By: Dawn Wilson For the Coloradoan

As a Fort Collins resident for more than 10 years, I have grown to love microbrew beers. We have some amazing options in town for beer, and I feel I have become a bit of a beer connoisseur as the beer options have increased in town.

But I enjoy a good glass of wine once in a while so I thought checking out Colorado’s oldest and largest wine festival would be a great place to do a little taste testing and learn about wines.

The Colorado Mountain Winefest is held each year on the third weekend of September in Palisade.

Winefest is popular with advance tickets typically selling out for a variety of weekend events, including the Scenic Wine Country Bus Tour, Chocolate and Wine Tasting and Winemaker’s Dinner. This year was no exception with more than 6,000 attendees heading to Riverbend Park for the main event, Festival in the Park, to sample wines from 53 Colorado wineries. And the attendees aren’t just from Colorado.

“In 2014, there were people in attendance from 37 states and four countries,” said Cassidee Shull, executive director for CAVE, Colorado Association for Viticulture & Enology, the organization that manages the fund-raising event for local Colorado growers. “We also encourage attendees to picnic and bring blankets and chairs to enjoy the music and relax with a glass of wine.

So the first thing I learned was that true wine drinkers know to be prepared for a picnic on the lawn.

As I waited in line for Festival in the Park, which was a bit lengthy at 45 minutes prior to the gates opening at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, it quickly became apparent attendees were serious about their wine.

I saw many prepared with lanyards dangling from their necks with wine glass holders on the end. The holders were made of shaped metals, neoprene and cloth. Must keep the wine glass safe I suppose.

I also saw many in line carrying chairs and blankets. I missed the memo.

Many of the women attendees, which is the majority demographic during the weekend events, were donning their best wine shirts – complete with sparkles arranged in catchy phrases like “Save Water, Drink Wine” and “Wines Constantly.”

Second lesson I learned was must sport the proper attire for a wine festival. My sweatshirt advertising the Salty Dawg Saloon in Homer, Alaska, stuck out like a sore thumb.

But the Festival in the Park was a fun event where I watched a chef instruct about the proper meals for pairing with different wines and why using a full chicken is much more cost effective. I enjoyed listening to live music from jazz-style bands. And I watched men and women stomp grapes just like in traditional Italian winemaking.

I asked one woman if she felt like Lucille Ball, who acted out a now famous scene in the “I Love Lucy” episode, “Lucy’s Italian Movie.”

“It was the only reason I did it,” she said as she stood in a wine barrel of smashed grapes. “That and the few glasses of wine I drank.”

As I strolled around the booths and sipped small portions of wine, I was impressed with the wide variety of wines produced by Colorado vintners.

I stumbled across one booth for a winery that is located in Fort Collins’ backyard.

Ten Bears Winery, located in Laporte, had a dozen different wines. Each of their wines reflects their location with names like Cameron Pass White and Poudre River Red. My favorite was the Nutty Laporte, a port dessert wine that smelled like cherry cordials.

“It is a great wine to pair with cheesecake,” said Jacob Goodfellow, sales manager with Ten Bears Winery. I see an evening of sweet decadence in my future.

Third lesson I learned was Fort Collins not only has great beers but tasty wines as well.

As I continued my wine lessons, I discovered why Rieslings are typically in blue bottles (it is purely for aesthetics picked up from the traditional German-style Rieslings), and why wine festival attendees wear salted pretzels on necklaces (eating one after each wine helps to cleanse the palate prior to the next wine).

Although the festival is certainly the highlight of the weekend, where I felt I learned enough new things about wine to expand my wine horizons, there are many other events to fill a weekend trip to the area.

There is a 25-mile bike race the morning before the festival. Called Tour de Vineyards. The race attracts more than 700 riders, who cruise through the vineyards and farms of Palisade and end at a park in downtown Palisade.

There is also a free farmer’s market on Sunday — the last one of the season — and a free tour of the wineries on Sunday.

Next year’s Winefest is anticipated to be bigger and better, as the event celebrates its 25th anniversary.

There are many hotel and camping options in the vicinity of Palisade, including three state park campgrounds and a campground at Colorado National Monument. Make reservations early, as lodging books quickly for the weekend.

Dawn Wilson is a professional photographer and writer, and volunteers as a Master Naturalist with the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department. Visit her website at www.DawnWilsonPhotography.com

Colorado Wine Festival

When: Sept. 15-18, 2016

Where: Palisade, which is approximately five hours from Fort Collins. Take Interstate 25 south to Interstate 76 then west to Interstate 70. Follow Interstate 70 west for approximately 290 miles to Exit 44 for Palisade then follow the signs for the festival.

Tickets: Go on sale on Nov. 30. Tickets and more information can be found at www.ColoradoWinefest.com.

Bike tour: Bikers can register for the Tour de Vineyards at www.TourDeVineyards.com.

Tips: The festival is a 21-and-older event. Dogs are not permitted at any of the events. A free shuttle service is provided from various locations in Palisade to the festival.