Colorado has more to offer than mountains, canyons and rivers. And its biggest cultural claims to fame are not limited to Mike the Headless Chicken and "South Park." It surprises many to learn that Colorado actually has a burgeoning wine industry. Compared to California, where vineyards are known to thrive, Colorado, with its harsher climate, seems an unlikely source for wine.
Although its oldest existing winery got its start in 1978, Colorado does have a history of producing wine that stretches back to the 19th century. However, after Prohibition laws ended the wine industry there, it didn't pick up much steam again until the 1990s. According to the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board (CWIDB), the industry increased more than tenfold between 1991 and 2011 [source: CWIDB].
So how can Colorado's climate be hospitable to wine grapes? It partly has to do with how, in the western region (especially in the Mesa and Delta counties, where 90 percent of the state's wine comes from), the vineyards are high in elevation, between 4,000 and 7,000 feet (1,219.2 and 2,133.6 meters) [source: CWIDB]. This exposes them to intense sunlight during the day, but still provides cool evenings. Notably, the soil in this region is also more alkaline and less acidic than that in California or New York, making it closer in character to Europe's grape-growing soils. Of course, Colorado does have a short growing season, making it less ideal for producing grapes that need longer seasons, like zinfandel [source: Smith].
Colorado is home to two American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), which is a federally designated title to help vintners and consumers easily identify the source of a wine. Getting an AVA designation also helps increase the credibility of a wine-growing region. In 1990, Colorado's Grand Valley region achieved AVA status, followed by the West Elks region in 2001.
And what better way to get acquainted with Colorado's Wine Country than to visit some of its premier wine festivals or tour the country aboard a special wine train?
Wine Festivals in Colorado
If you're itching to get a taste of the kinds of wine Colorado has to offer, one of the best ways is to attend one of the state's wine festivals. Aside from other wine festivals, such as Denver's International Wine Festival, Colorado has eight annual wine festivals, held between May and September, that are meant specifically to feature the wine produced in the state.
The season kicks off with A Taste of Pearl in Boulder, where shops in and around Pearl Street Mall offer samples of food from the city's best restaurants, in addition to wine samples from many of Colorado's best wineries. Next comes Manitou Springs Colorado Wine Festival in June, located about 6 miles (9.7 kilometers) west of Colorado Springs with tastings from more than 20 Colorado wineries.
Winefest Denver, also in June, is held at the Shops at Northfield Stapleton. Proceeds go to the Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology (CAVE), a nonprofit trade organization of grape growers and winemakers of Colorado. Ticketed events spanning five days include a presentation of wine awards at the Governor's residence, a VIP dinner with Colorado wines and an afternoon of wine tasting and seminars. Later, in July, the Castle Rock Winefest, located about half an hour south of Denver, features tastings from 25 Colorado wineries, in addition to seminars, food and entertainment.
In Evergreen, about half an hour west of Denver, the Bootstraps Western Winefest takes place in August. Winemaker dinners at local restaurants are held immediately before the festival itself, which features wine tasting and live music. Proceeds from the event help fund college scholarships and interest-free loans for local high school students. Also in August is the Mesa Verde Country Food, Wine and Art Festival, held in Cortez in Southwest Colorado. The event includes work by local artists, food from local producers and restaurants, and wine tastings from Colorado wineries.
And lastly, closing out the season in style, is the Annual Colorado Mountain Winefest, the state's biggest wine festival. Held in September in Palisade, Colo., this four-day wine festival features not only wine tastings, but winery tours, a grape stomp, culinary demonstrations, a golf event, a bike tour and more. No wonder it attracts thousands of attendees. This festival is also a fundraiser for CAVE.
Colorado Wine Train
If you'd like an even more in-depth experience of Colorado wine country, you should consider reserving a spot on the three-day Colorado Wine Train tour. This unique experience, held twice a year in the spring and fall, is sponsored by the travel company AAA, and allows wine enthusiasts to enjoy both Colorado scenery and local wine on a train ride from Denver to Grand Junction, which is next to Colorado's Grand Valley wine country.
The tour takes place on an Amtrak California Zephyr as part of its trip between Chicago and San Francisco. The train picks up passengers and begins the tour conveniently at Denver Union Station. As the train chugs along, tour participants are treated to talks by Colorado wine experts such as Doug Caskey, the executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. He explains how the state is able to produce such great wine, along with the history of the wine industry there. Participants also get live music and basic instruction on the best way to sample wine.
We spoke with Caskey, who has high praise for the wine tour. He explained that the tour takes passengers through the scenic Coal Creek Canyon as well as the 6-mile-long (9.7 kilometer-long) Moffat Tunnel. After it makes a stop in Winter Park, it travels through Gore Canyon, where, Caskey says, no other roads or other forms of transportation exist. Later, the train goes through Glenwood Canyon before arriving at Grand Junction.
Meanwhile, along the trip, local vintners join and offer passengers presentations and tastings of their wine. Tour passengers then get off at the Grand Junction stop and spend two nights in a local hotel. On the second day of the tour, participants board tour vans to visit multiple Grand Valley wineries. The third day includes a special breakfast, and time for browsing the Museum of Western Colorado or visiting the Colorado National Monument. There's even opportunity for one more winery visit before the participants take a motor coach back to Denver. Caskey also points out that the tour takes care of transporting any wine purchases made on the trip to the tour vans and onto the motor coach back to Denver.
But remember to plan early. Spots on the train tour tend to fill up quickly.
- Bootstraps Western Winefest. "Welcome to the Bootstraps Western Winefest, Evergreen, Colorado." Bootstraps Western Winefest. (July 22, 2011)
- Caskey, Doug. Executive Director, Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. Personal correspondence. July 19, 2011.
- Castle Rock Winefest. "Event Overview." Castle Rock Chamber of Commerce. (July 22, 2011)
- Colorado Winefest. "Event Information." Colorado Winefest. Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology. (July 22, 2011)
- CWIDB. "About Us." Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. Media Kit 2011. (July 22, 2011)
- Downtown Boulder. "Taste of Pearl." Downtown Boulder. (July 22, 2011)
- Firstenfield, Jane. "Colorado Wine Train Sold Out." Wine & Vines. March 3, 2009. (July 22, 2011)
- MVCVIB. "Mesa Verde Country Food, Wine, & Art Festival." Mesa Verde Country Visitor Information Bureau. (July 22, 2011)
- Ostdick. John H. "Colorado Wine Train." Natural Traveler. (July 22, 2011)
- Ostdick, John H. "A Trip on the Colorado Wine Train." EnCompass. AAA Colorado. (July 22, 2011)
- Smith, Alta, Philip Bradley Smith. "Guide to Colorado Wineries." Fulcrum Publishing, 2002. (July 22, 2011)
- TTB. "American Viticultural Area." Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. (July 22, 2011.)