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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In fact, few are getting rich in the Colorado wine business. Despite the industry's incredible growth, profits remain slim. "Most wineries over three or five years old are making a profit," Caskey says. "Making enough to support its owners? Then you're down to maybe five or six wineries."

"The early wine industry was a romance industry," says Talbott. "It's not sustainable until the business has a cash value." The industry's sparse profits stem in part from a lack of planning, says state enologist Menke. "A lot of people just don't understand the business model," he says. Winemaking requires more than an appreciation of wine, says Musgnung; you need farming and chemistry skills as well. "A lot of people come here and they think they can translate their business experience into a winery, but it really comes down to farming, and farming isn't normal business."

With some of the world's most famous wine-producing regions suffering from overproduction -- the French are considering paying vineyard owners to stop growing grapes -- many wonder about the future. Can the Colorado wine industry sustain its double-digit growth, or will grapes join apples on the list of agricultural money-losers?

Menke believes that grapes are less likely to be vulnerable to the commoditization that befell apples. "Wine is highly dependent on the quality of the grapes," he says. "It's not actually a commodity anymore, it's more of a quality-driven product, and it's much easier for a winery to make a quality product from local grapes than from grapes brought in." Like any other fruit, grapes taste best straight from the vine, and are easily bruised by shipping.

Although nearly all of the wine made in Colorado is also sold and drunk here, locally produced wine represents only a single-digit percentage of the total wine consumed in Colorado. "We haven't even come close to saturating the Colorado market," says winemaker Bret Neal of Stoney Mesa Winery in Cedaredge, Delta County's largest and most successful winery. "Most wineries are too small to even hit liquor stores. It's mostly tourism right now."

A lack of recognition remains one of the biggest challenges still facing the Colorado wine industry, says Caspari. "We're still overcoming a stigma. Colorado's reputation might be held in higher esteem outside the state than within it," he says, noting that Colorado wines have garnered awards in competitions throughout the country. In 2003, for example, Carlson Vineyards won the "Best in the World" title at the 28th International Eastern Wine Competition's World Riesling Cup.

Colorado wine is more akin to a handcrafted microbrew than a mass-produced Budweiser, says Talbott, and thus it holds a different place in the market than those $6 bottles with cute animals on the label. "On a per-gallon cost basis, we can't compete with the big boys in California, but we can put out a great boutique product. Will we oversupply the market? Well, craft breweries have done very well even though there are dozens of them in Colorado."

"It used to be, people bought wine to celebrate -- it was a snooty beverage," says Caskey. But research linking moderate wine consumption to good health has transformed vino into what Caskey calls a "beverage of the people." That's especially true for the millennial generation. "They drink more wine and spend more money on wine than other generations," says Caskey. "If we can capture that millennial generation, then, yes, this industry is sustainable."

Talbott hopes that the new generation of wine drinkers with their enthusiasm for the "buy local" movement will foster a greater appreciation for Colorado's agricultural heritage and help protect his corner of the state from the sprawl of subdivisions. So many of the West's rural communities have been buried under generic housing developments and look-alike strip malls. "Wine is a taste of the local community," says Talbott. "It's the local flavor; that's what gives us our flair."

For more information:

Meet the makers: HCN's behind-the-scenes look at winemaking in western Colorado's North Fork Valley.

Colorado Wine Industry Development Board:  Lists of wineries and information on grape growing.

Appellation America: All wineries, grape varieties and growing regions in North America.

Vintage Experiences: Wine critic Dan Berger's commentaries.

Note: a sidebar article, "But is it any good?," accompanies this feature article.

Christie Aschwanden is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, National Wildlife, Runner's World and many other publications. She and her husband recently planted a small vineyard on their farm outside of Cedaredge, Colorado, and just bottled their first batch of wine.

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