From Corn to Cabernet

A burgeoning wine industry takes Colorado agriculture uptown

  • Wine grapes ripening in western Colorado.

    JT Thomas
  • Vineyards, orchards and hay fields dot the landscape below Mount Garfield near Palisade, Colorado.

    JT Thomas
  • Bruce Talbott at his family farm near Palisade. His grandfather had almost 150 acres of apples; Talbott branched out to peaches, and now grapes.

    JT Thomas
  • Kevin Doyle amid the wine barrels at his Woody Creek Cellars in Austin.

    JT Thomas
  • Colorado wine-tasting at the Black Bridge Winery tasting room in Paonia.

    JT Thomas
  • Terror Creek Winery nestles into the pinon-juniper foothills of Western Colorado.

    JT Thomas
  • Harvesting grapes the old-fashioned way at the Black Bridge Winery.

    JT Thomas
 

Bruce Talbott built his reputation on apples and peaches. A congenial middle-aged farmer with a tidy moustache and a boyish grin, the VP of Talbott Farms manages more than 400 acres, most of them perched on a verdant bench overlooking the small Western Slope town of Palisade, Colo. To the north rise the towering Mancos shale formations for which this small farming community was named. To the south and east, the alpine forests of the Grand Mesa push skyward above the red desert. Even on this late May day, the mountain's upper flanks, which top out at nearly 11,000 feet, still harbor caches of snow. The Colorado River runs through Palisade, bringing irrigated life to the arid landscape. Outside Talbott's office, tiny green peaches hang in the manicured orchard.

This community of 3,000 looks like classic rural America with its ranch houses, lean-to fruit stands and sleepy streets. But just a few miles to the west, the city of Grand Junction is inching ever closer. Western Colorado's major metropolitan area, Grand Junction is home to about 54,000 people. And more are coming: Fueled by a flood of amenity migrants, retirees and oil and gas field workers, Mesa County has grown 5 percent faster than the rest of the state over the past decade. In the last eight years, Grand Junction -- often described as "a suburb without a city" -- has annexed nearly 4,600 acres. Surrounded by public land, the city has had little choice but to expand into its agrarian surroundings, gobbling up choice farmland in the process.

Just west of Palisade lies the growing community of Clifton-Fruitvale. True to its name, Clifton-Fruitvale was once covered in orchards, but today the names Delicious, Rome and Winesap refer to residential streets rather than the apple varietals that grew here. Even as the residents of Clifton-Fruitvale consider annexation by Grand Junction, Palisade's farmers fret about holding back the tide of subdivisions. Since 1980, Palisade's population has doubled, and with its striking beauty, ample water and open land, the town appears ripe for even more development.

Talbott envisions a different future for his community, one that is still agricultural but centered on a fruit crop whose varietals go by names like cabernet, syrah and riesling. Wine grapes yield vastly greater profits per acre than the apples that once provided Palisade's major cash crop, and vineyards hold a certain cachet that orchards and hay fields lack. Wine appeals to yuppies and retirees and well-heeled tourists -- people with money to spend. If vineyards become more valuable than housing developments, a burgeoning wine industry just might preserve western Colorado's rural heritage. "People are far more interested in wine vineyards than in fruit. The wine industry is approaching the number-one draw for tourists in the region," says Talbott. "Holding the land base in agriculture is the most important thing to us -- subdivisions are the enemy."

This new industry could also provide a reprieve from the boom-bust economy that has long dogged this region. Where other fruits (and the oil and gas industry) have gone through multiple up-and-down cycles, wine grapes promise a more reliable future. Colorado's wine industry has been growing steadily for the past decade, and even in today's poor economy, demand for the state's wine remains high.

It's an industry that appears well-positioned to excel over the long haul. Vineyards use a fraction of the water that other crops require. That makes them well-suited to the state's arid lands, especially as climate change reduces stream flows and thirsty urban areas grab for the water now used for irrigation. Even as global warming threatens to hamstring California's wine industry, Colorado seems better able to cope with the rising temperatures, at least so far. "Global warming is probably what enabled us to grow grapes in the first place," says Colorado state viticulturist Horst Caspari. "We've gained almost two weeks in our growing season over the last 45 years."

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