Three reasons why Colorado wines still suck (and three Colorado winemakers who are getting it right)

Categories: Swirl Girl, Wine

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Last month we attended the first annual Colorado Winefest - Denver, and for the first time tasted a number of truly delicious, locally produced wines we could recommend to you without pause. So you can certainly understand how we were legitimately fired up about an already scheduled wine-tasting trip to Palisade & Grand Junction this past weekend; after all, we'd have the chance to try even more of the fantastic wine being made right in our own back yard, and return to Denver more enthusiastic than ever about the local juice. Wow, were we ever wrong. While there were a few notable exceptions, the fact of the matter is that most of the juice we sampled only served to reinforce our previously held belief that a good bit of the wine made in our state kinda blows.

Now before you get all indignant and start crying about how we're besmirching the reputations of the Western Slope winemakers who have busted their asses to bolster our economy and lay the foundation for us to even have a wine industry, please believe that nothing would make us happier than to be able to give props to these hardworking men and women for all that they've done to put Colorado wines on the map. But let's face it: Most Colorado wines aren't exactly flying off the shelves at Argonaut. And after our recent trip, we're starting see a pattern that just might explain why that's the case. Read up for our take on what's keeping Colorado from setting the wine world on fire, and to learn which of our local boys are making good.

Colorado Wine Fail #1: Overpricing
There's an old adage that goes "you get what you pay for." So what's up with all these barely drinkable Colorado wines selling north of $20, or, in the most shocking cases, more than $30? Loving wine as much as we do, we're more than happy to pay top dollar for a wine that's worth it (regardless of where it's from). But it's pretty insulting when we drop that kind of cash only to be underwhelmed by a bottle that lacks the finesse and winemaking expertise of a similarly priced offering from California or France (where they've got anywhere from forty to several hundred years' more wine-making cred than Colorado does under their belts). Colorado winemaker who's getting this right? Two Rivers Winery. The peeps behind this Grand Junction-based winery have established a pricing scheme that's completely appropriate for the wines they're producing -- which is to say, wines from a label that's less than a dozen years old, made using grapes sourced from various Western Slope growers, by a twenty-something-year-old winemaker. The average price for one of their wines, perfect for Tuesday-night drinking, is around $13. Our favorite bottling? The oh-so-drinkable Two Rivers Syrah 2009 ($12.50), featuring lush berry aromas and tasting of a summertime blueberry pie, edged with spicy tannins.

Colorado Wine Fail #2: Invisible marketing
Every one of us is a sucker for a good slogan, a catchy jingle or an eye-catching logo. Marketing is the fuel that gasses up the engine of our wallets, so when times are tight, the brands that get this right tend to snag what's left of our oh-so-precious disposable income. Sadly, most Colorado wineries don't have either the budget or the foresight to leverage marketing to its fullest extent, which explains why most of you have never even heard of the majority of Colorado winemakers (never mind actually purchased any of their juice). Colorado winemaker who's getting this right? The Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery.

We don't have any hard, statistical data to back up our assertion, but our gut tells us these guys have it figured out based largely on the notion that if there's one made-in-Colorado wine brand you've been inundated with lately (via local restaurant wine lists, Twitter feeds and Facebook), it's IMT's. In little more than two years, winemaker-slash-marketing wunderkind Ben Parsons has blazed a trail across the metro Denver wine scene, scoring prized placements on top restaurants' by-the-glass lists, orchestrating tasting and special events at retail liquor stores and wine bars, and hosting the most interesting Santa Fe First Friday Art Walk event to happen in, well, ever, in the form of a monthly party/rave on the patio he built next to his Quonset hut-based winery. The Infinite Monkey Theorem's latest cheeky marketing move? Having the sheer temerity to release a canned, sparkling version of one of its wines, the Infinite Monkey Theorem Sparkling Black Muscat ($7, 250 ml can). Haters are scoffing at the move, but I guarantee that you will see people in Denver drinking this wine (hey, if IMT sells even a few cases of these cans, it'll be a major victory for the wine industry, because pretty much no one drinks muscat). The bottom line is this: Parsons has actually figured out how to make Colorado wine seem cool.

Colorado Wine Fail #3: Inconsistent quality
The best news about the wines we tasted last weekend is that there were a handful of truly fantastic expressions of classic Rhône and Bordeaux-based varietals. The not-so-great news? That we had to suffer through still more undrinkable glasses of viognier, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc than we'd care to admit. Many Western Slope vintners are still in that unfortunate-but-necessary trial-and-error stage, where experimentation with different grape varietals, growing techniques and winemaking must occur until that magical combination of all three results in an effortlessly drinkable wine. Colorado winemaker who's getting this right? Canyon Wind Cellars. While we can't say that we adored every one of these estate-made wines, the muscular reds were among the best we've sampled in a while. The Canyon Wind Petit Verdot 2008 ($26) delivered earthy, woody aromas and luscious mouthfuls of in-your-face blackberry fruit laced with just enough spicy juniper to keep things interesting. In short, a delicious example of all that Colorado wines can (and -- let's hope -- will eventually) be.

