When servers pop the corks on the 12 wines that captured Governor’s Cup awards at a Thursday celebration, one look at the winners will confirm the fact that the heart of Colorado’s wine industry is shifting eastward.
They’re shifting from the grape-laden Palisade fields to the tasting rooms of Denver-area wineries whose growth is out-pacing their Western Slope counterparts.
Front Range and Eastern Plains wineries and cideries now outnumber those west of the Continental Divide among Colorado’s 146 wine producers, said Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. Five of the 12 wineries winning awards at the Governor’s Cup come from this newer wine destination, and producers from Denver, to Boulder, to Evergreen are generating national attention.
Michelle Cleveland, winemaker at Evergreen’s Creekside Cellars, said Front Range wineries are not going through a boom so much as an awakening.
Yes, she still has people stopping into her tasting room that begin their visit by expressing great surprise that there even is wine made in Colorado. But as she pours her 2014 Cabernet Franc — a wine that not only won a Governor’s Cup medal but captured a 91 rating from Wine Enthusiast magazine, she realizes that she, like many of her counterparts, is changing the consensus opinion on where to find wine in Colorado one glass at a time.
“The basic reason [for] that growth is economics. This is where the people are, this is where the draw is,” Cleveland said. “Unfortunately, we had to get the awards to prove we knew what we were doing.”
That’s not to say the wine business is decreasing on the Western Slope, where Colorado wineries continue to be grow most of the grapes used and where rows of vineyards still host travelers arriving specifically to hop from tasting room to tasting room.
It’s just that there’s been a gradual shift in recent years toward locating these wineries around places like Boulder and Denver and Fort Collins and taking advantage of the booming resident and tourist crowds seeking out local products, Caskey said.
Caskey and others identify the desire to meet these crowds as the biggest reason for the growth of Front Range wineries over the past five to 10 years.
“It is easier to transplant grapes across the mountains than customers,” Caskey said.
But there are other reasons that are key to the transformation as well.
The millennials who have been such a big part of Denver’s in-migration are drinking wine at greater clips than past generations, making winery trips an activity that is becoming more popular in the big cities, Cleveland noted.
And many people are coming from parts of the country that also have a local winery scene, spurring them to seek out tasting rooms and local wines even when there aren’t rows of vineyards nearby, said John Garlich, who co-owns the award-winning Bookcliff Vineyards in Boulder with his wife, Ulla Merz.
And then there is the intangible factor that many people see Front Range wineries simply making better wines these days.
Some wineries, such as Denver’s Infinite Monkey Theorem and Boulder’s Decadent Saint, are distributing into multiple states and gaining notice. Others, like Bookcliff, are focusing on Colorado — but finding great acceptance in stores and restaurants, where sales were up 40 percent last year, Garlich said.
Cleveland said she believes that increase in quality is helped by a newer generation of winemakers that are jumping into the profession with years of education in enology, rather than the old-school idea of going pro after a decade or so of making wine as a hobby for friends.
“I’ve always felt there was a different clientele for Front Range wineries than the Western Slope,” said Garlich, whose 2016 Riesling will be honored at the Governor’s Cup awards. “I think people on the Front Range are not just out for the tourism aspect but truly want a spectacular red or white.”
The fact that many of the 30 cideries in the state are choosing to open on the Front Range also adds to the growth of the industry locally, since cideries are considered wineries because of their use of fruit, Caskey said.
This awakening comes even without an increase in Front Range vineyards, as only a few hardy farmers are growing cold-weather-resistant grapes in an area that can be devastated by hail in an instant, Caskey noted.
Still, he Front Range wineries will continue to grow at a significant pace.
“I think it’s an enormous function of how the industry works best,” he said. “I’m not sure this is a surprise.”
Ed Sealover covers government, health care, tourism, airlines, hospitality, restaurants and brewing for the Denver Business Journal. Phone: 303-803-9229.