Meet the Colorado winemakers growing grapes in the mountains
PALISADE, Colo. (CN) — Susan Patton’s mom loved the red cabernet sauvignon grapes that grow in front of the family home in Palisade, Colorado.
She loved them so much, in fact, that in 1992 she convinced Susan and her husband Phil to buy adjacent land to plant acres of grapes, as well as the region’s famed peaches, apples and pears. They sold fruit under the name Peachfork Orchards & Vineyards.
By trade, Phil and Susan were both mining engineers. They later taught at Montana Tech. But Phil had always loved wine and “zigzagged through life” learning the craft, the 72-year-old said in a recent interview, speaking with a twang that gave away his Western Kentucky childhood.
After retiring in 2016, the couple turned to winemaking full time. This year’s batch of Pear Apple Plateau, made from ugly, unsellable orchard fruit, won double gold from the state’s annual Governor’s Cup competition.
Earlier this month, at the 32nd annual Colorado Mountain Winefest in Palisade, Phil sat in the shade behind Peachfork’s booth and waxed poetic about his philosophy on wine.
“The first thing is, you need to have good wines,” he said. ”Then you need to be friendly, and hopefully you get a relationship with people so they'll come back.”
Amid a landscape of mesas, Winefest is held on the banks of the Colorado River — the same river which sustains the wine grapes grown nearby. This year’s festivities drew around 5,000 connoisseurs, day drinkers and designated drivers, highlighting Colorado’s growing footprint on the wine-making map.
Winemaking in Colorado dates back to the state’s early decades, when homesteaders in the 1890s first started planting grapes. Prohibition in the 1920s killed the budding industry before it could truly fruit.
A comeback began in the 1960s, when dentist-turned-winemaker Gerald Ivancie imported grapes and viticulturist Warren Winiarski from California. A growing demand for the fermented beverage has brought a boom in recent decades. In 1990, there were only five wineries in the state. Today, there are more than 160.
During the 2021-2022 growing season, Colorado winemakers sold more than 206,000 cases of the stuff — adding up to about 2% of all wine sold in the United States. That’s on top of other homegrown alcohol industries like sake, spirits and mead.
While that figure might seem like a drop in the barrel, the rapid growth highlights Colorado’s unique and increasing role in American winemaking, particularly when it comes to pioneering innovative grapes. In 2021, vineyards brought over $41 million to the state, while the broader wine industry generated $79.3 million, according to an economic impact report from that year.
In Colorado, most wine grapes are planted in two regions recognized as American Viticultural Areas: the Grand Valley AVA along the rugged western slope of the Rockies and the wooded West Elks AVA in central Delta County.
At first glance, they might seem unlikely places to grow wine. Farmers must cope with high altitudes, relentless UV radiation and unpredictable temperature swings. Climate change and the Colorado River’s uncertain future only add to the challenges.
But where naysayers see difficult growing conditions, boosters of Colorado wine see opportunity. All agricultural products, and especially wine, are said to be shaped by the unique “terroir” in which they are grown.
With long days of sunshine, alkaline soils, whipping winds and altitudes of up to 7,000 feet above sea level, the terroir in Colorado’s winegrowing regions is certainly unique. Growers also credit the arid climate with keeping pests at bay, reducing the need for pesticide. Nutrients shed by local peach trees naturally fertilize the soil for trellises of grapes.
"The wine doesn't start in the winery, it starts in the field,” Phil, the Peachfork winemaker, said in a recent interview. Caring for grapes means watering, pruning and picking at all the right times — a feat for which he credits his wife.
”That's all Susan," he said.
Colorado’s environment shapes the grapes grown here, as well as the wines made with them. The intense sun can cause grapes to ripen very quickly, resulting in strong sugars and filling the market with sweet wines. Local winemakers disagree on whether the candied notes reflect growing conditions or customer tastes.
Kyle Schlachter, director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, helps support growing interest in local winemaking. A wine aficionado himself, he said he only tried making his own wine once, using grapes from his yard.
“It was one of the worst bottles of wine I've ever tasted,” he chuckled.
While Colorado’s Western Slope gets more heat than central California, the growing season is shorter, Schlacter said. Going forward, he thinks meeting demand and grappling with an unpredictable climate will remain among the top challenges facing the state’s determined winemakers.
“The grape-growers are at the whims of the weather,” Schlachter said, “but it's very rewarding when everything goes according to plan and we get an amazing bottle that reflects what it's like to live and work here in Colorado.”
At this year’s Western Mountain Winefest, curious consumers got to taste offerings from 50 local wineries and meaderies.
It was also a chance to meet some of the characters who are shaping the growing industry. People milled around the festival, trying out new and traditional vino as they munched pallet-cleansing pretzels strung around their necks. Barefoot women dipped their toes into barrels of grapes to get a feel for old-fashioned wine making, while a jazz band crooned out a Carly Simon cover for a crowd spread out on blankets and lawn chairs.
For now, Colorado remains largely a merlot state. Common varieties like merlot, riesling, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc currently make up 40% of the state’s 750-acre harvest and abounded at the festival. As the industry further establishes itself, that could change: Experts say lesser-known grapes grow better here and better exemplify the state’s terroir.
Still, while traditional merlots and cab francs are everywhere, many Coloradans are on the hunt for the unusual and interesting. Among the wines in their sights: Central European lemberger (also known as blaufränkisch), white German gewürztraminer, red northeastern Italian teroldego and even more obscure varietals like petite pearl, a newly created variety from the University of Minnesota.
“Petite pearl is unique,” Shane Blanchard, winemaker for the eponymous Blanchard Family Wines in Denver, said while pouring wine at the festival. The grape’s creators describe the mysterious petit pearl as having berry aromas with yeast driven hints of “anise, almond, mint, cassis, [or] 'forest floor.’”
“The most popular question — until it sold out — was ‘what is it?’” Blanchard said. “When you taste it, you have no idea what to expect.”