Monday, July 22, 2013

Colorado Wine: Isn’t It Grand? Grand Valley, Colorado Wine

I often talk about the large state of Wyoming like it is a small community all its own…that just happens to be spread out over 97,000 square miles.  (Keep in mind we are like a small city, since there is only about 500,000 people in the entire state!)  I also often talk about how everything is "close" in Wyoming terms because we are so used to driving all over for everything.  I realize most people would think it was crazy to drive eight hours (one way) to visit wineries, but not this Wyoming sommelier!   Last week my hubby and I decided to hop in the car to visit our neighbor state of Colorado for a long weekend in the closest AVA (American Viticultural Area) to Wyoming:  the Grand Valley of western Colorado. 
Vines growing in the valley, surrounded by earthen hills.

The Grand Valley AVA was Colorado’s first of two AVAs (West Elks is the other).  Though the Grand Valley became an official AVA in 1991, grapes have been grown in the area since the 1890s, and the towns of Fruita, Grand Junction, and Palisade have been famous for cherries, peaches, and other produce for decades.  The 32,000 acres of growing area are unique in many ways.  First, the region only averages around ten inches of precipitation a year, and though grape vines grow well under adverse conditions, this just would not be enough water for great vineyards.  However, what the Grand Valley has as its secret weapon is the Colorado River!  The river runs through the entire valley, from the Grand Mesa on the east to the Colorado National Monument on the west, providing wonderful irrigation for grape and produce growers.  The Grand Mesa (the largest flat-topped mountain in the world) provides shelter for the eastern most vines.  The high altitude—4,700 feet in elevation and among the highest elevation of vineyards in the world—allows for cool nights to partner with hot days.  The winters here are much milder than in the mountainous parts of the state, and a longer growing season allows for grapes to reach later stages of ripeness while still retaining good acid structure.  These factors make superb growing conditions for a multitude of vitis vinifera grapes—no need for hybrids here—like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, etc.  In fact, the Grand Valley loves the Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot vines; these grapes grow incredibly well here.  Many single varietal wines are made from these two unique grapes usually saved for blending only. 
Beautiful vines in the green valley.

Unique landscape of desert soil and the canyon walls.

The Grand Valley grows a large part of the grapes used to make wines all over the state of Colorado.  It is also home to seventy-five percent of the wineries in the state; there are currently 26 wineries, and I look for that number to keep growing.  On the east end of the valley, near the Grand Mesa, is Canyon Wind Cellars, our first stop.  This well-established and venerable winery has been producing wine since 1996 and has some of the older, modern vines in the area (growing since 1991).  This "grand" first stop set the bar high for the vineyards on the rest of our trip!  In the desert area in the southern part of the valley is Reeder Mesa Vineyards, a smaller, family-owned operation that was recently named the Best Winery at the Mesa County Fair (among other awards, as well).  Here, winemaker Doug tasted with us and took us through his Riesling vines.  In the more central area of the region was another small winery, Hermosa Vineyards.  Again, the winemaker, Kenneth, tasted with us and did a barrel sample for us.  Farthest west was Two Rivers Winery, producing wine since 1999 and one of the larger producers in the Grand Valley, making an average of 15,000 cases a year.  In between these we also stopped at Carlson Vineyards, Colorado Cellars Winery, Maison La Belle Vie, Mesa Park Vineyards, Plum Creek Cellars, and Whitewater Hill Vineyards. 
The Grand Valley--Colorado wine country!

I plan to write specific blogs on several of the ten wineries where we tasted over the course of the two days (Canyon Wind Cellars, Reeder Mesa, and Hermosa Vineyards), so I don’t want to give away too much here.  However, I will say that the Grand Valley and Colorado wines have an incredibly bright future in this “grand” and booming wine industry!  Most of the tasting rooms we spent time at gave us wonderful and exceptional attention, letting the wines sell themselves, but also helping us get to know the wines along the way.  The friendly faces and customer service made for a very special weekend spent visiting our close neighbor, Colorado.  The Grand Valley was worth the "short trip" where we were treated to great wines and even grander hospitality.  Colorado’s first and largest AVA definitely lived up to its name!  Colorado wines…they are "grand"!

Grand vines in the Grand Valley.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wine Drinkers are Made, Not Born--Black Hills Wineries

Okay, I am not sure if this is scientifically true, but I know this is anecdotically (may have just made my own word) true.  What I mean is I have seen numerous people become drinkers of better wine just from drinking more wine.  My favorite story is of my sister-in-law who when she started drinking, drank only the sweetest wines she could get her hands on, like Moscato.  Within one year of drinking wine regularly, she was a California Cabernet drinker!  Now that is a palate that developed quickly!  At the end of June, my daughter turned 21, so I saw the fabulous opportunity to build the palate of her and her newly-21-year-old friends!  They weren’t born with Riedel in their hands, but they are now on the path to learning how to drink wine, that’s for sure!

