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Is it sustainable? Focusing on a living wine and a healthier world

May 2, 2018 Comments off
041618 FD North Fork sustainability crop

The fields, orchards and vineyards of the North Fork Valley provide a living laboratory for a hot-bed of awareness in low-impact agriculture. Cutting-edge techniques combined with methods gleaned from ancient cultures may provide insights to protecting a fragile environment. Story and photos by Dave Buchanan.

Even while our society is awash in products ranging from clothing to fine dining labeled as natural or organic, confusion abounds for consumers and often producers.

Partly it’s because the rules or guidelines that define what those terms actually mean confound most parties.

It’s also partly because consumers interested in “being green” can’t always find products that fit their expectations.

According to a 2009 study by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the research firm DeLoitte, 54 percent of the more than 6,400 shoppers polled showed a preference for environmentally friendly products but only 22 percent actually bought green.

Several reasons were outlined in the study, major among them “communication and product education,” said the report.

“We found … it’s not enough to just put green products on the shelf,” said Brian Lynch, GMA director of sales and sales promotion. “We have to better educate consumers and leverage in-store communication to make the sale.”

It’s not so different in the world of winemaking. Wines can carry such varied labels as “low sulfite,” “natural,” “organic” or even “made with organic grapes,” all of which mean something different, and often nothing, to the consumer.

Broadly speaking, you can lump all winemaking under one of two processes: conventional and sustainable.

Conventional is how the great majority of winemakers pursue their art. Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in the vineyard; preservatives, color enhancers and custom yeasts to provide desired flavors may be added in the winery.

“Sustainable” winemaking is the umbrella under which you’ll find natural, organic and biodynamic methods of winemaking. The rules get progressively more restrictive as you moved from natural to biodynamic.

According to the website RawWine.com, natural wine is farmed organically or biodynamically, following the strict procedures delineated by Rudolf Steiner, with minimal intervention in the vineyard and the winery.

“The result is a living wine – wholesome and full of naturally occurring microbiology,” said the website.

Sandra Taylor and Molly Clemens

Author and sustainability expert Sandra Taylor (right, in red) discusses her latest book, “The Business of Sustainable Wine” during VinExpo 2018 with Molly Clemens, a Ph.D student of Ecology at San Diego State University. Taylor’s book explains how sustainable agriculture may be our only cogent response to human-caused climate change.

Author Isabelle Legeron, MW, in her book “Natural Wine,” says a natural wine is one that can survive without a “technological crutch.”

“In its truest form,” writes Legeron, “it is wine that protects the microcosm of life in the bottle in its entirety, keeping it intact so that it remains stable and balanced.”

Sustainability includes using no additives or processing aids, including yeasts, in the fermentation process.

In her new book “The Business of Sustainable Wine,” Sandra Taylor says wine, unlike most other agricultural products, allows both producer and consumer to focus “on the wine grape’s place of origin and the details of the wine’s making.”

Taylor is a former executive for Starbucks Coffee, where she helped develop guidelines for Starbucks’ innovative work in sustainability for coffee, tea and cocoa.

I spoke with Taylor during Vinexpo 2018 in early March at the Javits Center in New York and during our conversation, she noted that despite a growing interest and awareness in a wine’s origin, the wine industry is lagging behind in sustainable agriculture, both in environmental terms and in meeting consumers’ growing demands.

In her book, she also draws a line between “sustainable” agriculture (including economic, social and environmental sustainability) and organic and biodynamic practices.

While Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 book “Silent Spring” is universally heralded as ushering in the age of environmentalism, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Americans “began to seriously consider” where their food comes from or “what food production does to the planet, their bodies and their society,” Taylor writes. Her book is available through Grand Valley Books, 350 Main Street, in Grand Junction and other book sellers.

Other writers, including poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry, Frances Moore Lappé (“Diet for a Small Planet”) and ecologist Barry Commoner, further introduced Americans to the impacts of industrial farming and the benefits of sustainable farming.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be talking to many winemakers who produce sustainable wines, including a group of more than 100 Italian winemakers at Vini Veri, the annual fair and exposition in Cerea, Italy, a small town in northern Italy a few kilometers south of Verona.

Those producers adhere to a dictum that avoids pigeonholing wineries as “bio” or “non-bio” but rather emphasizing, as the Vini Veri website states, “the best balance between human intervention and nature in the winemaking process.”

Next time, we’ll talk more about sustainability in winemaking and look at how it is practiced in Colorado winemaking. (Spoiler alert: Not so much.)

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.”

Advice from the wise: Older wines? ‘Grip ’em and rip ’em’

February 21, 2018 Comments off
Bonotto 1959

Holding on to wines in hopes they improve with age is a gamble. Pictured are 1959 Raboso from Antonio Bonotto in Tezze delle Piave, Italy. Photos and story by Dave Buchanan.

