For decades, the vineyards of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys in California have held a lock on the American wine industry. Other areas of the country, like Oregon and Virginia, have made some traction when it comes to wine production. For most people though, the term “wine country” conjures up images of the rolling hills near San Francisco.
But some small wine producers are trying to change that — and are working hard to put Colorado wine country on the map. That’s right, Colorado, where alpine skiing and mountain vistas are symbols of a state known for its snow than for its grapes and wine, has a burgeoning wine industry.
While wine producers in many parts of the U.S. are in the early stages of vineyard development, Colorado’s wine history goes back more than 100 years.
In 1899, then-Colorado Governor George A. Crawford planted 60 acres of vineyards in the high desert farming area of Palisades, recognizing the climate was ideal for the fruit. In ten years, grape production was booming, with more than 200,000 vines producing grapes and another 100,000 in the pre-bearing stage at more than 1,000 farms in the state.
However, Prohibition put a stop to the burgeoning grape industry. In the early 1920s, authorities ripped the grapevines from the ground. Although Prohibition was repealed in 1933, it took nearly 70 years for the Colorado wine industry to re-establish itself. This effort began in 1977 with the Colorado Limited Winery Act that allowed small farms to produce wine in small batches for sale.
The act set the stage for the artisanal nature of Colorado’s wines. You won’t find huge wine producers here, selling millions of bottles every year. The majority of the more than 100 wineries on Colorado’s Western Slope are small, family-owned operations producing limited amounts of each vintage. And while some wineries incorporate California grapes into their wines, when you see a bottle labelled “Colorado Grown,” by law it must contain 100-percent native grapes.
Savouring Colorado Wines
Colorado’s vineyards are among the highest in the world in terms of elevation and by far the highest in the U.S. Most wine production takes place around Grand Junction and Palisade, areas that produce around 90 percent of the state’s grapes. There are some vineyards in the Rocky Mountain desert region and other parts of the state; in fact, because the wine industry is so spread out, it’s an easy daytrip from anywhere to a winery. When you’re looking for a resort in Vail for example, you’ll have the opportunity to experience wine trails and tasting rooms in a few hours’ drive.
The Colorado Wine Industry Development Board has developed several wine trails to assist visitors in locating wineries to visit. One of the most popular is the Heart of Colorado Wine Country trail, with several dozen wineries offering tours and tastings along two loops that take travellers past some of the most scenic areas of the Rocky Mountains. This includes along the Grand Mesa, the largest flattop mountain in the world.
While almost all wineries along the trail welcome visitors — and offer a casual, family friendly environment not common in other wine regions — some wineries along the trail stand out. The largest and oldest winery on the trail, and in Colorado, is the Colorado Cellars Winery. It offers an array of wines, from fruit wines to Riesling, Merlot and Pinot Grigio. Carlson Vineyards is known for its chardonnays, while Canyon Wind Cellars practices sustainable and ecofriendly growing.
If making the trip to the Western Slope of the Rockies is impossible, you can still find Colorado wine tasting rooms around the state, particularly in Denver, Boulder and resort areas like Vail, Aspen and Beaver Creek. For wine lovers, Colorado’s wine country is an unexpected delight, with wines of all varieties rivaling those of the world’s more established wine regions. Combined with stunning Colorado scenery and nearby activities, a trip to the wine country is a new and exciting way to see the Rocky Mountain State.
About the Author: Wine enthusiast Rayanne Frye was pleasantly surprised to discover Colorado’s wine country on a recent trip to the state for a mountain biking adventure. A photographer and writer, she is working on a book about her outdoor adventures.