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Mother’s Day gets ‘Uncorked’ in the West Elks AVA

May 10, 2018 Comments off
Wineopeners NF Uncorked 2018.jpg

Mother’s Day offers the perfect beginning to a season of winery related dinners and special events in the West Elks AVA and the North Fork Valley. Photo and story by Dave Buchanan.

Some notes on events taking place in the West Elks AVA marking Mother’s Day (Sunday May 13) and beyond:

Mother’s Day Brunch at Alfred Eames Cellars – This is the first in a summer series of monthly smorgasbord-style brunches hosted by Eames and Pam Petersen. Hours: 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., cost is $15 for all you can eat (or until the food runs out). Live music from 11-2 featuring David Sheppard. Reservations requested but not required. Information and directions: 970-527-6290 or www.pams-jammin.com. Email: pvinsong@gmail.com. 11931 4050 Rd, Paonia.

Mother’s Day Dinner featuring Stone Cottage Cellars – The wines of Stone Cottage Cellars and the culinary talents of Chef Chelsea Bookout will be featured Sunday at the Locavore at the Auction House dinner, 530 Grand Ave., Paonia. 6:30 p.m., five courses paired with Stone Cottage Cellars wine, $70 per person. Reservations: PaoniaBreadWorks@gmail.com or 970-527-5376.

North Fork “Uncorked”, which highlights the wineries of the North Fork Valley and West Elks AVA wine country, this year happens June 15-17. Special wine dinners and events throughout the weekend, including two full days of tasting the newest releases and special food pairings at all participating wineries. Dinners are scheduled for June 15 at SkyHawk Winery and Leroux Creek Vineyards; June 16 – Stone Cottage Cellars, and June 17 at Alfred Eames Cellars (9 a.m.- 1 p.m. brunch only). Information: WestElksAVA.com or 970-390-4251.

 

 

It’s time for a change, but is it spring or another blast of winter?

March 20, 2018 Comments off
190318 FD wine plum blossoms blossoms

Early heralds of the season to come, these plum blossoms may or may not survive to produce fruit, depending on the weather. Some fruit growers in western Colorado say they get plums and apricots about one year in 10. Story, photos by Dave Buchanan

A change is coming to the high desert of western Colorado. Observant hikers already have noticed miniscule blossoms poking out from desert shrubs, including such early bloomers as shadscale and saltbush.

In the city, winter-weary eyes are greeted by puffy blossoms of plum, apricot and serviceberry, glowing popcorn-white against winter-dark wood.

For fruit growers, however, this means restless nights, knowing it won’t be long until their sleep is broken by the roar of wind machines keeping the frost at bay.

Meanwhile, the vineyards sleep on. Even as eager gardeners eye emerging crocuses and dig into the cool soil as if spring were buried there, the vines wait unperturbed.

The vines are not fooled.

“Everything is still pretty much asleep,” noted Horst Caspari, state viticulturist at the CSU Orchard Mesa Research Station. “They don’t wake up very quickly. Each week they lose some of their cold-hardiness and each week they get closer to waking up.”

Caspari let his eyes wander to the apricot and pluot trees outside his window at the research station near the northwest corner of B and 32 roads on Orchard Mesa. He doesn’t harvest the fruit; the trees are there for decoration and to act as Nature’s calendar of seasons.

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Winemaker Guy Drew of Guy Drew Vineyards in McElmo Canyon near Cortez in southwestern Colorado checks some early bud development in his grape vines. Growers regularly monitor bud growth and survival, looking for hints of the crop to come.

“Once the trees and vines get to bud break, all the cold hardiness changes,” he said. “Look at the apricots. I’d expect we’ll see the first flowers in the valley this week but if it drops to 29 degrees, you’ll lose them.”

Bud break, when nascent buds emerge from the protective cover and show themselves to the world, is when spring really arrives in the Grand Valley, no matter what the calendar or the thermometer says.

When a visitor remarked that his plum tree was “thisclose” to flowering, Caspari laughed.

“Well, you probably won’t have any plums to pick up this fall,” he said.

Records suggest that the last spring frosts are coming come earlier and the first fall frosts arriving later, adding a few days on each end of the Grand Valley’s growing season.

Caspari, who refers to killing frosts below 30 degrees, said that in the 54 years of records the Research Station has kept, the median date for the last frost (below 30 degrees) is April 25 while the first fall frost comes around October 23.

That’s not absolute, he emphasized.

“In 2016, we got hit pretty hard when we had 19.8 degrees on Nov. 16,” he said.

