Colorado’s unpredictable weather, high altitude and sometimes freezing temperatures make it seem an unlikely locale for wine cultivation. Yet, hidden in small isolated river valleys throughout Colorado lie over 150 vineyards that grow grapes used almost solely for the production of wine.
These vineyards are located in sheltered microclimates throughout the state, such as the Grand Valley of the Colorado River and the North Fork Valley of the Gunnison River, where weather conditions are not quite as harsh. However, Colorado grape-growers face many challenges that grape-growers in other states do not.
“(Grape growing) is a very difficult business here,” said Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. “Our climate is very unpredictable. Although, because our climate is right on the threshold of where you can grow grapes, you get the best grapes possible. Grapes tend to grow better when they have to struggle.”
Grape growers in Colorado face many challenges including a dry climate, high altitude, expensive vineyard property and a shorter growing season.
Despite these many problems the wine industry in Colorado continues to thrive and grow, with almost 40 operating wineries in the state. This is more than most states in America, although it seems miniscule when compared to California’s 950 plus wineries.
Colorado even boasts the highest vineyard in the world; Terror Creek Winery, located in Paonia, Colo., stands at 6,400 feet above sea level.
John Merrick, co-owner of the Trail Ridge Winery, located in Loveland, Colo. said that one of the reasons he decided to open a winery in Colorado was the fact that he has lived in the state most of life.
He and his family purchased a vineyard in Loveland and in 1994 Merrick and some of his friends opened the Trail Ridge Winery, which has since won numerous awards for its high quality wine.
“Good quality fruit has been grown in Colorado since the 1900’s, so there was certainly a potential for a wine industry in Colorado,” Merrick said. “It was just a matter of taking the risk and having the confidence that it could work.”
However, Merrick admits that at times being a winemaker and vineyard owner in Colorado is a struggle.
Ironically, the unique growing conditions that make wine production such a difficult process in Colorado also can be attributed to the high quality of Colorado-grown grapes.
The dry climate of Colorado forces grape growers to irrigate, unlike grape growers in other states who can count on humidity and natural rainfall. Caskey said this is both good and bad. Although irrigation is expensive, it allows vineyard owners to control the exact amount of water their grapes receive.
Another advantage of Colorado vineyards is the soil, Caskey said.
“Our soils are actually much more akin to the soils of Europe. I think you get much more European characteristics in our wine,” he said.
One of the biggest disadvantages of grape growing in Colorado is the shorter growing season. This means that it is difficult to grow grapes that need a long maturation period. Even so, Horst Caspari, the state viticulturist, said that there are more than 35 varieties of grapes that thrive in Colorado.
Unpredictable frosts can have a very negative effect on grape growth, Caspari said.
“There was a frost in 1989 that made it so there was relatively no grape production in 1990,” he said. “The grapes have a hard time adapting to those fast temperature changes.”
Caspari is just one of many people currently conducting research through the CSU based Western Colorado Research Center at Orchard Mesa to deal with problems facing Colorado grape growers.
Currently, Caspari is working on finding ways to grow grapes with the least chemical input. There is already little need for chemical sprays in Colorado, because pest control is not really an issue.
“It is a tough climate to grow things in, but on the other hand it is a very good climate because Colorado doesn’t have some of the bugs and diseases that other states have,” he said.
One of the main problems Merrick experiences as a Colorado winemaker is the lack of knowledge about Colorado wines, he said.
“One of the limitations of my job is getting the public to recognize the Colorado wine industry,” Merrick said.
Caskey also said this is a problem. While wines in Oregon and Washington reach about 15 percent of their state’s population, wines in Colorado reach only about 1 percent of the state’s population, Caskey said.
Caskey and Merrick both willingly admit that wine production in Colorado is not an easy job, but to them and many other people, it is well worth it.
“It is a business that people really love,” Caskey said. “There is a lot of gratification in doing it.” n