            Finally legal, the last of her friends to be so, Ashlyn came home for the long Fourth of July weekend.  Before coming I asked if she might want to stop at a winery (or two), and she was very excited.  So of course, I took that inch she gave me and went a mile, deciding to visit three of my favorite wineries in the Black Hills over two days.  Each winery has different qualities that make it special and different qualities for wine newbies to enjoy.  (I have written about each of these wineries at some point before, but they are worth a recap today.)  Of course, Ashlyn, Caitlin, and (later) Dorothy were trying the sweeter wines at each stop.  However, please don’t cringe at this.  I have always considered sweet wines “gateway wines” that will eventually open the door for other wines.  Again, making a wine drinker does not necessarily happen over night!

Winery One:  Naked Tasting Room, Hill City

            Naked Winery is a tasting room for Naked Wines produced in Hood River, Oregon.  There are two tasting rooms in the Black Hills, the Hill City location, where we stopped, and the Custer location.  Hill City is unique in that it is now producing its own beers under the Sick and Twisted label and has started to blend its own wines that were first produced in Oregon and then shipped to South Dakota for blending, bottling, and labeling.  My only rule here was I wanted the girls to try the traditional vitis vinifera grape wines, not the super-sweet other fruit wines.  The novice wine drinkers balked at first…that is until they took their first sip!  They started with an off-dry pink wine—Booty Call Blush—and their love for wine began.  They tried several whites, from Score Sweet White to Tease Riesling to Sundressed Outdoor Vino.  The girls enjoyed them all, but their favorite was Cougar, a semi-sparkling white from Oregon grapes.  They did try one peach-Moscato blend, and I was very pleased when that was almost too sweet for their blooming pallets…all good news for a sommelier mom!
Winery number one--Naked Winery tasting room in Hill City.
Fun and funny merchandise at Naked.
Winery Two:  Prairie Berry, Hill City

            My daughter has been to Prairie Berry on several occasions before; it is one of my favorite places for lunch, and I have requested Mother’s Day brunch here with the family on more than one occasion.  However, she was excited to be able to enjoy some wine with her food for a change!  We ordered food before tasting, and Ashlyn tried a wine cocktail, the Blue Suede Shoes blueberry wine with lemonade.  (I have had this before and knew it was a yummy summer drink!)  After the fabulous food, we started sipping some of PBW’s sweeter wines.  Of course, the first one to try had to be the flagship wine that put Prairie Berry on the map, Red Ass Rhubarb.  This and Lawrence Elk were standouts in the wine lineup.  The girls did try one of the sweetest wines on the menu, Calamity Jane, reminiscent of Concord grape juice.  Again, I love Calamity as a gateway wine that gets people hooked on wine, but to my pleasure, it was also too sweet for my wine drinkers in-the-making.  Stop two and once more, sommelier mom is happy with the palate progress. 
One Prairie Berry's outdoor stairway.

Winery Three:  Belle Joli, Deadwood

            I love Belle Joli’s story.  Winemaker Matt went to enology school in California, then came back to South Dakota to grow the majority of the fruit for the wines he and his wife Choi make.  Belle Joli is very much a family affair, with Matt’s parents also acting as brawn (and maybe some brain) for the operation, which is still small but has plans for expansion with new vines and a new facility near Sturgis.  My group of wine novices had grown to three by this point, and the young ladies were very pleased with all of the Belle Joli wines they tasted.  La’ Lure (an award winning wine) started off the tasting with a splash, and the positive progress continued through the Edelweiss, Mon Cherry, pear dessert wine, and peach dessert wine (both mimicking the sugar content of ice wines).  The favorite was a tie between La’ Lure (a blend of Edelweiss and Riesling) and Edelweiss, showing that the beginners have already moved on to German-style wines, a wine win as far as sommelier Kara is concerned!

Tasting at the outdoor tables at Belle Joli in Deadwood.

            So yes, building a wine palate that can impress others often takes years; however, learning to appreciate wines is the first step to loving more complicated and serious wines.  I often think of where I would be now if I had started appreciating wine at age 21.  Over twenty years of wine experience instead of ten and who knows what I might know now…I guess we’ll see in ten years, won’t we (wink).  I do know that I loved sharing one of my loves (wine) with one of my loves (my only daughter).  I also tried to use it as a tool to teach these college students about responsible drinking for enjoyment, of which I have always said wine is the epitome.  Wine is meant to be sipped and enjoyed, slowly with food, as an experience often shared with others.  This experience is now passed on to three more (hopefully) wine lovers.  And to all of you:  keep building that wine palate!  Cheers!