In those years, the same records indicate the valley has picked up “about a week” of frost-free (i.e., not a killing frost) growing, Caspari said.

A few days in the spring and about the same in the fall.

“We definitely have changed in the fall,” he said.

Of course, the changes are not limited to western Colorado.

NASA reports the average global temperature has increased about 0.8-degree Celsius (1.4-degrees degrees F) since 1880.

Two-thirds of that, says NASA, has occurred since 1975, just about the time U.S. wines broke onto the world’s stage at the famed Judgment of Paris.

During the 2017 Vinexpo in Bordeaux, France, growers and winemakers alike voiced concern about a warming climate and its effect on winemaking.

“Vines are very sensitive plants,” Gaia Gaja, co-owner of the 159-year old Gaja Winery in Barbaresco, Italy, told the French Press Agency. “They’re like a thermometer. They register every little variation that there is around them.”

Which brings us to spring of 2018, where things are bit behind last year.

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Late March still is too early in the Grand Valley for grape tendrils but it won’t be long until delicate leaves such as these add a shade of green to brown vines.

“I keep track of the budding time of my flowers, my bulbs, and it’s been pretty fascinating,” winemaker Nancy Janes of Whitewater Hill Vineyards said recently. “It has not been unusual historically for me to have crocuses bloom in the middle of February and this year my crocuses are just blooming right now.”

She said the warm days have been balanced by nights dipping into the low 30s “and that’s keeping things pretty dormant.”

Caspari also noted that the spring so far is about two weeks behind 2017.

“Last year we had bud break in the second week of March and we don’t normally get bud break in Chardonnay until the fourth week in April,” he said.

One way to look at the spring re-awakening, said Caspari, is to envision a circle, with winter cold at the bottom and spring warmth at the top. Does the temperature rise gradually, following the arc of the circle, or is there a sudden bottom-to-top jump, bridging the gap and going quickly from winter to spring?

“That changes how you think about what you have to do to have a crop,” Caspari said.

Most grape growers are busy pre-pruning, getting ready for that last flurry of cutting and shaping when the growing season finally arrives. Will it come with a rush or will western Colorado sink back into another spell of winter, delaying the bud break and pushing development later into fall?

Nancy Janes gazed out of her winery at the still-sleeping vineyard sloping away to the north. A few clouds could be seen drifting far over the Bookcliffs in the pale, late-winter sky.

“So far, it’s been a very nice winter for us,” she said. “And you know, grapes aren’t fooled easily. They know when things are ready.”

Time for a drink? Dry winter has grape growers watching the sky

January 15, 2018 Comments off
011718 FD wine art vines

This winter has been neither extremely cold nor extremely wet, and only the first pleases grape growers. Grape vines are being freeze-dried as they lose moisture during the winter months.

If you’ve taken a stroll across your lawn recently, you know how parched things are.

January normally is a dry month for Colorado but until this past week’s smatter of moisture this winter has been especially dry. Certainly not normal, even for the high desert, and home owners in western Colorado have been urged to water trees and landscaping to prevent future damage.

But what do you do when your “landscaping” involves acres of grape vines?

The Grand Valley is no stranger to dealing with cold damage to grape vines. Hard winters (including the devastating winter of 2002/03 and most-recently in 2014) are among the challenges facing grape growers.

But this year, with daytime temperatures still climbing into the high 30s to mid- 40s (at this writing it is 48 degrees in Grand Junction) with nary a lick of snow on the ground, brings a new set of challenges.

Grape vines store a sort of anti-freeze in the form of stored sugars from last year’s photosynthesis but deep cold still can damage or kill buds, trunks and canes.

Also, a long, dry winter can desiccate older plants and kill young ones.

“We’re basically freeze-drying the vine tissue,” explained Horst Caspari, state

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Except for the ground surface being dry, there’s nothing wrong with this vine a good snowstorm won’t fix.

viticulturist at Colorado State University’s Orchard Mesa Research Center. “Over the last three months we’ve had virtually no significant moisture, so it’s definitely a concern.”

While night-time temperatures aren’t far the long-term average, daytime temperature are averaging about 12 degrees above normal. Caspari said.

As any fruit grower can attest, winter damage often doesn’t show itself until spring, when warmer temperatures start the regrowth process.

“It concerns me, that’s for sure,” said grape grower Kaibab Sauvage, owner of Colorado Vineyard Specialists LLC in Palisade. “Vines can be damaged if they’re dry and they damage more easily at higher temperatures if they’re dry.”

