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
 

Page 2

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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!