FRUIT OF THE VINE
No matter how you get there — limousine, bicycle, horsedrawn carriage or personal vehicle — visiting any of the nearly 40 wineries in western Colorado is a great way to soak in the scenery and get to know the region’s wine.
Although this region doesn’t have the name recognition of Napa Valley or Tuscany, it does have the optimal soil, desert climate — hot days, cool nights — and ability to control water through irrigation that creates ideal conditions for grape growers with the mettle to handle the threat of freezes and intense sun common at altitude, said Stephen Menke, Colorado State University associate professor of enology and the state enologist at the Western Colorado Research Station in Grand Junction.
Most of the region’s vineyards are at least 3,000 feet above sea level.
“Having warm days and cool nights like we get here tends to make for good flavor and sugar development,” Menke said.
Nearly four decades of trial-and-error and refinement have made western Colorado “the natural epicenter” of the state’s wine industry, wrote Gov. John Hickenlooper in “Drink It In: Wine Guide of Western Colorado,” a 2013 book published by The Daily Sentinel and written by its wine columnist, Dave Buchanan.
From bold reds to sweet whites, and even the occasional fruit wine utilizing the area’s pears, peaches and cherries, wine drinkers with all tastes will enjoy the opportunity to meet winemakers and discover what this region has to offer while touring regional wineries in a relaxed setting.
Two of the best ways to sample western Colorado wine are the annual Colorado Mountain Winefest and a winery tour.
The 2015 Colorado Mountain Winefest will be Sept. 17–20, with its Festival in the Park on Sept. 19 at Palisade’s Riverbend Park. Dozens of wineries from across the state come for this tasting party, which drew 6,000 people last year, said Cassidee Shull, executive director of Colorado Association for Viticulture & Enology (CAVE,) which promotes Colorado grape growers and wineries.
“It’s one of the premiere events in the Grand Valley,” she said. “We bring in people from all over the world to try Colorado wine and stay in our beautiful part of the world. As a nonprofit it’s exciting. We’re able to raise funds to continue to educate and promote research for our industry. From the consumer side, it’s awesome to be able to continue to harness the whole locavore mentality and put a local product on your family’s table.”
Go to winecolorado.org/events/mountain-winefest for Winefest information.
A winery tour, either self-guided or reserved, is another excellent way to become acquainted area wineries.
Visitors can take tours in horse-drawn carriages or limousines and let others do the driving — call the Grand Junction Visitor & Convention Bureau, 970-244-1480, for a list of business that offer these services. And some visitors prefer to ride bikes — tip: take lots of water! — or drive themselves.
Whatever your transportation, a great place to start any wine tour is the Grand Valley, where more than 80 percent of Colorado’s grapes are grown.
This area has nearly two dozen wineries and offers the well-marked Palisade Fruit & Wine Byway. A byway map is available at palisadetourism. com/attractions/item/fruit-wine-trail.
However, visitors who stop their winery tours in the Grand Valley or bypass Colorado Mountain Winefest, miss out on two lesser-known but notable wine regions southeast of Grand Junction: the Uncompahgre Valley, with wineries in the Olathe area, and the North Fork Valley, including the West Elks American Viticultural Area that boasts nearly a dozen wineries.
Maps of those regions are available in “Drink It In,” which can be purchased at gjsentinel.com/store/product/drink_it_in or at the newspaper’s office, 734 S. Seventh St. A map of the West Elks AVA is available at westelksava.com/locations.html.
Don’t miss the tasting rooms at Paonia wineries with their unparalleled views, which drew comparisons to Provence, France, in Thomas Huber’s book “An American Provence.” Consider going during the West Elks Wine Trail event July 31 to Aug. 2. (westelksava.com/west-elks-wine-trail.html) If you can’t make that event, any time between the end of May and end of October is a good time to tour the dozen-plus North Fork Valley wineries. Find a map of the North Fork Valley in The Daily Sentinel’s book “Drink It In: Wine Guide of Western Colorado.”
Bring a lawn chair and good book to Colorado Mountain Winefest. The popular Festival in the Park runs from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 19, in Palisade’s Riverbend Park. Get there early to snag the best spots under the large shade trees for a lazy day reading, eating and sampling the state’s best wine.
Get to know a local winemaker. More often than not, the winemaker is at the winery or vineyard while you are there sampling wines. If the winemaker isn’t pouring tastings, ask if he or she is around. Many winemakers in western Colorado are passionate about what they do and are interested in helping you learn more about their wines.
Hop on your bike — or rent one — and enjoy a leisurely ride along the Palisade Fruit & Wine Byway. “It gets you off the interstate and to where the wineries are,” said Stephen Menke, Colorado State University associate professor of Enology and the state enologist at the Orchard Mesa Research Station in Grand Junction. A map can be downloaded at palisadecoc.com/co/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/ FruitWineByway2014.pdf or picked up at area wineries.
The paved byway winds past vineyards and orchards, allowing wine enthusiasts to stop and sample at their own pace. Don’t forget to pack plenty of water, snacks and sunscreen.