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
 

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Wineries have popped up in nearly every corner of the state, but the vast majority of Colorado's nearly 1,000 acres of vineyards lie in the state's Grand Valley American Viticultural Area, or AVA, around Grand Junction and Palisade. Other prime locations include the North Fork Valley's West Elks AVA, the Surface Creek Valley near Cedaredge, Olathe's corn country and the Four Corners region. Some growers are even planting hybrids along the Front Range near Denver. Grapes thrive in Colorado's rocky soil and they develop the best flavors and sugar profiles when grown under water stress. Unlike other crops grown in this area, grapes need little fertilizer and few pesticides, and so far the arid region has not attracted any major grape pests.

Diversifying into grapes has made his business more resilient, says Talbott. "You spread your weather risk. A cold snap in midwinter won't hurt the peaches, and a spring frost won't usually hurt the grapes. You reduce the potential for a complete wipeout." Climate change could actually help the Colorado wine industry if it continues to extend the growing season, but it also poses some worrisome risks. "Our biggest concern with global warming is the increased amplitude of extreme weather events," says Caspari. "If the extremes become more extreme, that's a big problem." Even now, unpredictable weather poses the biggest challenge to Colorado grape growers.

Talbott hopes that the vineyards will help preserve the agricultural character of Palisade, where a recent oil and gas boom brought an infusion of money from land speculators and developers. "When wine catches the imagination of the average politician and you get people interested in marketing destination tourism, you get a push to keep the area desirable," says Talbott. "Once people are aware of what we have, it makes it much more difficult for someone to come put a subdivision in the middle of all that agriculture."

The troubled economy could also end up protecting farmers, says Talbott, since the value of agricultural land has gone down. Currently, Palisade's master plan shows housing developments growing to four or five times their current size, wiping out a lot of agricultural land, says Talbott. "Right now they don't plan to save fruit except on the periphery. But as time goes on and the wine industry grows, that master plan may change." 

On the other side of the Grand Mesa, 40 miles southeast of Palisade, wine is helping to revitalize Delta County's agricultural roots. Grapes have a long history in this area, although few Coloradans are aware of it. Back in the 1970s, researchers from the Four Corners Development Project planted test vines on Garvin Mesa outside of Paonia. Now, the soil on this scenic mesa overlooking Mount Lamborn nurtures some of Colorado's oldest wine grapes.

When Joan Mathewson and her husband, John, bought land at the top of Garvin Mesa in 1987 for their Terror Creek Winery, they found some of those old gewurztraminer vines still thriving despite years of neglect. The previous owner didn't know the vines were there until a retired winegrower friend from California paid him a visit. As the two were setting off on a hunting trip, "the friend discovered these old vines growing along the ground in the field. Well, they never did go hunting that day," says Joan Mathewson, a soft-spoken redhead who's been making wine at Terror Creek since 1993.

Originally from New Jersey, Mathewson spent 26 years following her geophysicist husband around the world, from Nigeria to Egypt and Tanzania. When the couple found time to vacation, they often traveled to Europe. There, they fell in love with Alsatian white wines, and Joan made it her mission to learn how to make them. She studied the wine business in Switzerland, where she labored at several wineries near Lake Geneva and eventually earned a degree in enology from L'Ecole d'Ingenieurs de Changins outside Nyon. "I had to work in the wineries first -- they wouldn't even let you apply to the school without some experience," she says.

Mathewson's professional training has helped her navigate the challenges of high-altitude grape growing. At 6,500 feet, Terror Creek claims the title of North America's highest commercial vineyard. Garvin Mesa rises above the North Fork of the Gunnison River in a gentle southerly slope, a footnote to the Grand Mesa towering above it. The winery is tucked away at the end of a steep, unpaved road, and the tasting room resembles a Swiss chalet with its sharp rooflines and European-style window boxes.

The neatly mowed lawn around the tasting room looks out on symmetrical rows of gewurztraminer, pinot noir, riesling, chardonnay and gamay noir grape vines. "There's almost 10,000 vines in that little seven acres," says Mathewson. Although the higher altitude means a shorter growing season and less production than the vineyards in Palisade's hotter, low-lying areas, Mathewson consistently produces well-received wines.

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