Archive for September, 2017

Colorado Mountain Winefest 2017: It’s hard not to smile when you’re the best wine festival in the U.S.

September 22, 2017 Comments off
Jacob Winefest

Jacob Helleckson of Stone Cottage Cellars in Paonia works through a tangle of arms as thirsty Festival in the Park goers pack into the Stone Cottage booth Saturday during the Colorado Mountain Winefest. More than 50 wineries were pouring their latest offerings. Story and photos by Dave Buchanan.

A full two hours before the gates opened to Saturday’s Festival in the Park, an exclamation point to the 26th annual Colorado Mountain Winefest presented by Alpine Bank, the line of ticketholders curled back beyond the sign warning would-be attendees no more tickets were available.

Stalking past the boldly lettered “Sold Out” sign, the line twisted around the corner of Pendleton Avenue and up toward William Court.

There, a traffic control sign proclaimed “Residence only”, a mixed signal only a recovering editor might notice but easily understood nonetheless.

Such a turnout has become the new norm for a wine festival recently ranked the best in the U.S. by USAToday’s 10Best list.

“I’m amazed,” said an obviously pleased Cassidee Shull, executive director of Winefest and the Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology, on seeing the exuberant line of festival goers. “This is the third year we’ve sold out. Maybe we’re not a secret anymore.”
And she laughed.

Saturday, a lot of people were laughing. And pushing up to the 50-plus wineries, reaching for free wine, and stomping grapes, and enjoying the music and seminars and VIP tent and Colorado sunshine. Oh, did I mention reaching for free wine?

Glug, glug, went the bottles. Slurp, slurp went the crowds.

Winefest2017 crowd pouring

Everywhere you went during Saturday’s Colorado Mountain Winefest were winemakers pleasing thirsty wine lovers.

Admittedly, Saturday morning at the Festival in the Park is not the best time to interview winemakers, who spend most of the day with their heads down, trying to stay one bottle ahead of the hordes of wine lovers.

But even with this year’s festival blessed by clear skies, perfect temperatures and a crowd whose only two rules seemed to be No. 1 – Have fun, and No. 2 – see No. 1, something was missing.

Oh, yes. Somewhere, not too far away, was a summer’s worth of grapes screaming to be picked.

“Man, we’re right in the middle of harvest,” Garrett Portra of Carlson Vineyards said during a brief pause in the day’s nonstop bottom’s up. “We’ve already crushed 70 tons, including most of our Muscat, Gewurztraminer and Riesling and all of our Lemberger. And we should have another 50-56 tons yet to come in.”

Portra said harvest is running “at least two weeks early,” a sentiment shared by most winemakers.

“We’ve already picked 150 tons and should be getting another 250,” said Bruce Talbott, the area’s largest grape grower. “We’re right in the middle of harvest. I’ve got crews all over the valley picking grapes. Give us another three weeks and we’ll have it done.”

Last week’s short rain delay might have been a blessing for some winemakers. The wet ground prevented crews from getting into the field and opened a day for the winemakers to attend Winefest.

“There really wasn’t enough rain to make a big difference, maybe the next morning it might have been an issue, but with Winefest we didn’t have anyone to pick anyway,” said Nancy Janes of Whitewater Hill Vineyards and Winery on 32 Road. “It’s about 2-3 weeks ahead, but the grapes are looking really good, the quality is fabulous and we have beautiful consistency.”

Her report illustrates how weather differently affects the east and west ends of Orchard Mesa. While Janes said she didn’t see much hail at 32 Road, Palisade, roughly at 38 Road and pinched by the steep slopes of Mount Garfield and Grand Mesa, can see more violent weather.

Wayne's ice carving

Chef Wayne Smith, head instructor for the culinary program at Western Colorado Community College, carved this ice wine-luge from two 100-blocks of ice during Saturday’s Festival in the Park.

And so it was that Naomi Smith of Grande River Vineyards in Palisade said the hail came fast enough some people pulled under shelters to protect themselves and their cars.

“We haven’t been out in the fields yet to see if there was any damage,” she said. “But everything has come on fast so we’ve been back-to-back picking and pressing. There was a lot of rain but so you can’t pick right now anyway because the grapes fill with water and aren’t good for winemaking.

“But it’s OK because we’re way ahead of schedule and besides, today’s Winefest.”

Over at the ice-carving exhibit, Chef Wayne Smith of Western Colorado Community College and Travion Shinault, a student in the WCCC culinary program, were wrestling two 100-pound blocks of ice into position.

Smith’s plan was to create an icy wine luge, complete with pouring spout and a frozen likeness of Mount Garfield. He picked up a small electric chain saw and grinned at Shinault.

“Bet you never thought you’d be using one of these in culinary school, did you?” he asked the burly Shinault.

“Man, this is all new to me,” said Shinault. And he laughed.



It’s never really easy: 2017 grape harvest dealing with high temperatures, too few workers

September 13, 2017 Comments off
Yvon harvest

Colorado’s 2017 grape harvest is in full swing. Photo and story by Dave Buchanan

While the wine grape harvest in western Colorado continues at a steady pace, other wine-growing regions have not had it so benign.

