Viticulture shock: Colorado has a hidden wine country

Wet your whistle on the Western Slope

By A.D. Thompson,

The birds and the bees enjoy the vineyard out back at the Meadery of the Rockies — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson

Flights are fun.

You go somewhere – a cheese shop, bourbon bar, chocolatier – and the server brings an array of samples, artfully plated. On a wood plank, perhaps. Three is typical. Five is generous. So when the barkeep at Red Fox Cellars presented a cider flight with eight impressive pours – jockeying for space on a crowded serving tray – I was surprised.

I was also pretty stoked, because the town of Palisade is a far cry from Denver, or any of Colorado’s more ubiquitous alpine resort towns. Outside, the sun blazed.

In this part of the Western Slope, they only get about 14 inches of snow per year and sunshine is abundant – which is why the area has been renowned for agriculture since the late 1800s. That’s when the first apple, peach, cherry, pear and plum trees were planted.

Grapevines were planted in the way-back, too, but Prohibition tragically halted Palisade’s burgeoning wine industry in its tracks. The ground remained fertile though, and decades later, in the ‘80s, a few pioneer wineries began quietly doing their thing. There are roughly 25 doing business now – and a meadery.

So if you’re thirsty, bring water. It's good to stay hydrated when you're out on the wine trail.

Red Fox Cellars

Serving happily and apple-y. Prepping a cider flight at Red Fox Cellars — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson

Aside from that ample cider flight (the roasted chili-infused variety was among my favorites), this relative newcomer’s rustic and comfortable tasting room is a welcoming space in which to sample heady reds like their best-seller – the Bourbon Barrel Merlot, aged in barrels from various Colorado distilleries – and refreshing hot-weather options like the fruity and easy-drinking Long Day Rosé.

Plum Creek Winery

The whimsical sculpture outside Plum Creek's tasting room is made of discarded farming tools — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson

This one would have made my list for the seven-and-a-half-foot-tall kaiju of a mecha-rooster alone (I later learned they call him the Chardonnay Chicken), but there are reasons beyond their cool, upcycled sculpture to visit Plum Creek – most of which can fill a glass.

All the winemaking here is done on-site, impressive when you consider the storage capacity: more than 70,000 gallons. That’s an awful lot of barrels, and Plum Creek procures them from far corners of the world. A favorite here was the riesling. Its notes of apricot and citrus were wonderful, as was the gift shop. One of the best I saw during my time in Palisade, it’s amply stocked with upscale items for the sad, sober folks back home.

Varaison Vineyards

Varaison's lovely Victorian digs are often booked for weddings. Ceremonies are performed in the rose garden out back — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson

Its name is taken from the French, a word that in viticulture means “the onset of ripening.” I asked our hostess for the definition, but it’s likely she’d have gotten to it anyway. The presentation here was comprehensive, with information on when – and when not – to swirl, how to hold the glass and even the positioning of the tongue during tasting.

Not surprisingly, the vintner here worked for decades in California on the scientific side of winemaking before going into the business for himself. Housed in a stately Victorian home, its airy and expansive porch is a lovely place to sip and sample and the garden out back is explosively beautiful.

Maison la Belle Vie

The Good Life. A few tastes at Maison la Belle Vie and you'll feel like you're living it — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson

Are we approaching a secluded French chateau? No, but the feeling is reminiscent as you make your way past rows of grapevines on the long driveway to Maison la Belle Vie. On the day I popped in, prep for an afternoon wedding was afoot and positive energy flowed much like the winery’s wares – cab, merlot, syrah and vin de peche (made with local peaches, of course) among them. Outside in the courtyard, visitors enjoyed charcuterie boards loaded with cheese, meats, olives, hummus, fruits and chocolate ($35 for two people; $60 for four).

Peach Street Distillers

Liquor is quicker. If that's your M.O., hit Peach Street Distillery first — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson

Need a break from all the wine? Try liquor! More specifically, that which they craft at Peach Street Distillers. A nearby food truck, already brisk with business before the lunch hour, let us know that inside this festive tasting room, it’s pretty much always 5 o’clock.

Gin, whiskey, grappa, vodka, brandy – the latter infused with Palisade-grown fruits – mean a simple tasting here is enough to….well, to necessitate a visit to that aforementioned food truck. Or you can stick around to try the bier schnapps. Yes, really. The Lefthand IPA (delicious to taste, but sold out so I couldn’t get a bottle!) and Steeltoe Stout are, in fact, craft spirits distilled from leftover craft beer. Somewhere, a hipster’s head just exploded.

Meadery of the Rockies

Bee-hind the scenes? The Meadery of the Rockies offers tours of their operation – call ahead to inquire and reserve space — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson

Wine. Made from honey. It sounds sweet and romantic and it is. This cheery tasting room, piled to the rafters with adorable, honeybee-emblazoned gifts is sunny and welcoming, with Adirondack chairs out front and a picturesque vineyard ‘round back.

All of the varieties are sweet, but there is a range. Fruit varietals with local produce – apricot, cherry, peach and others – are popular, as are the dessert options, with flavors like chocolate and raspberry blended in. I grabbed a bottle of the “driest” – Lightly Sweet Honey Wine – for recreational consumption. I’ll be pairing it with the Game of Thrones season premiere.