A brochure from the University of California-Davis tells grape growers to maintain some ground moisture during dry winters in order to supply needed moisture for even bud break and flowering once vines break their winter dormancy.

Most vineyards in western Colorado get a heavy watering just prior to the irrigation canals being shut off, which usually is adequate for surviving the winter and getting a head-start for the following spring.

“We try to get the soil profile really full of water in the last week before we lose the (irrigation) water,” said Nancy Janes of Whitewater Hill Vineyards and Winery. “Around the last week of October, after we get things hardened off for the winter, we’ll blast it with water and hope it makes it pretty well through the year.”

The soil moisture also acts as insulation by filling the gaps that occur in dry soil.

“Most vines send their roots really deep, so they find water even when it’s not obvious,” Sauvage noted. “But young plants and shallow-rooted plants may be struggling right now.”

Snow also helps insulate the ground, particularly the upper few inches.

“Right now, at 6 inches down,  the soil isn’t frozen and it rarely does in our part of the state,” Caspari said. “In wet soil, water is a good insulator but when you’ve had a dry period the frost penetrates much deeper and roots get damaged much easier than do buds.”

“If there was no rain or snow in the forecast, I’d rush out and water today,” he said.

Grower Galen Wallace, who has weathered some 30 winters providing grapes to Colorado’s wine industry, recently said he will be more concerned if the present conditions continue into March.

“So far, I’m not too worried,” he said. “Now, if it stays dry like this and we get some cold weather early in March, even something that’s not unusual, say lower 20s or even in the teens, it could impact our crops.”

Nancy Janes shared that sentiment, saying the mild winter so far has been pretty worry free.

“Most of our challenges seem to come from cold temperatures,” she said. “We may another month of this and then by mid-February or later is when everything starts to change.”

The damage starts to show when the vines break dormancy, Wallace said. “Growers could see a reduction in vigor, so they have to be aware of what’s happening in their vineyards.”

He advised growers to begin irrigating as soon as water is available.

“If the canals are filled on Wednesday, growers should have water running on Friday,” he said. “What worries me more right now is the lack of snow and what it might mean for late-season water.”

Sauvage and other growers in the valley have very few options when it to getting water to his vines.

“We can only hope there are some storms heading our way,” he said.

 

We all started somewhere: Colorado’s amateur winemakers show up every year

November 5, 2017 Comments off
2017 amateur judge 1

Assessing wine, especially from amateur winemakers who often lack the equipment, time and experience of commercial winemakers, is time to reflect. Photo & story by Dave Buchanan.

Traditions take over during the middle months of fall. Homecoming, hunting season, Halloween, Thanksgiving. And one more, the annual Colorado Amateur Winemaking Competition.

You might have missed the last one, but it’s been happening every fall for 15 years or more.

“I remember judging wines in the little building at Palisade Town Park, while the (Colorado Mountain) Winefest was going on outside in the park,” recalled Monte Haltiner during Saturday’s latest competition. “We were judging in this tiny room and all the winemakers were sitting on the opposite side of the table, watching us all the time. It was nerve wracking.”

That was before Winefest outgrew the Town Park and moved to its present location at Riverbend Park.

Haltiner now is the head judge/coordinator for the amateur competition, which is run under the auspices of CAVE (Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology), the folks who bring us Colorado Mountain Winefest.

No judging for Haltiner, except in case of a tie or question about protocol, but he’s busy keeping the actual judges on task.

After the state Legislature this year okayed a change that effectively allows amateur wines (unlicensed, unbonded) to be opened and served at state-licensed establishments, Saturday’s judging was held in a conference room at Wine Country Inn.

In past years, the amateur competition has been held in awkward off-site places such as outbuildings, cottages and the like. This venue change not only makes the judging more comfortable and efficient, it opens the door to Palisade hosting some large-scale amateur competition.

“The international competition attracts several thousand winemakers and usually is held in California or Back East,” Haltiner said. “We’d love to have that event here in Colorado.”

This year’s International Amateur Winemaking competition was held in West Dover, Vt., and attracted 2,497 different wines.

Saturday’s Colorado competition had six judges (disclaimer: I was one of the judges) sipping and spitting their way through 94 wines, 20 flights in all, ranging in size from three wines to seven. Or was it eight, nine maybe?

One forgets to count after 80-some wines.

The results will be announced in January at the annual VinCo conference and trade show  Jan. 15-18 at Two Rivers Convention Center.

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.

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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 wine-searcher.com.

Sonoma, Cal., grape workers are starting their days at 3 a.m.to 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.