Colorado’s Buzzworthy Wine Producers


One of Colorado’s leading wineries, Sutcliffe Vineyards handcrafts award-winning wine from grapes grown in McElmo Canyon in Cortez

Like the weather, opinions of Colorado wine are always changing. When I first moved to Aspen almost 15 years ago, the consensus was that while there were grapes grown in Colorado, the wine from which they were made generally wasn’t very good. The local industry then was akin to a hobby, not a serious pursuit. But so much has changed, particularly in the past five years, that I question where Colorado wine stands today. So I set off on a road trip through Western Colorado wine country to seek answers.

My first stop is Alfred Eames Cellars. The namesake owner’s vineyard, Puesta del Sol, or the “Sunset Vineyard,” is a small swath of land near the organic farming town of Paonia, just over McClure Pass from Aspen. In what is now the West Elks AVA, people have been growing grapes for more than 100 years.

“I forgot you were coming,” says Eames, 65, as he steps out of his house and into the cool morning air with a smile. With a white beard, a brown wool cardigan, and a pipe, he evokes a character from classic literature. His deep voice is cadenced, never rushed. Somehow the place and the man seem to come from a more thoughtful time. No wonder his wines channel another era.

As a young man in the mid-1960s, Eames lived in Spain, as a chaperone to his older sister, who was studying in Madrid. Soon she found a boyfriend (the brother of then-undiscovered singer Julio Iglesias). With nothing else to do, Eames gravitated toward vineyards, where he worked for free while learning the ins and outs of winemaking. He tasted his first glass of wine, a Tempranillo, and has been making wines in the old-world Spanish tradition ever since.

We walk downstairs to his wine cave, where about a hundred French oak barrels line the floor amid dim light. When I close my eyes, the cool mix of wood, wine, and earth transport me to the cellars of Europe. Just off the cellar, inside his intimate tasting room, we sample several of Eames’s outstanding reds, including the 2009 Collage, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot blend; 2009 Tempranillo; and 2009 Sangre del Sol, a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

“I make wine for me,” he says, smiling. Eames does very little to the wine after he handpicks the clusters and de-stems the grapes, leaving them in open vats of masonry to ferment before moving them to the oak barrels, where they age in the dark for the first year. “I treat it like a child,” says Eames of his process. “Wine is alive. I treat it with respect and give it what it needs to grow up and mature.”

Eames grows many of his grapes on his own property, and he buys the rest from growers in Palisade or Paonia—Colorado’s top grape-growing region, and my next stop.

Heading west through Hotchkiss, passing multiple organic farms and quaint roadside stores, I cross over railroad tracks where freight trains long ago hauled in grapes for winemaking from California. I head onto Highway 50 north toward Grand Junction, on my way to Two Rivers Winery & Chateau, one of the largest commercial wineries and grape growers in the state. While Eames treats his wines like his children, Two Rivers co-owner Bob Witham unabashedly treats his winery like a business.

Witham began Two Rivers as a vineyard in 1999 after the former long-term-care executive soured on the concept of a gated patio-home community on the same site. That year he produced 2,000 cases of wine. In 2012 he is on track to make 14,000 cases. His winemaker, Tyrel Lawson, just 26, patiently tends to the 18 acres of vineyards, which include Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot grapes. These grapes account for about a third of Two Rivers’ wine; the rest are contracted from other winemakers.

Growing grapes in the high desert of Western Colorado isn’t easy. Frosts, droughts, and other extreme climate factors keep growers guessing. In 2009, Two Rivers lost 40 percent of its crop because of a severe inversion frost; this year, with an early and exceptionally warm spring, harvest will be sped up by at least two weeks.

But generally, when things go right, weather is hot during the day and cool at night, much like the mountainous wine regions of South America. “Heat is what builds sugars,” Lawson explains. “Cool nights add a great variance with acids for a better balanced fruit.”

We head to the tasting room, a nouveau French château, and taste the entire line. Witham is very specific on how his wines should be tasted: swishing this way and that, adding chocolate to his mouth, holding sips in his cheeks for several seconds. The process is laborious but effective. Again, the red wines are the stars, with the Cabernet Sauvignon one of my favorites.

Witham and I talk about the roots of winemaking in the Grand Valley—the Italian immigrants and coal mine workers of the late 1880s, before Prohibition, when the grapevines were ripped out. It wasn’t until about 50 years ago that grapes were again planted in a region already well known for its peaches, cherries, and other fruit crops.

I want to know more about the modern roots of Colorado winemaking, so I drive east toward Palisade, twisting through arid hills crowded with vines. I land at Carlson Vineyards, where Parker Carlson has been making wine since 1988. It’s one of the oldest winemaking operations in the state.