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22 comments
jon014
jon014

You shouldn't say Colorado wine sucks, it's most of the wine makers suck in Colorado. There are a few wine makers in Colorado that with a Colorado grape can get a medal in a world cup. That means the wine is spot on with perfection. The reason it's so expensive is the grape cost twice the price of a California grape.

Bill Skrapits
Bill Skrapits

Looks like others are thinking the same thing.  This out today:  “We hope this will be the first step in the process of establishing robust quality assurance programs in Colorado and Nebraska”, said Dr. Menke  http://bit.ly/re5sYq 

Timothy Donahue
Timothy Donahue

Great article, I was the associate winemaker along with my father at Crekside Cellars up in Evergreen until 2008 when I moved to Australia for my MS in Oenology. (Fellow Alumni with Mr. Parsons)  Now I teach Oenology up in Walla Walla WA.  It is great to see the industry from the outside in now, and your article really nails it on the head. Sure a few winemakers are educated, but  wine in our state (it is still home to me) overwhelmingly is produced by home schooled winemakers who have made up their own minds as to what wine should be. (house palate) The best winemakers are a bit selfless, and make wine to a spec that CONSUMERS will enjoy. Somehow, winemakers sometimes forget that other people besides themselves have to drink their plonk. :) I was at a front range meeting when I was in town last week, where this article was read, and overwhelmingly, and sheepishly, we agreed with your assessment.  We need education in CO if we want to move forward. We have multiple Sommelier, F&B, and wine hospitality courses, but not a single real enology program with a qualified instructor on how to produce true Varietal wine. Until then, we will be stuck with inconsistency, sweet oxidized whites, and garage experiments. As a matter of fact I think there may be a bit of de-evolution in our industry towards hybrids, and sweet fruit wines, which is quite frankly painful to see our industry trying to compete with Illinois or Pennsylvania wines rather than Washington or California in terms of style.

However for those who are making a great effort to lead with science and skill, (you know who you are, and may be mentioned above) keep your chins up, we have the potential to do great things in CO, we just have to figure out how to lead and help the industry to rise up and embrace quality wine production. Until then, keep fighting the good fight.

Michael Amstein
Michael Amstein

@Timothy Donahue. Excellent point. As a hobby winemaker looking to learn more about both the art and science I probably epitomize the shackle @jay christianson mentions above, although he probably is referencing those that market and not us that make 10 cases/year.

From what I have learned thus far, house palate is not only a Colorado issue but a US one as well, and is as old as the industry itself. Does one craft wines for the old or new world pallate, or wines that are 'good' vs those that will sell to a US pallate.

The film Mondovino, captures this issue well.

I was disappointed in the title of the article with no facts to support the implication, and agree with the associated comments. Ultimately the article profiles what is being done well by three great winemakers. In a world where most consumers can't get past a headline on a blog, @Kendra Anderson is doing the Colorado market a disservice with the tone of the piece. If you are a fan, negativity is rarely the right path.

For those enologist's out there, there is a base of hobbyists and fans such as myself that are just begging for guidance, and would be willing to pay for it. someone needs to hook up with Claude Robbins at the International Wine Guild. He has the infrastructure in place and as already noted the Somm side is covered.

Erobb3
Erobb3

Agree on all accounts but one not mentioned is the local food and beverage industry supportthat lags. Sure, point of entry may be difficult because of pricing but at some point, "buy local" has to move into the wine world. Paris on the Platte is pouring a very tasty summer white, Paris White, blended specifically for Paris with wine maker John Garlich of BookCliff Vineyards. All Colorado grapes, Viognier,Chardonnay, Muscat Blanc and Orange Muscat

Foodandwine1975
Foodandwine1975

....missed the boat completely with this article. Come visit the vineyards, talk to the wine makers and research what is selling next time...

 "never tasted Colterris", ,

" i'd bet you that if you were to poll the patrons at any wine bar or restaurant in denver to see if any of them are currently or have ever consumed muscat you would find that the answer is going to be a number very close to zero", and so on...

These are speculative comments and poor research with a headline further pushing down the efforts of everyone making wine regardless of your own personal tastes... 

IMT has to Source their grapes, that means other people are using them as well, and I promise, those wines dont suck either. Colterris is made at the same winery as several other great CO wines, none of which were mentioned, all of which are varietally correct and consistent. 

Finally, and this is important. a lot of these wineries/ winemakers that make sweet and flavored wines in addition to dry and varietally correct wines do so and have done so for as long as they have because those are the wines that pay the bills. At the end of the day, the only way to attract a more refined palette is through positive media, and regardless of the quality of the wines being made, this isn't it.

Janbrew
Janbrew

"IMT has to Source their grapes, that means other people are using them as well, and I promise, those wines dont suck either. Colterris is made at the same winery as several other great CO wines, none of which were mentioned, all of which are varietally correct and consistent. "Completely agree w/ food and wine 1975.  Is this article reviewing Colorado wine or who has the better marketing strategy. This blog is a constant opinion piece and bragging session.  I feel these sentiments have been parroted all over the place, would love to see a new take on Colorado wine subject other than it still sucks.

offdisc
offdisc

If anyone is interested, Mondo Vino in the Highlands is focusing on "Colorado Wines" for their Friday tasting menu.

