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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Though she doesn't keep count, "Visitation has picked up every single year," she says. "The majority of visitors come from Colorado, but we get people from all across the country and from Europe, too."

Since Terror Creek opened, the number of wineries and tasting rooms in Delta County has grown to more than a dozen. In 2003, Brent Helleckson, a former aerospace engineer, and his wife, Karen, opened Stone Cottage Cellars just down the road, on a parcel previously planted by Plum Creek, the same winery that first roped Bruce Talbott into grape-growing. Mathewson considers the Hellecksons colleagues, not competitors, noting that the rising number of wineries in the area has increased visits to her tasting room. "It encourages people to come and stay here so they can visit everyone," she says.

On this June day, a chatty couple from Virginia stopped in to taste, and bought several bottles to share with their grown children back at home. On their way out, they crossed paths with a couple from the Denver area who drove up in a sporty European convertible and left with a case in their tiny trunk.

The latest figures from the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board show that wine-related tourism alone injects more than $21 million into the Colorado economy. Add to that another $21.1 million in wine sales and the industry's worth tops $42 million per year. Articles touting Colorado wine country have turned up in publications ranging from The New York Times to USA Today and Sunset magazine.

Delta County's sluggish economy could certainly use the dollars. The local free newspaper recently ran an ad with the headline, "Need bankruptcy? Don't despair. Most Delta County incomes qualify." Indeed, Delta County is among Colorado's poorest -- its average personal income clocks in at a mere 66 percent of the state average. The coal trains that rumble through Paonia a half-dozen or more times a day (and night), shuttling loads from the three mines just east of town, provide a constant reminder of the town's dependence on coal -- a commodity likely to face tough times in a carbon-constrained economy.

The recent loss of a couple hundred coal-mining and light-industry jobs has left Delta County's economy increasingly dependent on its agricultural roots. Supporters hope the wine industry can help boost the farming community as a whole. "The wine industry has attracted more people into ag, and that's great," says Ela Family Farms president Steve Ela, who grows organic fruit on 100 acres near Hotchkiss. "It's very synergistic." Tourists who come for the wineries near Ela's orchards sometimes leave with a box of his peaches or cherries, too.

"We moved to agritourism about four or five years ago," says Kelli Hepler of the Delta County Tourism Board, which helps promote the West Elks American Viticultural Area, including Paonia and Hotchkiss. Initially, many locals resisted efforts to promote tourism, fearing newcomers would drive up property values or make a nuisance of themselves complaining about backyard junk and manure piles. Then, a few years back, a regional Slow Food USA group organized a tour of the area's farms and wineries. The event's success opened eyes, says Hepler. "This is a type of tourism that's very gentle on the resources, and locals are realizing that a llama farm or vineyard is a lot nicer to look at than a subdivision."

Wine consultant and Bethlehem Cellars winemaker Bill Musgnung, who spent most of his career working in the Oregon wine industry before moving to Paonia several years ago, predicts that Delta County may follow the example of Carlton, Ore. "Fifteen years ago, Carlton was a dinky little town just like Paonia. Then the wineries came in and now it's the number-one wine destination on the West Coast."

Hepler's group promotes agritourism on "Our Side of the Divide" with maps outlining self-guided wine, farm and bike tours, and it also helps promote farm dinners and wine tastings. Those efforts have paid off, she says. "Last year there were 38 articles written about Delta County wine." Nearly every one of Delta County's 11 wineries now hosts some kind of food and wine event, and Fresh and Wyld, a bed and breakfast inn, has brought area residents into the fold with weekly farm dinners created from locally produced ingredients and paired with local wines. But agritourism has yet to make anyone rich. "Some people are making some money on it, but no one is cashing in big time yet," says Hepler.

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