The Back(b)log: Tasting Wine on Colorado's Western Slope
It's a small obsession of mine to find places making wine where you'd never assume excellent grapes would grow. Most recently I visited the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York to get a glimpse of, in particular, the world-class Riesling being grown and made in the area. On my drive west to assume my new position in the Napa Valley, I made my first wine tasting stop as an industry member just outside of Grand Junction, in the far western desert highlands that descend off the Colorado rockies. Conveniently located off I-70, it was an easy little break from my drive westward.
As you descend out of the final foothills of the Rockies following the Colorado River through a winding, scenic canyon, you eventually emerge into the Grand Valley, an ancient riverbed flanked by high west desert plateaus. The Grand Valley, home of the agricultural hamlet Palisade and more substantial Grand Junction, has been a cradle of fertile agriculture for centuries, but grape-growing only began in earnest some half a century ago. In 1984, Plum Creek was Colorado's first winery committed to just using Colorado fruit.
These days there are dozens of wineries in the area, and it's starting to gain some serious recognition. In particular, the fertile but well-drained soil, low humidity, and high winds (locally dubbed the "million-dollar breeze") and exceptional altitude that create big diurnal shifts during the summer months make the region rather lovely for grape growing. When you have hot, sunny days and cool, breezy nights, the grapes ripen beautifully while developing complex flavor and maintaining acidity during their resting hours.
Of course, as with all nascent wine regions, the quality of wine is, to say the least, spotty, and with wine, things like Google reviews are wildly unreliable because many who review wineries know little about "good" wine, particularly in up-and-coming areas, which serious wine lovers tend to avoid in favor of more established regions. It's sorta like finding an iHop with 4.5 stars in Salina, Kansas. So, when I rolled into the Grand Valley I was largely flying blind, avoiding the places that looked overly touristy and corporate and having only a vague idea of the places to try.
I only had time for three quick visits, since I arrived early afternoon and needed to keep trucking to Moab, so after a good amount of research decided to stop first at the breezy barn tasting room of Varaison Vineyards. The name seems to be a misspelling of "veraison," the stage in red grape growth where the grapes turn from green to red––this should have tipped me off.
While the property is lovely and historic and the staff delightful, I was wildly underwhelmed by the wines, some of which were nearly unpalatable. The proprietor and winemaker professes to use his scientific knowledge to create a distinct style of wines whereby you can "age" the wine more quickly, which sounded immediately suspect. Moreover, I was instructed by my host to taste the wine in an unprecedented way––to swirl and then "blow off" the alcohol in the glass by giving it one quick puff and then smelling the wine; it would seem to me that would blow off all the volatilized esters that reveal the aromas of the wine when you spin it! I'd never heard of this method and am by no means a stranger to tasting wine. Rather bizarre!
Frankly, I considered throwing in the towel at that point––the first place I went, with 4.8 stars on Google, was such a spectacular flop I questioned the ability of the whole region to make good wine, and the likelihood that online research would guide me to a good place. But, not quite ready to give up, I trekked just down the road to a place that specialized in natural, "hipster" wines, some of my favorites.
Sauvage Spectrum seems to be at the very end of the world as you drive down Palisade's agricultural roads. To the left through a scraggly vineyard is a warehouse resembling a brewery, inside which Sauvage Spectrum pours their quirky Colorado wines. The brewery vibe of the place is appropriate for a distinctly Colorado winery, and, indeed, is no accident––the Millennial founders, winemaker Patric Matysiewski and grapegrower Kaibab Sauvage, see themselves at the cutting edge of a wine region that itself they view at the cutting edge of wine itself. In their words, "We are not here to elevate Colorado wine, we are the definition of it." All of their fruit comes from Palisade and environs, and they're not afraid to use natural, "funky" winemaking techinques; they've even been experimenting with hybrid grapes uniquely suited to their climate. Very Colorado.
Indeed, when you enter, you could easily mistake it for a brewery, except that oak barrels are stacked in the corner instead of brewing tanks and kegs. I joined a couple of locals at the bar, behind which sat a collection of bottles and three "slushie" machines churning wine-based frozen cocktails. The tasting experience is quite flexible here––they divide their flights into their bubbly series, whites, rosés, reds, and special releases for charity, or you can mix and match any four wines on the list––flights are all less than $15. Chatting with the tasting room host and the locals, I quickly learned that I wasn't the only one with a low opinion of the wines at Varaison, so I figured I must have found a spot more to my liking.
