What do you think of when you think of Colorado? Chances are that Colorado wine isn’t the first image that comes to mind, but it should be somewhere on your radar screen. Wine is both old and new in this Rocky Mountain state.
Peaks and Valleys
Wine was first produced in 1890 from grapes grown on 60 acres of vineyard and orchard land on Rapid Creek above Palisade along the Colorado River. The decades since these first wines were made have been full of peaks and valleys for Colorado wine and Sue and I have had sort of a rocky road experience ourselves with these wines.
We’ve had several chances to taste Colorado wines over the years, especially when I spoke at the state’s annual VinCO Conference in 2018. While we’ve been impressed by some of the wines, we were disappointed by others.
Peaks and valleys. This uneven experience is a problem because you seldom get a second chance to make a first impression when people taste your wine. But it is also understandable. Honestly, I don’t know any wine region that doesn’t have its share of peaks and valleys.
Climbing to the Heights
It is also understandable because, although the Colorado wine industry is surprisingly old, it is also unexpectedly young. You see, Colorado citizens embraced Prohibition even before the national policy was enacted and the vines were ripped out more than 100 years ago. Wine really didn’t restore its foothold in Colorado until the 1970s (Warren Winniarski, of Judgment of Paris fame, made some of those early wines). The industry has charted an upward path since then, but the road has remained rocky.
Sue and I were delighted when offered the opportunity to taste Colorado wines from The Ordinary Fellow winery, a project of the winemaker Ben Parsons and located in the old United Fruit Growers COOP peach packing shed in Palisade. I don’t know Parsons personally, but his career path reminds me of Randall Grahm. Grahm is a brilliant brand-builder who is also a committed terroirist. Both land and brand, if you know what I mean. I think Parsons might be the same.
Parsons achieved brand-building fame with The Infinite Monkey Theorem winery. He started out making wine in a quonset hut in Denver, far from the vineyards but up close to the urban customer base. He set out to be different, which drew him to keg wine and then to cans. Infinite Monkey Theorem became a canned wine phenomenon to such a degree that at one point a second winery was opened in Austin. Parsons and the Infinite Monkey Theorem brand were way ahead of the curve in terms of cans and creating an image and environment that appeals to younger consumers.
Parsons left Infinite Monkey Theorem in 2019 to found The Ordinary Fellow (named for a favorite pub in England), making wine in Palisade from grapes grown on two high-elevation vineyards in southwest Colorado.
More Than Mile High
We tasted three of the Colorado wines. Our favorite was a 2021 Riesling ($18) from the Box Bar vineyard, elevation 6200 feet. It had intense Riesling character and developed nicely in the glass with dinner. We also enjoyed the 2021 Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) from the same vineyard. Can you taste high elevation? I wonder. This wine reminded me of some high-elevation Malbecs from Salta in Argentina. The acidity really lifted the and balanced the tannins. Was it really an elevation effect? Probably the power of suggestion, but very interesting.
The 2021 Pinot Noir ($25) from the 6800-foot Hawk’s Nest vineyard struck us as a work in progress, but one we’d be interested to follow in the years to come. What a beautiful light color and nice nose! But Sue thought it tasted more like a Grenache than Pinot Noir, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Me? I’m just amazed that Pinot Noir can be grown in Colorado, but I guess I need to reimagine what’s possible in Colorado. Overall I would say these wines are a “peak” experience for sure. I hope we have a chance to visit the winery in Palisade somewhere down the road.
Parons produces about 2500 cases of wine these days with plans to grow to 5000 cases. He’s working hard to develop the vineyards and to make wine that reflects their particular terroir.
Rocky Road Ahead?
Colorado has 163 wineries according to Wine Business Monthly’s annual survey, which puts it just ahead of Missouri and just behind of North Carolina (two important wine producers) on the list. A WineAmerica economic impact study suggests wine is an important driver of jobs and income.
I asked my friend Doug Caskey, who is executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, about the road ahead for the state’s wine industry and he provided a very realistic assessment. On the plus side, innovation is rising, including new sparkling wines that expand the state’s wine menu. But scale (and therefore economies of scale) is limited by several factors including water availability, the risk of severe winter weather, and the cost of vineyard lands.
Colorado recently expanded wine sales from specialized shops to include supermarkets and convenience stores and this change introduces a big question mark for Colorado wines. On one hand, wine will be more readily available for the state’s shoppers, which is likely to increase wine sales. But will it increase Colorado wine sales, or will those supermarket shelves be filled with bigger-volume wines from California and elsewhere? Lots of uncertainty.
Will the rising tide lift all wine boats? Maybe. Supermarkets like to demonstrate their commitment to local products and producers. What could be more local in Colorado than Colorado wine? However, based on what we’ve seen in other states, it’s a tough problem to solve.
Sue and I are glad we had this opportunity to revisit Colorado wine and look forward to learning more about this state’s evolving wine industry in the future.
As you probably already guessed, The Ordinary Fellow wine isn’t ordinary at all. Its exceptionalism begins with the colorful labels, which are actually more complicated and interactive than they appear in the photos. There are two parts to the label. The first is a very colorful inner label that reminds me a little of the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” type of art, then a plain white outer label that rotates to reveal different aspects of the inner art. Kinda psychedelic! Not ordinary at all.