When people think of the economic drivers of Colorado’s tourism industry, the obvious ones quickly surface. Cannabis, craft beer, skiing, hiking, and camping all draw crowds of visitors to the Mile High State. But another industry steadily attracts more and more visitors every year, but continues to fly under the radar, but that could soon change. We are talking about the wine industry.
Although wine has been produced in Colorado since the late 19th century, the industry essentially got its start in 1990 when new laws allowed independent wineries to set up shop. Since then, the number of wineries has grown from five in 1990 to more than 170, according to the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. This has led to an average annual growth rate of 10%. A large portion of the wineries operate inside two United States Wine Areas (AVAs), Grand Valley and West Elks.
Located in the Western Slope region of the Rocky Mountains, which bisects the state, the booming wine industry draws tourists to a part of the state often overlooked by tourists. But with over 300 days of sunshine a year and alkaline soils resembling many famous European growing regions, Rieslings and a range of full-bodied reds (Malbec, Syrah and Petit Verdot) thrive in both AVAs. In addition, the arid climate and high altitude of the western slope result in a relative absence of endemic pests and diseases in the more humid growing regions. This means growers can forgo the use of pesticides and other chemicals. All of these factors have led to a growing legion of fans booking trips there.
Nowhere is this wine tourism more evident than in and around the town of Grand Junction. Located at the convergence of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers, 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, along with access to world-class outdoor adventures (rafting, hiking, mountain biking) just outside of town, led Wine Enthusiast to include the Grand Valley region on its list of 10 best wine getaways in 2018.
The often changing climatic conditions of the Grand Valley differentiate the vineyards from the more established wine regions of the United States. This helped create a willingness to experiment with wine production and led to an influx of young winemakers pushing the boundaries.
“There has been a dynamic group of new winemakers moving into the area over the past decade, taking over from the first generation of winemakers here,” said Josh Niernberg, a James Beard nominee and chef and co-owner of Bin 707 food bar at Grand Junction. “They’re bringing a new style of winemaking that has people starting to take notice of Colorado wines.”
One of the new breeds 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 near Palisade, a town famous for its peaches. Operating in a former peach packing warehouse, its industrial-minded tasting room serves several Colorado wines that often surprise its visitors.
“People are often shocked when they drink Colorado wine; it’s just not what they expected. There has always been huge potential for wines here due to the large daily temperature swings and the interesting grapes that thrive here,” says Parsons. “We’re just starting to see what we can do, and it’s only going to get better.”
The nearby vineyards also attract tourists to try their bottles. Evolve Wines focuses on wines without filtration to retain their sparkle, while Sauvage Spectrum produces 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 producing wines for over 150 years in the Loire Valley. At the same time, venerable producers like Plum Creek Winery, the state’s oldest continually operating winery, thrive on bringing in new winemakers to work with their established teams.
If the meteoric growth of Colorado’s craft beer industry is any indication, it’s likely the state won’t soon see a dip in dollars entering the state to try another local libation. One that has more than doubled in the past decade and brings in almost $100 million in revenue for the state. This should lead to continued expansion of winemakers settling in and sustained economic growth for another local industry in a state known to them.