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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.