Rains, prolonged high temperatures and a shortage of skilled workers have made this harvest even more problematic than usual.

As reported earlier, much of the Texas grape harvest (fifth-largest winemaking region in the U.S.) went largely unscathed by the torrential rains and wind of Hurricane Harvey, with only the Gulf Coast vineyards receiving any damage.

California, dealing with weeks of triple-digit heat in some areas, has faced what’s been the hottest summer since, well, 2016, according to the California Weather Blog. Over the Labor Day weekend, winemakers in Napa reported temperatures in excess of 110 degrees for three consecutive days.

Plus, a labor shortage has growers scrambling for pickers, according to

Sonoma, Cal., grape workers are starting their days at 3 avoid picking in the heat, which affects workers as well as the grapes.

High temperature can cause vines to shut down and grapes to dehydrate and shrivel, which means sugar levels increase even though grape ripeness lags.

Growers in western Colorado have suffered through weeks of 90-degree plus temperatures, and while those levels aren’t unusual, they skew the decision of when to commence picking.

This depends on many factors, including the winemaker’s desired level of ripeness, sugar levels (expressed as brix), pH levels (low pH wines are crisp and tart, high pH wines may grow bacteria) and tannin ripeness.

Often, the decision of when to pick depends on the availability of workers. Skilled, experienced workers are in high demand and rare is the grower in Colorado who can afford to keep crews when they aren’t working. Which means waiting your turn and “borrowing” picking crews from other growers, hoping the crew arrives when your grapes are ready to be picked.

At least one Grand Valley grower this week told me his harvest date is “when we can get the workers.”

Kyle Schlachter named to Top 40 under 40 – Kyle Schlachter, a familiar face to the Colorado wine industry in his role as Outreach Coordinator for the state Department of Agriculture and the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, recently (and deservedly so) was named to the Wine Enthusiast’s “Top 40 under 40 Tastemakers for 2017.”

The 40 men and women “are shaping the future of wine, beer, cider and spirits in America,” according to Wine Enthusiast. Schlachter has been a tireless promoter of Colorado wine and the Drink Local Wine movement, advocating people explore the diversity available in wines produced locally.

Waiting out the storm: surviving a wine crisis in North Texas

September 1, 2017 Comments off
Mad max

Laura Giles (@lgiles) posted this Friday on her Twitter account with the cutline “Rare image of the last known fuel shipment for North Texas.” 

A blog post Friday from my friend Susannah Gold got me thinking about the Texas wine industry post-Hurricane Harvey and while Texans have plenty to worry about, a call to blogger and author Jeff Siegel in Dallas found him stewing a bit over the situation.

“We’re close to having a wine crisis here,” lamented Siegel, a regular at the Colorado Governor’s Cup Wine Competition and one of the founders of the popular Drink Local Wine movement.

A crisis created not by a hurricane-induced wine shortage but by a citywide bout of gas-buying panic, creating immense lines and unnecessarily depleting some gas stations.

“It was plain old pure panic,” said Siegel, noting his problems are minuscule compared to the challenge facing thousand of his fellow Texans. “It was 1973 all over again.”

That was the year when an oil embargo from OPEC pushed the price of crude from around $3 per barrel to nearly $12 (today it’s around $47) and touched off panic buying and hoarding at gas stations all across the U.S.

In his attempt to fill the nearly empty tank of his compact car, Siegel found long lines tying up gas stations and reports surfaced of people pumping gas into 50-gallon barrels and every container they could find, hoping to stave off, well, what? Despite the damage done by Harvey in and around Houston, Dallas is 250 miles from the center of action and while some supplies have been curtailed, officials said the area has plenty of gas.

“Long lines at North Texas gas pumps fueled panic and crippled regular supplies at gas stations, causing temporary disruptions,” said local officials. It continued, “Outages and low supplies are expected to vary throughout the state.”txsmall_

But what about the Texas wine industry, the fourth-largest in the country? It turns out the great majority of Texas wine country is far away from Houston and missed the big hit, said Mark Hyman of Llano Estacado Winery near Lubbock in the High Plains area of west Texas.

Llano Estacado produces 162,000 cases per year (Colorado produces about 150,00 total) and its grapes come from the High Plains and the vineyards “in far, far West Texas,” Hyman said.

Hyman said some vineyards in the Texas Hill Country region around San Antonio felt the effects of Harvey but most of the wine crop already was in.

“We got some rain (before Harvey hit land) but it dried out in time for harvest,” Hyman said. “The whites are pretty much done and the reds are just coming out. We’ll be finished by the end of September (or early) October.”

As for Siegel, whose blog focuses on affordable wines, he’ll be OK. Among the wines he still has on hand are a Cantina Vignaioli Barbera d’Alba 2014 ($15) and a Tenuta Sant’Antonio Scaia Rosato ($10), which he highly recommends for being “cheap and tasty.”

That we should all have such a crisis.