A brief history of Colorado wine

colorado_history2For a barrel full of Colorado wine history, it takes little more than a trip to Doug Caskey’s cellar (which should be noted is an actual dirt floor, back-bending cellar) in Boulder.

There are two reasons this is as good as, scratch that better than, a museum. Caskey himself is an encyclopedia of historical knowledge of the industry, having served as executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board for more than a decade and in retail locally for 20 years prior to that.

But we’re done talking history by the time we get to the cellar and have a one-track mind: Wine. Specifically, old, Colorado wine.

Caskey rifles through the various PVC tubes, with late 1990s vintages from Canyon Wind CellarsBalistreri Vineyards, S. Rhodes Vineyards and a few other long-standing names in the Colorado wine industry filling them.

We settle on a 1998 Trail Ridge Winery Cabernet Franc. There’s local history oozing out of this. The now defunct Loveland winery has morphed into Zephyr Cellars, run by Tim Merrick, the former Trail Ridge winemaker and partner.

He started making standout wines right about the time that industry leaders were creating wines that could not only pass a basic quality test but actually excel.

“It’s a process,” Caskey says of why he thinks wine really improved in the mid 1990s. “I’m not sure there’s a light bulb — certainly vineyards were getting more mature and that helped — it was just a process to reach a critical mass of quality, and it just starts snowballing and getting better.”

This Cab Franc is proof that some winemakers had it together more than 14 years before consumers began taking notice (if it can even be argued they have, yet).

It opens with chocolate tannins that were, perhaps, a tad tart. Like cocoa nibs rather than rich dark chocolate. That blows off and the structure of the wine shines through, with roasted cherries sprouting up and acids and tannins holding everything together.

It’s (good) Colorado wine history, in a bottle.

For those who prefer facts, stats and stories to their history, here’s a CliffNotes version of how Colorado wine ended up here today. Crack a bottle and enjoy.

Before we outlawed booze:
Here’s a little tidbit: Colorado was on the wagon four years ahead of the Amendment 18 (a terrible law fixed by Amendment 21 in 1933). That means we were drier than the sand dunes near Alamosa for nearly half a decade before the rest of the country was forced to destroy casks and pour booze down the drains.

Prior to that little historical note, there’s reason to believe Colorado was making some of the best wine on the planet. Ken Theobald, now of Classic Wines, wrote a masters’ thesis on local wine lore, and through his research found some old, turn-of-the-century news clippings that suggested Colorado beat France in its own judgment of Paris, some 70 years before California made worldwide waves for the same sort of victory.

Few have seen the proof and it seems the original thesis is buried deep in storage somewhere. “If you can find the article to prove us wrong, go right ahead,” Caskey says with a glowing smile.

At the time of Colorado’s coup, the state was producing about 1 million pounds of grapes, grown by more than 1,000 farmers, including Gov. George Crawford — it wasn’t until the 1998 harvest that Colorado grape growing reached that production level again. Crawford founded Grand Junction and planted 60 acres of grapes and fruit on Rapid Creek above Palisade in 1890.

The term professional winemaker was used rather loosely around that time, and in many cases each town would have a local guy willing to make enough wine for family, friends and neighbors. Including the likes of the grandfather of Paul Bonacquisti, now owner/winemaker of Bonacquisti Wine Co. in Denver.

Everything came to a screeching halt in 1916 with that pesky Prohibition thing.

Prohibition did have one notable positive affect on Colorado: It was the start of the booming fruit industry. “Prohibition was the beginning of the peach industry in Colorado,” Caskey says.

How Stag’s Leap got its start in Denver
It wasn’t until 1968 before Colorado saw another winery pop up, and it has direct ties to Stag’s Leap, one of the California wineries that won the official Judgment of Paris in 1976.

Gerald Ivancie founded Winery No. 1 in Colorado (at least by licensing standards) when he opened Ivancie Cellars in Denver. Warren Winiarsk served as cellar rat for him, two years prior to moving to Napa to start Stag’s Leap.

Now, Ivancie was bringing in grapes from out of state to make wines, but he (alongside Winiarsk) are said to have lobbied hard for Colorado growers to start planting vines along the Western Slope. Ivancie even planted some himself, although it appears he never made a Colorado grape wine commercially.

“They were the first advocates,” Caskey says.

The planting fathers
With a little momentum, the real planting began shortly after with Colorado Mountain Vineyards (now Colorado Cellars) leading the way when it was developed in 1978. It is now owned by Rick and Padte Turley, who took ownership in 1989, and is one of the state’s largest.

