Making High-Altitude Wine at Jackson Hole Winery

Food & Drink

Anthony Schroth grew up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, spending his free time skiing and snowmobiling in the winter, and hiking and river rafting in the summer. He never dreamed that one day he would start the first winery in Jackson Hole, making wine at the foot of the Grand Tetons at an elevation of 6,229 feet. Today Jackson Hole Winery produces around 48,000 bottles of wine per year (4,000 cases), frequently selling out the entire production to eager customers across the U.S. It is also one of only a handful of wineries making wine at such a high elevation.

Transitioning from Baseball to the Wine Industry

But the dream of making high-altitude wine didn’t happen overnight; coming to fruition more because of chance circumstances, creativity, and hard work. When Anthony’s parents, Bob and Linda Schroth, encouraged him to accept a baseball scholarship and study marketing at Sonoma State University, they didn’t know he would hurt his shoulder, effectively ending his baseball career. Then, when Anthony found that the class he needed to graduate was cancelled due to California State budget cuts, his counselor encouraged him to enroll in a Wine Business class as an elective to maintain his credit level.

“That class changed my life,” said Schroth. “I never thought about wine as a career choice, but it was fascinating.” So he decided to complete a double concentration in marketing and wine business; staying an extra year in college and completing an internship at a Napa Valley winery.

“I was hired by O’Brien Estate to help out in the vineyard and cellar,” reported Schroth. “During harvest, the days were 12 hours long, but I was so excited to be there. It was the first job I had where I was looking forward to going to work each morning and didn’t even need coffee. Somedays they had to ask me to go home because I didn’t want to stop working. It was then that I knew I had found my passion.”

Anthony also realized that the layout of O’Brien Estate was similar to his parents 17-acre property on the outskirts of Jackson Hole. “It was originally an old dairy,” said Schroth, “and I could envision setting up a winery and tasting room there in the 100-year old barn. It became a dream that I couldn’t get out of my head.”

But Anthony’s parents encouraged him to get more experience before they were willing to let him establish a winery on the family property. So upon graduation he obtained a position at Harvest Moon Winery in Sonoma County, learning the business and hospitality side of the industry. Next he started his own wine brand, Premonition Cellars, in Petaluma, California, and soon was producing award-winning pinot noir and zinfandel wines.

With the success of the Premonition brand, in 2009, Anthony’s parents finally agreed that their son could start a winery on the family property, just a 7-minute drive from downtown Jackson Hole, with a view of the Grand Tetons. So Anthony purchased winemaking equipment and set up operations, along with converting the 100-year old barn into a tasting room.

The Magic of Fermenting Wine at High Altitudes

“My plan was to plant a small vineyard near the winery, but we found that unexpected snow and frost in July would destroy the grapes, so I decided to purchase grapes in Sonoma and Napa and truck them to Jackson Hole,” explained Schroth. “So my mother and I rented a Budget truck and loaded it with freshly harvested grapes surrounded by dry ice pellets. We took turns driving the 17 to 20 hour trip through the night so that we could de-stem and crush the grapes while still fresh for fermentation.”

It was then that Anthony discovered that fermenting wine grapes at over 6,000 feet actually provided some unexpected benefits. “There is 18% less oxygen at this high elevation and the climate is cooler,” he reported, “so the grapes ferment slower, allowing more juice to skin contact. In California fermentation takes 2-3 weeks, but in Wyoming it can take 3 to 4 weeks.” This allows for more integration of flavors and higher quality wine. “We also use less energy in our barrel room because it is naturally cool most of the year.”

Building a Wine Brand One Bottle at a Time

There is an old saying in the wine industry that, “anyone can learn to make good wine, but the hard part is selling it.” With more than 11,000 wineries in the U.S., gaining brand recognition can be quite challenging – especially for a small unknown winery. But Anthony’s marketing and sales experience working in Napa and Sonoma wineries paid off, because he understood the importance of building relationships with distributors and setting up direct to consumer (DTC) sales.

The location of the winery just outside of Jackson Hole was another positive, and soon Anthony was selling his wines in most of the restaurants in town, and visitors were booking tastings at the winery and joining the wine club. A big breakthrough came with he met A.J. Puccia, Sommelier and Wine Director of the Four Seasons Jackson Hole. “A.J. is incredibly knowledgeable about wine,” said Schroth. “He began serving our wine by the glass at the Four Seasons, introducing it to visitors from around the world.”

After a few years, A.J. asked if he could assist with harvest, and soon he was deeply involved with winemaking. Today’s he retains his Sommelier job at the Four Seasons, but also serves as Assistant Winemaker at Jackson Hole Winery.

The Future and Expansion to Other Wine Regions

Today Jackson Hole Winery has been in business for over 12 years, has 6 full-time employees, and offers customers 10 different wines. The wines range from pinot noir and chardonnay to cabernet sauvignon, red blends, rose and sparkling wine, amongst others. Many of them sell out regularly on the website.

Over the years the Schroth’s purchased 7 vineyards in Sonoma County to source their grapes, and they continue to buy premium grapes from Napa Valley. “Recently we’ve begun to source grapes from Horse Heaven Hill in Washington State also,” said Schroth. “It’s 300 miles closer to us and the fruit is exceptional as well.”

And so with a dream born of chance encounters and hard work, each autumn the team continues the mad race of harvesting grapes in California and Washington, and then driving through the night and day so the grapes arrive fresh for fermentation in Wyoming at the foothills of the Grand Tetons. Visitors to the winery can sip a glass of wine on the patio overlooking a green meadow and flowing stream, or wander around the property to view the Grand Tetons in the distance.

“I kept thinking that something was going to dash my dreams of opening the first winery in Jackson Hole,” said Schroth, “but amazingly it has all worked out. Some people might think I’m crazy to do this – I know my parents did at first – but when a dream fills your head and won’t go away, you’ve got to give it a try.”

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