Carlson says he and his wife, Mary, began winemaking as a hobby “that got out of control.” Today they create a variety of fruit wines, and their small vineyard has become a landmark for bicyclists along the scenic Palisade Fruit & Wine Byway.

He has watched the industry grow from infancy, and now, at age 66, he knows there is more to come. “Colorado wines match any other wines made anywhere in the world,” he says.

As the sun sets, I drive home to Aspen thinking about what Parker said. If Colorado wines are destined to become a real industry, there has to be some wine—or someone—that captures the attention of an international audience. I wonder which wine or winemaker could properly represent Colorado.

In the end, the best Colorado wine came to me. Ben Parsons, owner of The Infinite Monkey Theorem in Denver, drove down to Aspen for a night of tasting at Matsuhisa Aspen, which has carried his wine since the days he personally sold cases of it out of his old Toyota 4Runner.

Parsons is renowned—some might say notorious— in Colorado winemaking circles for his youthful outspokenness, self-confidence, and lack of desire to fraternize with other Colorado wineries. A Brit by birth, Parsons arrived in Colorado in 2001 at 25 to work as winemaker at Canyon Winds Vineyards in Palisade; at the time, he was the only winemaker in the state with a degree in oenology. He quickly gained a following for his knowledge of growing and how to make outstanding wine from inconsistent grapes.

In 2008, after the death of his father, Parsons attained a small inheritance, with which he founded The Infinite Monkey Theorem (IMT), named for the theory that states a monkey striking typewriter keys at random for an infinite amount of time will eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare. He set up operations in a Quonset hut in Denver’s arts district. The label’s whimsical name underscores his mission—to make wine fun and interesting, and to turn skeptics into believers.

As with all great winemakers, Parsons is obsessed with fruit. Working with several different growers allows him to pick fruit from the best vineyards. That means lots of trips to Western Colorado, painstakingly picking, tasting, and battling with growers about when to pick. He drives the fruit back to Denver on a flatbed truck and the race to barrel an exceptional wine is on.

“The first seven days are critical,” he says. “That’s when the wine is made.” It is a 24-hour-a-day lifestyle for Parsons.

Since 2009, Wine Spectator has rated five IMT wines 87 and 88. The recognition attained by Parsons has some Colorado winemakers bristling, even suggesting his wine is not actually made from Colorado grapes. (While IMT in the past consisted of 100 percent Colorado grapes, Parsons recently began adding California, Oregon, and Washington grapes to two of his blends—the Verdelho and the Albarino—and sourcing Albarino grapes from California for one of his latest releases, Albarino and sparkling Albarino in a can.)

None of the criticism fazes the jovial Parsons.

“I prefer to let the wine speak for itself,” he says, eager to pour the next vintages, to experience how time has shaped his brood.

Among them are a 2010 Albarino (California) and several superstar reds made with Colorado grapes—2009 Cabernet Franc, 2008 Petite Sirah, and my top picks, The Blind Watchmaker (Petite Verdot/Petite Sirah/Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon) and 2009 The Hundredth Monkey (Petite Verdot/ Cabernet Franc/Syrah/Petite Sirah).

Each has strengths of its own; among them there is not one bad pour. It didn’t hit me until I sat down with Parsons: I was not just tasting great Colorado wine, it was great wine, period.

“Ben is going to be super famous someday,” Matsuhisa beverage director Shawn Gallus says. “I’m not kidding. This guy is putting Colorado wine on the map of world-class wines.”

So, if this is the future of Colorado wines, and the future tastes good, then why does the reputation persist, that Colorado wines are sub-par?

It’s about consistency, says Jonathan Pullis, master sommelier and wine program director at The Little Nell hotel. While Parsons and a handful of others are making good vintages, one bad sip of Colorado wine from another producer could turn off a drinker for life.

“Colorado wine is definitely moving forward,” Pullis says. “The improvements in the past five years are incredible. Wine growers are getting a better understanding of what works.”

You also have to have a winemaker who knows how to use good fruit, Parsons argues. “I’ve spent my whole life dedicated to making wine,” he says. “I pay attention to every detail. Wine just doesn’t make itself. There are an infinite number of variables in making wine—agriculture, weather, different growing choices, when to pick. And once you have the grapes, you’ve got one shot to make it great.”

Ultimately, the journey takes me from the small barrel caves of quiet Paonia to the industrious wine-growing hub of Colorado to an urban winery of Denver. And while Colorado still has a ways to go before it can contend with the best winemakers of the world, it is at the tipping point, moving in the direction of distinction. And, like it or not, Ben Parsons is the man leading the charge.



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