They cheekily serve their samples in muffin tins, and I went with a broad array of their offerings to get a sense of their work. I gravitated immediately to their skin contact pet-nat, a style of bubbly that's become quite popular in the last decade rooted in pre-Champenoise sparkling wine production techniques. It was delicious, and immediately lifted my skepticism.
I was quite taken by their psychedelic labels, too, often featuring abstractions of southwestern landscapes like those I grew up exploring. Their grüner Veltliner was a serious hit––the high-acid grape does very well here owing to the high altitude and low desert temperatures that help foster the zingy character of the wine. And the label was awesome.
Malbec apparently also grows beautifully in the Grand Valley, and their Reserve Red, probably their most serious wine on the list, blended the supporting-cast Bordeaux grapes malbec at 77% and petit verdot at 23%. This one blew me away––wow, this is a real wine region!
I had finally sunk my teeth into some outstanding, world-class wine in the Grand Valley, so I trusted I was in good hands when asking for recommendations. Since I'd blown the first hour of my visit on a flop, the spot the Sauvage people recommended was right on-the-money––a tasting room featuring a wide selection of local wineries making wine from all Colorado fruit called the Vintner's Collective. Bonus––they were open an hour later than anyone else!
It was a quick trek back toward town before I found the building, helpfully signposted by a small stack of barrels. The tasting room was bright and buzzy, with Chaco-clad locals peddling a rotating selection of boutique Colorado wines. I quickly made friends with the awesome girls behind the bar, somehow impressing them with my forthcoming Napa industry cred!
The Grand Valley AVA is one of two in Colorado––the other is the West Elks AVA just southeast, focused on the towns of Hotchkiss and Paonia. Peony Lane grows chardonnay in West Elks at a remarkable 5,700 feet, producing a fragrant chardonnay with bright acidity and low alcohol; I'd say this resembles a Chablis, but that wouldn't be precisely right––the aromatic quality of this chardonnay was incredibly distinct, and quite unlike any I've had. A remarkable wine.
Sauvage Spectrum was a feature on the tasting menu here as well, but this time a wine I couldn't sample at their winery––called Wildlife 125, all the proceeds from the sale of this wine go to Colorado Parks and Wildlife as a celebration of CPW's 125 years of critical work maintaining the natural wonders of the state. I can't recall the constitution of this wine or my reaction to it, but damn! What a powerful message.
A gorgeous label graced a bottle of Colorado Vintners' Collective's own rosé, called "Ghostdance," named for a Ute Indian ritual dance of the same name. I was quite taken with this Provençal-inspired rosé of cab franc––very aromatic and crisp, with cascades of strawberries. I liked it so well that I bought a glass to enjoy at the end of my tasting!
I was pretty shocked to see a pinot on the list! Could the most finicky of grapes grow well in the somewhat extreme desert conditions of Colorado's Western Slope? Seems West Elks is good territory for pinot, and Jack Rabbit Hill Farm combined pinot noir and pinot meunier in a vineyard-designate red blend. The wine had some age on it, too––a 2016––allowing the acid of the high-altitude fruit to settle a bit and reveal complex notes of brambles and spice. Lovely.
On the Vintners' Collective website, they write of the last wine on the tasting list, named for the New Mexican priest Escalante who attempted to establish a route between the missions in Santa Fe and Monterey but were repelled by the challenging terrain of the west deserts––"The folklore of the canyons prove the rugged terrain of the west can have a higher power, so we named this wine Escalante 'Spirit of the Canyons.'" A left-bank Bordeaux-style blend of cab, cab franc, and petit verdot, the wine was, as with most of these high-altitude creations, singing with acidity and highly aromatic, but had the gravitas of a Napa cabernet. Another successful selection.
Once again I find myself surprised by a wine region to which I'd given almost no thought just a half year ago. While not everything was excellent, I certainly sampled some wines that would give more established epicenters of winemaking a run for their money. The Vintners' Collective flight, in particular, was wonderful, giving a broad look at what these boutique producers are capable of in a nascent, exciting grape-growing geography. Readers and wine lovers from Salt Lake City in particular would be well-advised to drop in, perhaps as a slight detour on your next trip to Moab. I look forward to coming through the area again, this time for a more comprehensive visit.