Jay Christianson
Jay Christianson

House palate is a huge issue that @facebook-10239854:disqus brought up.  We talked about that as a phenomenon that the industry does struggle with.  For me I see a lack of professional education.  Ben (IMT) has an enology degree, I have Robert Pepi (an enologist), Sutcliffe has Joe Bucke (also an enologist), and there are more that need mentioning but that is the direction we need to head as an industry - the rise of the hobby winemaker is the shackle to which we are all tied.  Fortunately we are growing away from that but it is a battle.  Now I am not saying that you have to have a degree to be able to make good wine, but I am saying that you need to do the absolute best you can to educate yourself in the industry where best practices produce what your grapes grew and where bad decisions or innocence of the correct approach poisons peoples opinions on your whole industry.

Rico
Rico

So if the article is geared toward western slope wineries, why didn't you profile one that was had some effective marketing techniques (as you balanced the other criticisms)? Just because you aren't personally aware on that side of the divide doesn't mean it's not occurring on the other.

Jacob Harkins
Jacob Harkins

Colterris has a similar story in rapid brand awareness to IMT  Good wine. Good bottling. Saturation on Denver/Boulder wine lists. It's been helped big time by Classic Wines, of course, but people know to order it on the Front Range.

Elizabeth DeHoff
Elizabeth DeHoff

I've lived in California (an established winemaking state, though it has less-recognized regions that struggle to make sales) and Virginia (which is lower than CA on the winemaking ladder but considerably higher than CO), and I've spent a lot of time talking to growers, winemakers, marketers and state officials in both states. The future is bright for both of them.

Colorado is a different story. We have a lot of work to do; our growers have just figured out in the past decade what grapes work best here, and Gov. Hickenlooper is a godsend for the wine industry here. Local winemakers have perfected their craft; if you're in any doubt, visit Infinite Monkey Theorem or Bookcliff, to name a few.

The potential is there. What we need now is a strong Colorado Wine Bureau (or similar) to market our wares to other states -- and to other countries. However, the most important component of Colorado wine marketing at the moment needs to happen right here. Our restaurants need to market local wines alongside local foods. Coors Field sells Coors beer -- why doesn't it sell Colorado wine as well? We should be just as proud of that, if not more so.

We've got a ways to go, but I think we're on the right track. Stop by IMT's First Friday tastings if you don't believe me.

Mesa Park Vineyards
Mesa Park Vineyards

Thanks for your feedback.  I held most of your observations as a visitor from Denver too until I embarked on a journey of joining the CO Wine Industry and becoming a wine maker and grape grower in Western Colorado, Grand Valley AVA over the past 3 years.  That is when I found some hidden gems like Reeder Mesa Vineyards and Stone Cottage Cellars, and Mesa Park Vineyards (which my family now owns).  Garfield Estates, Plum Creek and Carlson Vineyards have often been standouts for me.  Keep coming to Colorado to explore more wineries and I think you will find the same. The West Elks AVA and the Mesas Wine Trail are some off the beaten path wineries with some great stories and juice!

Jacob Harkins
Jacob Harkins

@Aaron -- knowing both Ben at IMT  and some people's feelings toward him, I can't tell if that's a joke or his next big attempt at making a marketing splash :)

Colorado Wine Press
Colorado Wine Press

No, doubt muscat is lesser-known, but people to drink it and are starting to know about it. Yes, the canned offering is exciting. I am also all about calling out poorly made wines, but not so inflammatory and we have to be aware of how comments will be taken by the public. Your (and Westword's) support are extremely important to raising the bar across the state. Also, you should try Ty's Kahil Malbec and new Pinot Gris...

Jacob Harkins
Jacob Harkins

The muscat family has been really impressing me in Colorado lately. Orange muscat dessert style at Snowy Peaks, the barrel aged muscat dessert wine at Bookcliff, tank samples of IMTs black muscat. Love me some muscat.

Colorado Wine Press
Colorado Wine Press

No one drinks muscat? Granted, its not chardonnay, but muscat has seen the most explosive growth in consumption of any wine type! Also, putting "Colorado wines still suck" in the title of your article is a bit harsh and unnecessary. Why not be constructive and mention room for improvement (or something slightly more encouraging)? Not many people are going to read your article and not even realize your general sentiment is positive.

Aaron Eos
Aaron Eos

Some people may not know that Infinite Monkey Theorem is launching a new brand called The Emperor's New Clothes.

Jacob Harkins
Jacob Harkins

Christopher: That's a good one, and that brand has risen as rapidly as IMT in the Denver scene -- mostly because of its association with Classic Wines. That particular cab is made by Ty Lawson, the 24-year-old winemaker also behind Two Rivers and Kahil labels. I get the feeling he has a big future. 

Christopher Cina
Christopher Cina

I still think Colterris produces the best Colorado Cabernet, if you haven't tried the 2008, you're in for a surprise.

Jacob Harkins
Jacob Harkins

Those are three big problems. I think house palate is a big issue too. Far too many local vintners, in many cases the ones making the bad wines, don't taste enough wines outside their vineyards, meaning they often have really no idea their wines are off or bad. 

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