Boulder’s John Garlich and Ulla Merz are entrepreneurs with a twist: They achieved their dream of making wine with Colorado-grown grapes while holding down full-time engineering jobs.
The wine-loving duo in 1995 bought a 10-acre peach orchard in Palisade on the Western Slope, and planted grape vines in spring 1996 on about 6 acres while educating themselves about the intricacies of cultivation, business and, of course, winemaking.
After harvesting their first crop of chardonnay, cabernet savignon and merlot in 1998, the couple sold the bulk of their grapes to other wineries, but kept enough to make and store two barrels of each varietal at Creekside Cellars in Evergreen.
A year later, they moved the entire winemaking process — from crushing grapes to making wine to bottling and labeling and storing — to the basement of their Boulder home. They began selling their wines at local farmers market, and after increasing production reached out to liquor stores and restaurants to sell their wines.
In 2009, they opened a winery and a tasting room at 1501 Lee Hill Drive, No. 17.
Now, Garlich and Merz are remodeling a garage on their vineyard in Palisade to open their second tasting room in the first week of May.
“It’s exciting. We can make good wine here in Colorado,” Garlich said.
We recently caught up with the duo to talk about their business of making and selling wine.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1.Why did you choose to grow your own grapes?
Merz: Farming is an important part of making wine. You get to know the land, the fruit it produces. Grapes express the character of the place they are grown in. The soil and topography, in conjunction with the climate, give a wine its unique flavors.
Growing our own grapes helps us make a better wine, because we control the quality all the way, from the vineyard to the winery.
I come from Baden-Württemberg, the second largest wine region in Germany. I feel farming is a lifestyle that’s worth preserving. It keeps you grounded.
When we started cultivating grapes, our neighbors in Palisade weren’t sure we would last. But all the neighboring farmers helped us as we stayed the course. We would borrow their equipment and often seek their advice. Soon we felt a sense of community there.
2. How did you select the name BookCliff?
Merz: The Book Cliffs are a series of desert mountains and cliffs in western Colorado and eastern Utah. Our name simply reflects the terrain. No one had used it before. The Book Cliffs are as common on the Western side as Flatirons are here.
Interestingly, a lot of visitors to our tasting room think we are from Grand Junction, because of our name, BookCliff Vineyards.
3. What’s the key element of winemaking?
Garlich: Winemaking is about knowing chemistry and making decisions based on science. It’s about knowing your grapes and the style of wine you want to make.
To me, a perfect glass of wine is not sweet. It has a good balance between fruit characteristics, acidity and tannins. A wine must have different layers of complexity from tasting to swallowing. Our primary focus is on red wine.
Merz: We grow 14 varieties of grapes. We make 100 percent varietals, but also blends. Personally, I am a great fan of our Cabernet Franc Reserve. Currently I also enjoy our Malbec Reserve 2016 and Crescendo 2016.
4. How do you introduce your wine to customers at the tasting room?
Merz: I start by asking them if they like reds or whites, dry or sweet, full-bodied or light. Or, “What’s the occasion,” or “What do you think you might enjoy today?” That usually helps me home in. If that doesn’t work, we ask them about the other wines they like. It often tells me which of our wines would appeal to them.
Getting customers’ reaction is always fun. It tells us whether we hit it or missed it.
5. How do you look back at your early years in business and the success you have achieved?
Garlich: It’s has been an adventure. Balancing a full-time job and taking care of the vineyard and winemaking was a fair amount of work, but I enjoyed it actually. Going to our vineyards in Palisade was like a weekend getaway. It wasn’t a burden, but for the traffic.
Merz: Our success has a lot to do with our temperaments. We are process people and we understand our roles pretty well within our areas of responsibility. John has been the winemaker, and he has enormous patience when it comes to winemaking. He takes criticism well.
Garlich: I like to listen to people as I make wine. I might tweak it a bit. Listening helps you make the right decision.