I recently posted about the joys of finding and drinking older wines. In this particular case, it was regarding a wine from 2006, which really isn’t old as far as wines goes but as I pointed out,  the wine was totally unexpected to be as delightful as it was after 11 years under my benign care.

The point I was trying to make is that older wines can offer insights into a winemaker’s thoughts during the original production. And, more key to the post, that you might come across an older wine, forgotten in a rack or in the case, and find yourself learning first-hand how a wine ages and the benefits a few years of patience can offer.

Curiously, a few days later, writer Michael Franz said in a post at Wine Review Online that holding a wine too long for wine can be a mistake. I’ve known (or better, known of) Franz since a trip to Italy in 2007 and have always enjoyed and appreciated his insights about wine and all the circus fuss that often accompanies it.

In this case, Franz makes several keys points. One, “there’s no way to know whether you’ll be catching the wine at the optimal point of maturity until you’ve pulled the cork”; and two, “And if it seems like you’ve waited too long, there’s no undoing the damage of an overly delayed opening.”

A sort of vinous “buyer’s regret,” I suppose. You buy a wine you think might be better in a few years and then you forget you have the wine or you spend years mentally relishing how nice the wine will have aged, only to find once it’s opened you missed the window of opportunity.

So what does Franz (the editor of WRO and a highly respected wine judge and critic)) recommend?

“After years of wrestling with the issue, I now find it quite easy to advise (owners of older wines), and I invariably advise them to get over their reverence and just drink the damned things,” he says succinctly.

In the case of the 2006 wine (a Grand Mesa blend of Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot from Plum Creek Winery), I wasn’t being patient so much as forgetful. I simply forgot I had the wine. And, yes, I got very lucky to find winemaker Jenne Baldwin-Eton intentionally made this vintage to be shelved and opened years after bottling.

“For me, reserve status is carried all the way through fermentation,” Jenne recently emailed in response to my query. “Reserve wines were made with the idea that they needed to age in the bottle, so I was looking for different aspects through the fermentation process.

“Those that appreciate or recognize this evolution of the wine are the ones that buy cases of it to cellar and look forward to opening bottles with more bottle-aging time,” she wrote.

But, a Franz points out, maybe you should just drink that wine instead of forcing it to be something it might never be. Too many times you simply wait too long for something that isn’t going to happen. And, after all, you have an entire world of wine from which to choose for the next bottle.

“… a truly revolutionary diffusion of technology and expertise over the course of the past generation has now transferred potential excellence so widely across the globe that there’s no such thing as a bad year,” Franz states.

So the next time you pull out a surprise from that dusty box hidden behind the skis and the long-forgotten VCR, remember what Michael Franz suggests: “… grip ’em and rip ’em (because) even the luckiest person isn’t guaranteed another day, and you can’t drink your treasured wine tomorrow if you get hit by a bus today.”

 

 

 

 

Late bloomers: Wines that share their secrets only when they are ready

February 14, 2018 Comments off
Old wines on racks

You can’t judge wine by its bottle. Proper storage, which doesn’t always include regular cleaning, is one key factor in making sure a wine will improve with age. Here, a cellar in Spain shows its age and its promise. Story and photos by Dave Buchanan

What is it about older wines that attracts us, like moths to a flame?

Maybe it’s akin to the daring of an older lover, or the mystique of yet-to-be-revealed secrets, or simply the call of the unknown and unexpected.

Opening a bottle of wine older than, say, five years, which really doesn’t make it old except under today’s standards of winemaking, shouldn’t be such a risk.

There are many people tonight who are opening wines bottled before they were born and, sure, some bottles won’t pan out.

But that’s OK, because the people seeking older wines have learned that wine can improve with age and with that the need to hold the reins on one’s expectations.

Today’s wines rarely are aimed at being around for 15 years or more. It’s certainly not true in all cases but many wines – luscious fruit bombs with soft tannins and little acidity –  are made to be consumed while young, aged no longer than the drive home from the liquor store.

This is due to several reasons, not the least of which are today’s consumer wants fruity, easy drinking wines to please a sweeter palates and to ease the trials of waiting a decade to drink a wine they might not like anyway.

But once in a while, even while searching for a “tonight” wine, you come across a vintage that dares to ask – Drink me now or wait for me?

Patience, grasshopper.

If you purchase and open a recent bottling of a good Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo or any of several other varieties, you’ll likely find it a bit stringent, short on fruit and long on tannins and acidity.

Come back in 10 years (or more) and it’s mellowed, with intense fruit, rounder tannins and a depth unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. These wines, and wines like them – subtle, nuanced, complex – were made to age, unready to share their secrets until time was on their side.

Recently, the Grand Valley received some welcome publicity from a national wine magazine. The article touched on the many wonderful attributes the Grand Valley offers to visitors (and locals) and mentioned the local Grand Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), unfortunately overlooking the nearby West Elks AVA along the North Fork Valley.

But some of us reading the article had the same feeling we get when someone asks us, “You mean they actually grow grapes in Colorado?” Read more…

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.

 

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.