Bookcliff Vineyards’ winery is located in an inconspicuous industrial complex in North Boulder, next-door to a place offering “21st Century Ninja Training.”
Bookcliff, a mid-size producing winery owned by husband-and-wife team John Garlich and Ulla Merz, isn’t what most people think of when they think of a winery. When people think of Colorado wineries, they conjure up images of Bookcliff’s Western-Slope competitors. The truth comes out, though, in the wine.
“My goal is to try to get Colorado recognized as a contender as far as quality of wine in the whole world,” Garlich said. “You know, we’re not going to ever produce a lot, there’s a small area where we actually grow wine grapes, but the quality is very good, and it’d be nice to get Colorado recognized in the context of wine from all around the world. We’re starting to see that.”
It helps that Garlich and Merz have the whole Front Range at their disposal as their market.
“As a Colorado winery, we have a lot of outlets,” Garlich said. “You have to do a lot of things to make it as a business. And so we sell to restaurants quite a bit, in fact that’s been one of our fastest growing segments, we were up 30-40 percent last year in restaurant sales.
“That’s been a really good way to get the word out, especially if you get one by the glass, you know, it’s kind of non-threatening to buy a glass of Colorado wine and not a whole bottle, having not tasted it, and so we find that works really well for us.”
Although most wineries break into the industry through restaurants, Bookcliff’s business model had it selling to liquor stores first.
“That’s how we started, we had a whole winery, a lot of these tanks were in our house, the basement of our house, and so we didn’t have a tasting room.” Garlich said. “The city of Boulder wouldn’t let us have a tasting room. They let us have the winery in our basement, but they wouldn’t let us have a tasting room, which is understandable.”
Garlich said that made them focus on selling to liquor stores, in terms of competitive pricing and quality, and then move to other revenue streams, which is the opposite of how most wineries get started. Bookcliff sold primarily to liquor stores for the first 8-10 years they were in business.
Wholesale sales, in restaurants and liquor stores, make up about 50 percent of Bookcliff’s sales, Garlich said.
The rest of the sales, Garlich said, are a lot of moving parts. Bookcliff’s sells wine in their tasting room in North Boulder, at wine festivals, at farmer’s markets and through a wine club that they started.
“We do a lot of events, we do cheese and wine pairing, things like that that kind of draw people in for the experience, stuff like that.”
Garlich and Merz like being located on the Front Range, but there are drawbacks.
“We always debate that with ourselves: do we want to pay the price, the rents here on the Front Range, especially with marijuana, or do we want to set up shop on our own lands and build a winery? I’m a structural engineer. I could easily build us a nice building at a reasonable cost. Luckily after a couple years here I signed up for a 10-year lease, before all the marijuana hit, so before all the prices jumped way up,” Garlich said. “Our lease runs out here in 2020, we’ll see what things are like a couple years before, and make a decision what to do.”
The high prices have been worth it so far, though, because of the easy access to wine drinkers that the Western Slope doesn’t have.
“We like to say there’s 4 million people on the Front Range and 200,000 beer drinkers on the Western Slope,” Garlich said.
Bookcliff’s grapes, unlike some other wineries, all come from the state of Colorado. The vineyards are located in an area just east of Palisade, known as the vinelands.
“Ninety-nine percent we grow ourselves. Now we’re up to about 37 acres of vineyard. We have several different sites in the vinelands. So we sell grapes to other wineries, about 50 percent, and about half for ourselves.”
It’s a far cry from where they started.
“We actually started 20 years ago, we bought the property (in the vinelands) in the fall of 95 and tore out the peach trees, it was an old peach orchard, kind of decrepit, and it was 10 acres so we tore out the initial six acres that we planted the next year with grapes,” Garlich said.“It’s, like, the best grape-growing area in the state.”
The drawback to growing all their grapes in Colorado is the harsh winters.
“We’re a little busier in the summer. That’s primarily when Colorado wineries sell their wines. That’s the nice thing about being on the Front Range, it’s a little more constant, a decent amount of business in the winter whereas Palisade can be pretty dead in the winter.”
“The past couple of years until this year have been a little rough, with the winters or frost events, so we’ve had diminished crops. But we were still able to get grapes,” Garlich said. “A lot of wineries the past couple of years have had to go outside the state, to get grapes from outside the state, but we never want to do that. We always want to have Colorado grapes.”
Regardless of where the grapes come from, owning a winery is not for the faint of heart.
“It’s not easy, it’s not a quick way to make money in business, starting a winery, but it is fun and you get to meet people that have similar interests, and it’s more about that than making a bunch of money.”