When people think about the economic drivers of the Colorado tourism industry, the obvious ones quickly surface. Cannabis, craft beer, skiing, hiking, and camping all bring throngs of visitors to the Mile High State. But another industry has been steadily drawing more visitors each year yet is still flying under the radar, but that could soon change. We’re talking about the wine industry.
Though wine has been produced in Colorado since the late nineteenth century, the industry essentially jump-started in 1990 when new laws allowed independent wineries to take root. Since then, the number of vineyards has expanded from just five in 1990 to over 170, according to the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. That has led to a 10% average annual growth rate. A large portion of the wineries operate inside two American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s), Grand Valley and West Elks.
Located in the Western Slope region of the Rocky Mountains, that effectively split the state in two, the burgeoning wine industry is attracting tourists to a part of the state that is often overlooked by tourists. But with more than 300 days of sunshine each year, and alkaline soils resembling many famous European growing regions, Rieslings and an array of full-bodied reds (Malbec, Syrah, and Petit Verdot’s) thrive in both AVA’s. Plus, the Western Slope’s arid climate and high altitude results in the relative absence of pests and diseases endemic in more humid growing regions. That means that growers can forgo the use of pesticides and other chemicals. All these factors have led to a growing legion of fans booking trips there.
Nowhere is that wine tourism more evident than in the city of Grand Junction and its surrounding area. Located at the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers convergence, it’s a study in contrasts. Baked red rock and desert dominate to the west, while the mountainsides to the east are home to numerous vineyards, small farms, and orchards. This marriage of opposites, plus the access to world-class outdoor adventures (rafting, hiking, mountain biking) just outside the city, led Wine Enthusiast to include the Grand Valley area on its 10 Best Wine Getaways list in 2018.
The often shifting climatic conditions in the Grand Valley differentiates the vineyards from the more established wine-growing regions in the United States. That has helped create a willingness to experiment with wine production and has led to an influx of younger winemakers pushing boundaries.
“There has been a dynamic group of new winemakers moving into the region over the last decade, taking the baton from the first generation of vintners here,” says Josh Niernberg, a James Beard nominee and the chef and co-owner of Bin 707 Foodbar in Grand Junction. “They are bringing a new style of winemaking that has made people start to notice Colorado wines.”
One of the new breed is Ben Parsons, the award-winning founder of The Infinite Monkey Theorem, one of the pioneers of the Urban Winery movement. He recently opened The Ordinary Fellow in nearby Palisade, a town famous for its peaches. Operating out of an old peach packing warehouse, his industrial-feeling tasting room pours several Colorado wines that often surprise his visitors.
“People are often shocked when they drink Colorado wine; it’s just not anything like what they expected. There has always been such a huge potential for wines here due to the big daily temperature swings and interesting grapes that thrive here,” says Parsons. “We are just starting to see what we can make, and it’s only going to get better.”
Nearby vineyards also are bringing in tourists to try their bottles. Evolve Wines focuses on wines with no filtration to retain brightness, while Sauvage Spectrum makes 100% estate-grown wines, many of which are barrel fermented. Offering a new take on the old school, Masion La Belle Vie is run by a Frenchman whose family has been making wines for over 150 years in the Loire Valley. At the same time, venerable producers like Plum Creek Winery, the oldest continually active winery in the state, are thriving by bringing in new vintners to work with their established teams.
If the meteoric growth of Colorado’s craft beer industry is any indication, then the chances are that the state will not soon see a drop-off in dollars coming into the state to try another home-grown libation. One that has more than doubled in the last decade and contributes almost $100 million in revenue to the state. That should lead to a continuing expansion of wine makers setting up shop and sustained economic growth for yet another home grown industry in a state known for them.