dare join that flourishing crop of wineries, well, Neil sometimes wonders the same thing.
Temperature-wise, “We’re sort of on the edge of where you can grow grapes, anyway,” Neil said, “and the last four years have been one hammering after another.
“In the bad years you ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ That’s what farming is, only who knew it would be minus 12?”
The record cold temperatures that swept through the Grand Valley in December might have cost many grape growers their 2010 crop, according to the Colorado State University Research Station on Orchard Mesa.
The true test will be this spring, when growers and winemakers find out which vines survived.
“It’s not going to be a typical spring,” Diane said, a bit ruefully. “Normally we leave two buds (each bud becomes a shoot that grows to a cane that bears the fruit) but this year (other growers) are talking about leaving up to 10, just because we don’t know what survived.”
Pruning also might be delayed. Instead of starting in March, growers may wait to see what warm weather brings.
Diane and Neil moved to the Grand Valley 14 years ago after Diane finished her medical school residency in Denver and got a job in the Emergency Services Department at St. Mary’s.
Neil, who had worked as an embryologist in Boulder, found such positions were scarce on the Western Slope.
While deciding his future, he spent days with longtime friend Tom Cameron, watching Cameron prune his orchard of plums, cherries and peaches.
“You have to be careful when you prune and he wouldn’t let me touch his trees until he felt comfortable I understood his pattern,” Neil said.
Intrigued and still a bit green about the opportunities afforded by raising fruit, the Guards sold their house in Boulder and bought land on East Orchard Mesa.
Neil planted 3,000 peach trees on six acres of the property, named it Avant Farm, and soon realized farming is a lot of work.
Fortunately, longtime fruit grower Bruce Talbott owns property neighboring Avant Farm. Neil credits Talbott with giving a lot of timely advice. Cameron, Bryan Nolan, the CSU Research Center and others have been very supportive, he said.
At the start it’s all money out, very little in, something many hopeful fruit and grape growers learn the hard way. But the Guards had the temerity to stick it out.
“You realize there are difficulties before you start,” Neil said, now able to laugh at the memory. “But when you look at it from the outside, it’s like you live in the country and drive through your orchards and the peaches will drop into the back of the truck.
“You think people are going to throw money at you for your peaches. We soon found out it’s not that way, but by then we were too far into this to back out.”
Diane’s position at St. Mary’s, one of the most stressful in the medical field, affords them some economic security while the farm continues to pay its way.
“Without Diane’s contribution, this wouldn’t be happening,” Neil said forthrightly. “There’s no extra income. It gets better each year, except for those years you don’t get a crop.”
Neil and Diane enjoy wine and have grown wine grapes commercially for several years, supplying fruit to many wineries, including Balestreri Vineyards in Denver, which has garnered several awards for wine featuring Avant Farm grapes.
The honor of those awards is due the winemaker, of course, but every winemaker will tell you it’s all in the quality of the fruit.
Also, like many grape growers, the Guards have made private batches of wine and given it as presents or served it to guests.
“People kept asking us, ‘When are you going to start selling your wine?’” Diane said. “But we couldn’t do that without a winery license.”
However, it was another way for the farm to add some income. Instead of selling all those lovely grapes, start a winery.
It’s called being “vertically integrated,” a phrase used by both Guards.
As an added plus, Diane finds winemaking a stress reliever, something with which not all winemakers might agree. But then, they aren’t working 10- to 12-hour shifts in the city’s busiest emergency room.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s nice to have new challenges,” Diane said. “Medical school certainly was a challenge, and last year (the freeze) certainly was a challenge.”
The Guards claim to grow nine varieties of grapes on nine acres of vines, but after Neil lists the varietals, there’s a few more than nine.
The list includes some familiar names, such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, riesling, sauvignon blanc and sangiovese.
But there are also some exotic varietals, including viognier, malbec, tempranillo, rousanne, white vernaccia and petit verdot.
There isn’t a whole lot of any of them, though.
Buyers might be found for small quantities of one or two grapes, which purchasers use to augment grapes from their own vines or from other growers.
But it’s too expensive to bottle small, single batches of fruit, so the Guards find themselves looking at blends of grapes.
Happily, Diane and Neil enjoy the flavor profile obtained by mixing different grapes.
“That’s the whole point,” Neil said. “We want blends. It’s hard to grow perfect grapes every year, which means there are going to be gaps in the flavor profile. One reason why (winemakers) blend.”
During a recent wine-research trip to Argentina, the Guards enjoyed several intriguing blends featuring malbec, which has become that country’s de facto national grape.
“I really like the idea of blending,” said Diane, who fills the role of winemaker.
She credits input and advice from local winemakers including Jenne Baldwin-Eaton, Parker Carlson and Steve and Naomi Smith and C.A.V.E., the local winemakers and growers’ association.
“I’m more of the European style of winemaker, looking to come up with something unique,” Diane said.
She recounted a visit to one Argentine winery that featured a tasting of three malbecs, all from different elevations.
Each had its own personality, she said.
“They also let you make your own blend from the malbecs and that was really fun,” she said. “You truly could make different wines, it was all terroir.”
Neil looks at blends as a way to develop a well-rounded wine, something in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
“Would you rather have a single-varietal wine or have a better wine?” he asked. “I’d rather have a better wine, but then again, what’s ‘better?’ It’s all subjective.”
The Guards don’t filter their wines, but that isn’t because they are purists, Neil claimed.
“It’s unfiltered because we can’t afford a filter yet,” he said with another laugh. “But in the old days nobody filtered because they didn’t have filters, either. There are many factors in how you decide to make your wines.”
The Guards’ journey into winemaking has included trips to winemaking regions in Spain, where tempranillo flourishes and the countryside looks a lot like the Grand Valley.
“If you put an old castle on top of Mount Garfield, it would look just like the Duero Valley” of Spain, Neil said.
The Guards also have visited wineries in California, Washington, Oregon, Italy and Chile, to name a few, and each time they return home with more ideas and more dreams.
Now well-established on East Orchard Mesa, the Guards say they’ve found more than a home, they’ve found a community.
“There is that real sense of community around here, which is one reason it’s so nice to live here,” Neil said.
It’s all one boat, so to speak. The reputation of Palisade peaches or Colorado wine depends on every producer offering the best product possible, said the soon-to-be winemakers.
“We’re all competitors, but we also want everybody to be really good at what they do,” Neil said. “It’s all interconnected.”