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It’s a wrap: Colorado (mostly) finishes 2017 harvest and it’s a big one

November 5, 2017 Comments off
2017 late harvest grapes 1

Hanging around after harvest. Some grapes from the 2017 harvest went unpicked, either due to lack of demand or when winemakers ran out of storage space. Photo & story by Dave Buchanan.

Talking earlier this summer to winemakers and grape growers across Western Colorado left two impressions: One, All signs earlier this summer pointed to an early harvest and, two, that there was going to be a lot of grapes to harvest. In most cases that has proven true.

“I think everyone is finished except for some late stuff that didn’t get harvested and was left hanging,” state viticulturist Horst Caspari of the CSU research station on Orchard Mesa said last week. “One reason some grapes weren’t harvested is because the wineries’ tanks are full and no one is buying anymore.”

Most winemakers are reporting this year’s harvest took advantage of excellent mid-summer growing conditions and ran about two weeks early across the valley.

Kaibab Sauvage of Colorado Vineyard Specialists LLC in Palisade said he forecast an early harvest last spring after seeing an early bud break (flowering) on his vines.

“We were about 20 days ahead of normal,” said Sauvage, who owns and manages vineyards and sells grapes on contract to winemakers. “This was an excellent harvest, especially because it’s done. We came up with a little unsold fruit but for the most part we got everything sold.”

Sauvage repeated what many grape growers were saying, that the size of the 2015 and 2016 harvests, among the largest in the valley’s history, haven’t left much room for the 2017 crop.

The two previous years allowed wineries to fill their tanks and build some back-stock after disappointing harvests in 2013 and 2014.

But wineries still have much of that back-stock, which means they don’t have extra tanks or storage places open.

“We have a history of feast or famine, and (winemakers) definitely feasted in 2015 and 2016,” Caspari said. “We still have plenty of inventory from last year and sales aren’t increasing by 20 percent every year. Most wineries have bought all they can take or want or both.”

Jenne Baldwin-Eaton, who teaches the viticulture and winemaking courses at Western Colorado Community College, said she had grape growers cautioning her in September about an early harvest.

“The students weren’t quite ready for the grapes when they got delivered,” she said. “I told them, ‘Welcome to the world of winemaking.’”

However, Nancy Janes at Whitewater Hill Vineyards and Winery said her crop, which is west and a bit higher in elevation than most other grape areas in the Grand Valley, finished right on schedule.

“I’d say at this point we’re pretty much right back on track,” Janes said. “So sometime during the course of it we fell back into a more normal schedule.”

She said her harvest, which she expects to be around 90 tons, is up a bit from last year. Some of that, she said, is the growing conditions this year as well as continuing recovery of vines damaged during the hard winters of 2013 and 2014.

Sauvage agreed that 2017 has been excellent for quality.

“Both quality and quantity,” he emphasized. “We were down about five percent from 2016 but that was the biggest year I’ve seen in Colorado for the last 17 years.”

Caspari said early estimates put the 2017 harvest at just over 2,000 tons. When all the numbers come one, this year could eclipse the 2,100 tons harvested in the 2012, the largest yet on record.

 

 

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.

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 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.

Colorado Mtn. Winefest uncorked as best wine festival in U.S.

August 19, 2017 Comments off

As if you really needed another reason to visit Colorado Mountain Winefest….

Thanks to the many fans who voted for Colorado Mountain Winefest presented by Alpine Bank, the annual celebration of Colorado wine and food, has been named the Best Wine Festival in the U.S. by USA Today.

Winefest came out on top of the other finalists in the USA Today’s 10Best website, which enlisted a panel of wine and travel experts to nominate 20 of the best festivals “celebrating wine, wine culture and wine tourism across the country’s top wine-making regions.”

“Thank you to all who voted, and for those who continue to make Colorado Mountain Winefest everything it has grown into for over 25 years.” said Cassidee Shull, Executive Director for Colorado Association for Viticulture & Enology (CAVE) and Colorado Mountain Winefest.

The 2017 Colorado Mountain Winefest presented by Alpine Bank runs Sept. 14-17 at Palisade’s Riverbend Park.

You can see the entire press release, and updated information about Winefest events and tickets, here.

 

Wineries shine like gold during Governor’s Cup competition

July 12, 2017 Comments off
2017 Colo Gov's cup judges

Judges at the 2017 Colorado Governor’s Cup Wine Competition swirled, sniffed and sipped through 346 wines during the two-day event. Among the judges pictured are, from left, Jenni Baldwin-Eaton (plaid shirt), Warren Winiarski and Wayne Belding, closest to camera.  Story/photo by Dave Buchanan

The 2017 Colorado Governor’s Cup Wine Competition came and went over the weekend and of the 12 wines selected for the Governor’s Case were two white wines (including a sparkling Albariño), seven red wines, one fruit wine, one cider and a mead.

The Best of Show wine will be announced Aug. 3 when all the medal winners are celebrated at the official Colorado Governor’s Cup Tasting held at History Colorado Center, 1200 Broadway in Denver. Information here.

This year’s judging featured 324 wines from 46 wineries, a welcome jump of about 25 percent over last year in both categories but still well short of where the competition could be. Colorado now has close to 150 wineries, so less than a third of them take part in the contest.

Wineries offer many reasons for not entering this and other competitions, like they simply forget to send their applications in time or it costs too much or they don’t have the wine to spare. But just as Colorado Mountain Winefest brings Colorado wines to a diverse audience, in the end the Governor’s Cup contest is a boon to the state industry.

The 12 selected wines in the Governor’s Cup case are used to promoted Colorado and Colorado wines and are featured at state dinners and marketing events.

It’s notable to add that this year’s entries in the cider/mead category also eclipsed last year, indicating the continued growth of artisanal ciders and meads. Well, ciders, anyway.

Four ciders and three meads were selected for the final round of judging, which again raised the familiar argument of whether there should be a separate competition for the non-grape segment of the wine industry. You can argue all you want as to whether ciders and meads actually are wines or should be in their own category but you’ll get no take from this side.

Last year there was a separate six-pack case of ciders and meads selected to accompany the regular Governor’s Cup case but this year it will be a mixed case. There was some discussion about separating the judging (that’s been tried in the past with fruit wines) and having separate Best of Show awards and Governor’s Cup cases for grape wines and for cider and mead. The problem is that separation adds to the cost of the competition.

The Governor’s Cup case wines (and their respective medals) includes: Bookcliff Vineyards (2016 Riesling, double gold); Carlson Vineyards (2015 Tyrannosaurous Red, gold); Colorado Cellars/Rocky Mountain Vineyards (nv Raspberry, double gold); Colorado Cider Company (Grasshop-ah cider), double gold); Creekside Cellars (2014 Cabernet Franc, double gold); and Guy Drew Vineyards (2015 Syrah, double gold).

Also: Meadery of the Rockies (Strawberry/Honey, gold); The Infinite Monkey Theorem (2013 Albariño (sparkling), double gold); Two Rivers Winery (2013 Port, double gold); Decadent Saint the Winery (2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, gold); Whitewater Hill Vineyards (2016 Sweetheart Red, double gold) and Winery at Hold Cross Abbey (2015, Merlot, gold). The final medal total was eight double gold medals, 16 gold medals, 140 silver and 103 bronze, totally 267 medals out of the 346 entries.