Caskey remembers during his early retail days a 1980 (subject to his memory) Colorado Chenin Blanc that Jim Seewald, original CMV owner, tasted him on, marking perhaps the first Colorado grape wine to hit shelves.

Many of the original partners of CMV went onto other Colorado wine ventures, including Bennett Price, owner/winemaker of DeBeque Canyon Winery. If you touch a vine in the Grand Valley, there are better odds Price had a hand in it than Central City can offer on the black jack table.

“I’d say half the vines (in Colorado), he planted or had something to do with,” Caskey says.

The actual quality of the wines being produced in the 1980s is subject to debate, but the key takeaway from this era of Colorado winemaking is the planting fathers of the industry began proving over and over again that grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnays could actually grow in the fertile soils of Colorado, making it unique in the United States outside some very notable and established regions.

Other key names from the very early days include Doug and Sue Phillips, who founded Plum Creek Cellars in 1984, and Parker Carlson of Carlson Vineyards, which formed in 1988.

The now closed Pike’s Peak Winery, founded in 1981 as the state’s second winery after CMV, was also a part of the movement, and was the first urban-style winery in the state — about three decades before its time.

The roaring 90s
While explosive growth was backloaded in Colorado wine’s fourth decade of existence, there were several key moments early on.

First, and foremost, the Grand Valley became an official AVA. Which is a key step toward defining the land and becoming established. Not to mention, this is the time many of the state’s most prestigious brands took root including Two Rivers, Canyon Wind, DeBeque Canyon, Grande River, Sutcliffe (Cortez’s first winery), Augustina’s (Boulder’s first), BookCliff, Creekside and Balistreri (Denver’s first).

Plus, Joan Mathewson set two new precedents when she and her husband opened Terror Creek Winery in 1992. With professional Swiss training, she became the state’s first trained winemaker — and she started making wine well above 6,000 feet in what would become the West Elks AVA a decade later.

“I started tasting some significant stuff in the 1990s. Some of it was off the charts,” Caskey says. “The wines (previously) were, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’”

Caskey recalls a Plum Creek offering from 1995 or so that really convinced him that true winemaking was possible in Colorado. He was so impressed by the wine labeled Festival White, he (then wine manager of Liquor Mart in Boulder) asked for a case discount, as in 100-case discount.

“’Well, I never had to think of that,’” he remembers the late Doug Phillips of Plum Creek responding to that query.

The Colorado Wine Industry Development act was passed in 1990, which did two important things to build momentum: It created the Colorado Wine Board and put in place a 1 cent per liter tax on all wines (local and otherwise).

The 90s proved a point. But there was still precious little production to reach the masses (well, that’s still a problem, but it was far worse in 1999 when just 35,000 cases were packaged).

More winemakers stormed in from all corners of the state including Guy Drew Vineyards (Cortez), Bonacquisti Wine Co. (Denver), Boulder Creek Winery (Boulder), Alfred Eames Cellars (Paonia) and Garfield Estates Vineyards, shifting the paradigm from tasting room-style wines (a little more sweet for tourists) to bona fide, classic style rosés, whites and reds.

Grapes such as Cabernet Franc and Viognier started defining themselves as it grapes in the Grand Valley, too.

The West Elks became an AVA, offering a style of wine reminiscent of Alsace, producing dry Rieslings, Gewurztraminers and Pinots worthy of top billing.

Guess what?

The nation started to notice. Carlson Vineyards’ 2003 Riesling was named the best such wine in the world in 2004, Boulder Creek’s 2008 VIP Reserve took home Colorado’s first prestigious Jefferson Cup as one of the top red wines in the country, and publications such as Wine Spectator started anointing scores in the upper 80s to local offerings. (There were few mentions of local wine outside of the Grand Valley before, but it should be noted that Plum Creek’s 1987 Merlot was awarded gold at the 1989 the San Francisco Fair, more than a full decade ahead of the curve!)

Of course, the most explosive growth has come in the last five years, led in large part from the edgy The Infinite Monkey Theorem winery in the Santa Fe Arts District of Denver.

Winemaker Ben Parsons succeeded where many of his predecessors failed by convincing dozens of top chefs throughout Denver to not only buy his wine but feature it prominently on the list and getting frequent mentions in publications such as Wine Enthusiast and Sunset

Still, the state is producing less than 120,000 cases of wine a year — smaller than many Napa wineries — and trying to show the country that it has the chops to make world-class wine.

“We will always be very tiny,” Caskey says. “As far as reputation, we can compete with anyone very favorably. We are always gong to be cult status region, I would guess.”

Until the French let Colorado challenge them again. What’s that they say about history repeating itself?