Championing Colorado’s rugged terroir: The new generation of wine makers
August 10, 2016
I asked winemaker Warren Winiarski, who recently traveled from Napa to Colorado to judge this years Colorado Governor’s Cup Wine Competition, about his thoughts on Colorado wines and what advice he might have for the next generation of winemakers. Winiarski, now 87, was an integral part of the California wine scene in the early days, and was also involved in restarting Colorado’s wine industry.
“Colorado wines have made outstanding strides with compositional and structural characteristics, which struck me very powerfully. You enjoy sensing the structure of the wine in your mouth.
“I am very impressed,” he remarked about today’s winemakers. “You are identifying something unique and distinctive … these winemakers have a sense of where the grapes want to go to express themselves.”
For advice: “Listen to the wine, have a vision of its destiny. Think about what are the attractive characteristics — and love them.”
These are exciting times for Colorado's wine industry. And much of that excitement is being created by the vision, hard work and bold experimentation of a new generation of Colorado winemakers.
Colorado's modern wine industry began in the 1970s when grape vines were reintroduced into the Grand Valley after having been ripped out during Prohibition in the early 1900s. Some of the first participants in this new era of Colorado winemaking were enthusiastic investors from the oil and gas industry and energetic wine hobbyists.
Over the next 30 years, grape growing and wine making were marked by trial and error — and unpredictable results. The pioneers of this era were learning about winemaking on the job in one of the harshest climates imaginable.
In contrast, today's new generation of winemakers has access to much more information about the Colorado terroir, and they've had the opportunity to work under some of the founding members of Colorado's wine industry.
In my conversations with winemakers throughout the state, I've discovered that the next generation is less inclined to feel a need to imitate the formidable California style of wine (In fact, California's sweeter, more high-alcohol wines are often referred to as "flabby"). These winemakers are generally more open-minded, and they seem to fall loosely into one of two camps: "The Champions" and "The Experimenters."
For this article, I spoke to three winemakers who champion a distinctly Colorado style. Their passion is to create wines that express the unique characteristics brought on by soil, sun and high altitude. Wines made by this new breed of winemaker have been recognized within Colorado — and, in some cases, also by wine aficionados nationally and internationally.
CARLSON VINEYARDS, East Orchard Mesa, Palisade
At 33, Garrett Portra carries a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, including a new baby and the recent acquisition of one of the oldest and best-known wineries in Colorado, Carlson Vineyards. "The biggest challenge for me" stated Portra, who started as winemaker at Carlson's in 2011, "is that Mary and Parker Carlson created something very successful. People immediately wanted to know if there would be changes. I told them yes — but 'in addition to' and not 'instead of.'"
Portra has no reservations about the quality of Colorado wine and envisions having a more hands-on relationship with the wines he creates — from vine, to grape, to bottle. While it is quite common for winemakers to purchase grapes from other growers, Portra's plan for the coming year is to create "two Estate Wines with grapes grown exclusively from Carlson's vineyards." In this way, he'll be able to oversee every aspect of the production and interact on a daily basis with the growers.
"I can get my hands dirty and pick the grapes exactly when I want to," he said.
His thoughts on today's wine drinker? While an older generation might have heard cabernet sauvignon and immediately thought France or California, "Millenials are more open-minded," stated Portra. "It's cool to drink Colorado now."
SUTCLIFFE VINEYARDS, Cortez
Near the Canyons of the Ancients, in southwest Colorado, lies Sutcliffe Vineyards — a remote estate which produces wines that are, ironically, perhaps better known in New York City or London than in Colorado. In 2008, winemaker Joe Buckel joined Sutcliffe, moving from Sonoma County where he had worked at the illustrious Flowers Vineyard, as well Rutz Cellars and B.R. Cohn Winery.
"I was shocked at the growing conditions" in this high-altitude desert region of Colorado, Buckel, now 44, admitted. "How dry it is, how much water is needed."
Additionally, there was the challenge of creating a wine that could match the vision of the winery's founder, John Sutcliffe. Inspiring but demanding, Sutcliffe has had decades of experience managing or investing in some of the top restaurants and resorts in the U.S.
"Every wine that we offer from this place has to be at that grand level — it's the spirit of the winery, the romance of it," Buckel explained. "Our wine has to be able to sit with any wine, from anywhere."
What are the particular characteristics that make Colorado wines unique? "The whites have more minerality," and "the UV rays at high altitude make the grape skin thicker, making the tannins in reds smoother." Buckel added, "The acidity of Colorado wines gives a good balance. It's a great attribute. California wines can go past their prime and be flabby, so the wine doesn't seem focused, it just sits there, doesn't finish well."
Time spent in the vineyard is critical, according to Buckel.
"I want to work really closely with the growers, to get these guys to think about what I am trying to do," he said. "Then, the most important decision you get to make in the whole process is when to pick the grapes."
Recently, he had the opportunity to troubleshoot a few problem areas in the vineyard with legendary winemaker Warren Winiarski. Winiarski, a longtime fan of Colorado wines, founded Stag's Leap Wine Cellars which produced the cabernet sauvignon that was judged the best red wine at the historic Paris Wine Tasting Competition of 1976.
"Warren really enjoyed the wine," Buckel reported with pleasure, "and his comments were very insightful."
In 2014, The Wine Enthusiast awarded a 90-point rating to three Sutcliffe varietals: a merlot, a Syrah and a cabernet franc.
TWO RIVERS WINERY, Grand Junction
One of the first Colorado wines I ever tried was from Two Rivers Winery — back then, I was shocked that a Colorado wine could be so good. So it was a pleasure to connect with Brandon Witham, 39, who this year takes the reins as winemaker at Two Rivers — the family wine business where he has worked since he was 25 years old.
I asked he how he felt about taking on the role of winemaker at such an established winery.
"We are fortunate to live at a time when there is a tremendous amount of quality information and technology available for winemaking in general," he answered. "Furthermore, there are several folks here in the Colorado wine industry who are in it together, actively share knowledge and help each other out. It is a good community."
Like Portra and Buckel, Witham favors "the elegant wine flavors that can be achieved with grapes grown at altitude.
"As we broaden our understanding of our unique terroir, I think different areas will become known for certain grape varieties and wine styles, which will be exciting for all involved," he said.
His take on the future of Colorado wines? "Colorado wines keep getting better and better, so pull those corks."
Christina Holbrook is a writer living in Breckenridge. She is working on a book on "The Winelands of Colorado," to be published in Spring 2017 by The Hoberman Collection.