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Finding sustainabilty in the wine business

DENVER – We all learned a couple of things from the recently concluded DrinkLocalWine 2012 conference here, among them that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who played a key role in the early days of the state’s micro-brewery industry, is a staunch supporter of Colorado wine.

Hickenlooper made a couple of much-appreciated appearances (well, one that I know of, but he was agile enough it seemed like he was several places at once, a sure sign of a capable politician) during the conference, including the opening dinner Friday night where he encouraged and challenged the visiting bloggers to explore Colorado wines.

Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar and Gov. John Hickenlooper were welcome guests for the opening dinner of the DLW 2012 conference in Denver.

“What the Colorado wineries are doing right now, it’s so similar to what Colorado brewpubs and microbreweries were doing 25 years ago,” said Hicklenlooper. “They’re beginning to see that success.”

Thanks to Jacob Harkins at localwinos.com and Colorado Urban Winefest for the video.

How do you measure success? I think Colorado winemakers, and here you can substitute any state except maybe the Big Three (Cal., Wash., Ore.), are struggling to find the secret to success. Success, like eternal happiness, true love or the perfect apple pie, has many interpretations.

Maybe it’s “economical sustainability,” a phrase from state enologist Steve Menke. “Colorado is running out of room (to grow) vinifera” grapes, Menke said, suggesting hybrid varietals may spur further growth in the industry.

While some winemakers dream of reaching bigger markets and pushing more cases out the door, I don’t think Colorado is alone in having a handful of its 100 or so licensed wineries seemingly not concerned with growth. If, that is, you mean turning what really is a full-time hobby into a full-time profession.

Many winemakers seem quite content to make their 500 or so cases of wine each year, an amount they can sell easily to the tourists wandering off the highway. Do the winemakers make a living doing that? Probably not, but there are a lot of second-income winemakers in Colorado who don’t rely on wine sales to pay the bills. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to make great wine, it just means they don’t have to make great wine to hear compliments on their wine.

Colorado’s not unique that way. Winemaking regions worldwide have benefited from fortunes big or small made elsewhere. And often that money allows winemakers the freedom to experiment, making everyday good wines while moving toward that great wine.

However, having that back-up bankroll may keep us from improving. State viticulturist Horst Caspari often reminds winemakers in the cool-climate North Fork Valley that getting a grape crop every third year is not the road to economic sustainabilty. Still some winemakers carry on, making elegant pinot noirs and cabernet francs every year they have the grapes and cultivating a following that waits patiently for every vintage.

Would the industry benefit if some winemakers quit pinning their hopes on temperamental pinot noir and started focusing on hardy nonvinifera varietals such as noiret, baco noir or traminette? Can’t say. Some of the nonvinifera hybrids I tasted last weekend weren’t very good. I had a Norton from Pennsylvania that was smooth, balanced and similar to a cabernet franc, but right next to that was a Norton from Virginia that was foxy, a bit rank and hard to swallow. The grape or the winemaker?

Economic sustainability? You have to give consumers what they want or think they want. Sweet reds, oaky whites, fruit-forward wines with soft tannins and berry pie flavors. Maybe not the most-complex wines but they sell.

Personal sustainability? Making elegant pinot noirs every third year may not pay all the bills, but it soothes the soul.

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