As recently as a decade ago, the mere notion of Colorado wine was enough to turn up the nose of a wine snob. Early on, Colorado wines often had a bouquet more reminiscent of Kool-Aid than Cabernet. But the Colorado wine industry has matured over the last decade, and its products have evolved from what one critic diplomatically dismissed as "uninteresting" to fine wines worthy of national awards.
In 1990, there were only five licensed wineries in Colorado. But that year, the state Legislature created the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board (CWIDB) and by 1995, the number of wineries had risen to 13. Today, the state claims 85 wineries, and with an average annual increase in production of 20 percent since 1996, the wine industry represents Colorado's fastest-growing agricultural sector. "We were the first state in the region to create a wine board to fund research and promotion. It was very forward-thinking," says Doug Caskey, the gregarious former actor who serves as the CWIDB's executive director.
With the support of the development board and Colorado State University, which employs state viticulturist Caspari as well as state enologist Steve Menke, Colorado is ready to make the next big leap, according to syndicated columnist, Dan Berger. "Colorado is making very good wine," says Berger, a former wine reporter for the Los Angeles Times who now publishes the weekly wine commentary Vintage Experiences. "Not every winery is great, and not every bottle is a great wine, but if you go from top to bottom you find infinitely more quality wine in Colorado now than even five years ago. If the Colorado industry continues to grow like it has in the last decade, it will be in the thick of it."
When wine succeeds, other types of agriculture also benefit. Wineries attract tourists and their dollars, which are helping to drive a vigorous local-foods movement. Today, foodies seeking local wines, fruit, cheese and pastured meats flock to places like Palisade and the North Fork and Surface Creek Valleys on the Grand Mesa's south flanks. A tourist destination best known for the West's finest powder skiing, the state is reinventing itself as Wine Country USA. Even Palisade's famously delectable peaches never mustered such allure.
If not for prohibition, western Colorado might have established itself as a wine region a long time ago. In the late 1880s, Grand Junction founder George Crawford planted 60 acres of wine grapes near Palisade. At the same time, Italian immigrants planted vineyards to produce their cherished vino. But prohibition wiped out Colorado's wine production, and the state went without a commercial vineyard until the 1970s, when the Four Corners Development Project, a cooperative effort by Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona to find crops that would thrive in the arid Southwest, got under way. Grapes were just one of the test crops planted, but the experiment had a lasting impact, proving once again that traditional vinifera wine grapes could grow in Colorado.
Still, the state's wine industry did not take off for nearly two more decades. In 1985, when Talbott joined with his father and two brothers to take over the land their grandfather had farmed since 1918, the 150-acre property was planted almost entirely in apples. "Apples were the number-one crop in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, and then everything just totally crashed," says Talbott. "In 1987, the apple industry got really beat up with over-production. There was just too much fruit on the market." To make matters worse, the consolidation of grocery store chains gave an edge to big producers who could promise a 12-month supply, and China flooded the world market with cheap apple juice concentrate. "Apples (became) a commodity item, rather than something to be celebrated," Talbott says. By the early 1990s, Colorado apple producers found themselves pushed out of the industry.
Like many Colorado growers, Talbott Farms moved into peaches, still its most profitable crop. Talbott never intended to get into the wine business, but in 1999 Palisade's Plum Creek Winery made him an offer he couldn't refuse. "They came to us and said that if we planted wine grapes they'd promise to buy them," Talbott says. "They told us when and how and where to grow them. It seemed like a low-risk deal."
Talbott planted those initial grapes in 2000 and has since expanded to 115 acres, growing more than a dozen varieties including merlot, syrah and riesling, which he sells to wineries throughout Colorado. Peaches fetch a slightly higher return per acre than grapes, but combining the two crops makes economic sense, says Caspari. "You prune the peaches, then it's time to prune the grapes. Harvest times for the two crops sync well so growers can use the seasonal workforce in a complementary way."