Good harvest after years of frost, freeze

By Shay CastleStaff writer

Irmgard Luyken, left, and Florence Jones, right sort grapes at Settembre Cellars in Boulder, Colorado (Mark Leffingwell / Staff Photographer)

Fall is here and so is the regional grape harvest, where dozens of tons of fruit are mashed, pressed and stored to produce thousands of bottles of wine.

They call it the crush, and for dozens of small, independent wineries, it can be.

Over the course of days and weeks, depending on the vintner’s process and yield, wine makers will spend four to five hours a day processing grapes, storing them in barrels to age for the next two years.

To keep from getting overwhelmed, these local wine makers turn to volunteers to help with the onslaught of grapes.

Settembre Cellars in Boulder, run by husband and wife team Blake and Tracy Eliasson, each year solicits a “crush crew” to help process the 10 tons of Colorado-grown grapes they will turn in to 6,000 bottles of wine.

Between 25 and 50 people help hand sort the grapes — pulling off leaves, discarding damaged fruit — over the course of a few days.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Tracy Eliasson. “You’re hands are occupied, but your mind is free to do anything.

“We’ve seen a lot of good friendships made around those bins.”

Eliasson said the winery employs an extended maceration process, the time from crush to press, which helps Settembre’s red wines achieve qualities the Eliassons are looking for: low sugar content with an elegant balance.

“There’s no way we could do what we do without volunteers,” Eliasson said.

Good yield after years of frost, freeze

Volunteers also play a role at Turquoise Mesa winery in Broomfield, which this year will process about 25 tons of grapes in a few short weeks.

That’s a marked increase over last year, said co-owner Tom Bueb.

“The last three out of five years, (harvest) has been way below hopes,” he said, with freezes in late spring and early fall, plus frigid winters that damage vines for years afterward.

“Mother Nature has not been so kind,” Bueb said.

Turquoise Mesa, now in its 14th harvest, is one of several area wineries that purchases grapes from vineyards on Colorado’s western slope.

One of those is Bookcliff Vineyards, owned and operated by Ulla Merz and her husband, John Garlich. The couple also run a tasting room in north Boulder, next to Settembre.

Bookcliff will sell 70 tons of fruit to Colorado wineries this year, and keep another 80 tons for its own use, Merz said.

“We still could get more this year,” she explained, “but we are probably at 80 to 90 percent of normal.”

The past two years, freezes and frosts reduced the yield by as much as half, forcing some wineries to go out of state for grapes.

Bookcliff and Settembre weren’t among them.

“We really believe in Colorado fruit,” Settembre’s Eliasson said.

Merz said the quality of grapes coming from California and Washington was below expectations, with fruit arriving damaged or overripe.

“Everybody was happy to come back and get Colorado grapes this year,” she said. “By July, we had pre-sold all of our grapes.”

Colorado wine business, reputation growing

Although Colorado might not be top of mind for wine lovers, the state’s reputation as a quality producer is growing.

Palisade, famous for its peaches, is also prime vineyard land.

“Anywhere you can grow tree fruit, you can grow grapes,” said Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.

“A lot of people are as yet unaware of Colorado wine,” Caskey said, “but when they taste it, they are blown away by how good it is.”

The Colorado wine industry generated a little under $42 million in sales in 2013, Caskey said, the most recent year for which data were available. That’s double the $21.1 million estimated in a 2005 analysis from Colorado State University.

Adding in revenue from wine tourism, the state’s wine industry generated $144 million for 2013. That’s up nearly $100 million from 2005, when CSU estimated a $41.7 million impact.

“We’re small, but still significant,” Caskey said.

Boulder County plays an important part in that industry.

The eight wineries (including Turquoise Mesa, technically Broomfield County) here are some of the earliest established in Colorado east of the Continental Divide, and Front Range vintners produce half of the wines in the state.

“Business is really good,” Turquoise’s Bueb said. “We’re seeing double digit increases (in sales) from year to year.”

Merz said Bookcliff’s growth has been steady, with nominal spikes in popularity for certain varietals, such as the malbec, which last year sold out for three months.

“We are selling a little faster than we would like, but that’s a good problem to have.”

Eliasson said sales are up at Settembre, though they aren’t yet turning a profit.

“We can see it coming,” she said. “We’re in a solid place.”

Crush, of course, is the busiest time of the year in terms of labor, but wineries are also approaching the high point for sales: the holidays.

Settembre, Bookcliff and north Broadway neighbor What We Love Winery are hosting an open house two days before Thanksgiving to showcase Boulder Wine Studios, the collective formed by the trio of vintners to help ease the burdensome costs of doing business.

“It’s really nice to have businesses that are in competition but also not,” Eliasson said. “We can work together and build the market.”

Merz said she thinks the market will grow naturally as the quality of wine improves with every new vintage.

“We’ve really improved our reputation in the past five or six years, and I think that will only increase given that we have more experience,” she said. “It’s just a natural evolution.”

The true test will be in two years, when the 2015 vintages are popped open at tasting rooms around the county and the wine makers taste the fruits of this year’s labor for the first time.

Shay Castle: 303-473-1626, castles@dailycamera.com, @shayshinecastle