February 28, 2013 —
Colorado: Wine, Winters and the West
I recently attended the third annual VinCO Conference, Colorado’s annual wine conference January 15-17. It’s held in Grand Junction, where the majority of Colorado’s grapes are grown. A massive cold snap hit during the conference stirring a few concerns about the vineyards among local conference attendees. You might think “Colorado is cold a lot and has long winters. So what?” What makes one cold snap different from another? First, Grand Junction is in a valley between the mountains. When cold fronts hit, the cold air sinks into the valley. The warm air sits on top of this cold air, not allowing it to release. The grape growers’ solution is to use large fans that churn up the air, mixing the sunken cold air with the warmer air above it, thus preventing the vines from being impacted by long freezing cold spells. As you might expect, vines can split when suddenly frozen. Later in the spring, the growers may find vines that don’t bud out or that parts of the plant have died off. This in turn affects the fruit output, often reducing production by half or more. It can take years for the vines to recover.
So why were they concerned this time? Farmers watch the weather and keep tabs on what is expected to happen. However, this cold snap was a surprise and the fans were not on. Temperatures at night were 5-10 degrees below zero. The valley and the air above were in an extreme inversion. In addition, the low was 14 degrees cooler than the lowest low this winter. Two years ago this happened and the crop only produced 25% of the fruit it had the year before and back up to 75% in 2011. The 2012 harvest was a good year for most growers, but only time will tell if the 2013 vines will be damaged by this or another cold spell.
Another interesting fact, and challenge, about the Grand Valley AVA is that most vineyards are 2-5 acres only. It’s kind of like Burgundy in France. In Burgundy the land has been sold in small chunks for many years and passed down to families that may have split it up more. You’ll find vineyards that are owned by multiple owners such that one owner may own 2-3 rows of one vineyard. Due to how the land has been split up in the Grand Valley, properties are in a similar, small plot situation, only without century old vineyards on the land prior to its subdivision. Also, the historical use of the land was to grow peaches. So you will also find that vineyards are not contiguous, but one 5 acre vineyard may have peach orchards on either side. It is extremely difficult to make a 3-5 acre vineyard a viable business. Grapes are handpicked, pruned, tended, etc., which is expensive and time consuming. There also can be significant differences in the grapes from vineyard to vineyard. Even with all of these challenges, Colorado winemakers are making some very good wines.
I tasted wine from several wineries – and yes, some had flaws. But there were a significant number of good wines. Colorado can grow grapes! Long, hot summer days of 100+ degrees can make up for the shorter growing season, but they have to grow varietals that can handle these hot summers and cold winters. Most grapes are grown in Grand Valley, but there are also some vineyard around Cortez near the Four Corners too.
3 Big Take-Aways from VinCO
1. The quality of wine in Colorado is continuing to improve. They are making some great wines and there is huge potential for their industry. The growers can grow high quality grapes and are making high quality wines.
2. Colorado’s biggest challenge is weather – as it is with most new growing regions. Dealing with big temperature swings, it’s imperative that you pick the right growing spots based on the micro climate for the vineyard. This is the same problem Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and even some parts of California face. California has just had more years to figure it out.
3. The industry is now facing the same challenge that all of The Other 46 faces – the challenge of how do we get the customers to the winery or the wine to the people. The wineries in general are rural, but the customers are urban. In good weather, Grand Junction is 4 hours from Denver and about the same from Salt Lake City. That means, the visitors will have to spend the night. But the majority of people don’t necessarily want to make that kind of time commitment. As we have discussed before, a maximum distance for travel is about 90 minutes. Customers need to be close if you want to sell out of your tasting room. And if you are going to distribute, then you need a larger vineyard to create more wine. The work required to be a 10,000-case winery that has enough wine to distribute can be overwhelming. So, how do you sell 3,500 cases out of a tasting room in Grand Junction when the vineyards are small and most wineries are making 1,000 cases? I don’t know. But that’s not enough wine to open a tasting room in the city either. Thus one of the problems with the for small wineries.
So, for Colorado, as with many in The Other 46, it’s not about making good wine – it’s the other obstacles they face – weather and distribution.
Salut Colorado! I enjoyed my time and wine with you. I look forward to my next visit.
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