Written by

Alder Yarrow 18 Sep 2018 – published on JancisRobinson.com

Elevating Colorado wine

What’s the ultimate sign that an emerging American wine region has finally broken out of obscurity? An influx of winemakers from Napa or Sonoma eager to try their hand in the area? Showing up regularly on grocery-store shelves in other wine regions? Getting featured as one of the best wine regions you’ve never heard of in Vogue magazine? Having wines that regularly score more than 90 points in a major wine publication? The establishment of subappellations and stricter geographic labelling requirements by the government?

Many such milestones measure the path towards a wine region’s greater prominence, but marking the inflection point of a wine region’s ascendancy seems possible only in retrospect. Nonetheless, I recently found myself trying to gauge the trajectory of Colorado’s wine industry, which has recently experienced every single one of these milestones, on my way to judge that state’s annual Governor’s Cup wine competition along with some very high-profile fellow judges.

While it beats digging ditches (and garners little sympathy from those who have yet to experience the sensation of tasting their 150th wine of the day), wine judging is, in fact, fairly thankless work. Which is why the world’s largest wine competitions spend a good portion of their budgets compensating the judges who spend multiple days in windowless rooms courting splitting headaches while sorting through 100 glasses of mostly mediocre Syrah.

The biggest international wine competitions can usually attract their share of the world’s top wine personalities as judges – Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers, and globally recognised journalists or winemakers – without much effort. The International Wine Challenge, for example, boasts no fewer than 37 MWs among its ranks. But outside the biggest competitions, most don’t have the budgets or reputations to attract judges at the same level.

All this suggests just how noteworthy it was for me to be joining three Masters of Wine, two Master Sommeliers, and famed vintner Warren Winiarski at the Metropolitan University of Denver to taste our way through hundreds of Colorado wines over the course of a weekend. By way of comparison, this modest gathering of heavily initialled luminaries equalled the number of MWs or MSs you’ll find on the judging roster of the 38-year-old San Francisco International Wine Competition, which claims to be America’s largest annual competition.

So what’s the draw of a tiny wine competition in a state that most Americans wouldn’t possibly associate with wine? For sommelier and wine educator Doug Frost, one of four people in the world who holds both the MW and MS certification (and who had to leave before the photograph below was taken), the answer is simple: ‘I think there’s cool stuff happening here, and I don’t want to be ignorant of it. You have to be here to find out.’

For Joel Butler, author, educator and America’s first resident MW, it’s personal. ‘I was born and raised in Colorado, and coming home for wine is a pretty big thing’, says Butler. ‘There’s great climatic potential here and I’m excited to discover what the state is capable of, as well as see it in a broader spectrum.’

Butler believes Colorado might, one day, rival some of the world’s great wine regions. ‘Climatically, I look at Colorado’s Western Slope with its high-altitude, dry continental climate and it’s a lot like Mendoza, Argentina. The quality of Colorado wine’, he continues, ‘will eventually only be limited by the competence of the producer, not the place.’

Master Sommelier and Boulder, Colorado-based educator and consultant Wayne Belding has watched the state’s wine industry since its infancy. ‘The wine world at large will dismiss the entirety of central US winemaking out of hand’, says Belding. ‘I’m here to say “No” and to push back against that. There are delicious wines that are worthy from this part of the country.’

One of America’s newest Masters of Wine, Ashley Hausman, has been living in Colorado for the past nine years teaching oenology and working at one of the state’s top importers of European wine. ‘I feel a responsibility to know what’s going on with Colorado wine if I’m working in this town’, she says. ‘I’ve tasted enough to know that there’s more than just potential here. Colorado can make really good wines, and they’re improving yearly. It’s a frontier. There’s so much to be discovered. Everyone is still learning what does and doesn’t work, but we’re getting great talent coming into the state now from places like Napa and Sonoma.’

Ask Warren Winiarski, however, and he’ll tell you that Colorado has had Napa talent since the beginning. The 90-year-old Winiarski judges only a single wine competition each year, making the trek to Colorado because, in his words, ‘I have a special interest. I was here in the beginning.’

In 1968 the young Winiarski was at a turning point in his career, having spent the previous two years as the first winemaker for the newly opened Robert Mondavi Winery. When Michael Mondavi returned from his National Guard service to assist in the family’s new venture, Winiarski was looking for his next big opportunity, and met a Colorado dentist named Gerald Ivancie who was in Napa to source grapes that would help him take his home winemaking operation to the next level.

Intrigued by Ivancie and his ambitions, Winiarski visited Colorado and eventually agreed to help the dentist establish Ivancie Cellars, Colorado’s first post-Prohibition winery. In the process, he was responsible for the first plantings of Vitis vinifera grapes in the state, and for the winemaking of the early vintages of Ivancie’s production.

‘Here was the chance for me to control the whole process of winemaking from the growing to the bottle’, says Winiarski. ‘I was hungry to add fullness to my experience, and wanted as much as I could get.’

Winiarski refocused on Napa in 1970, purchasing the prune orchard that would become Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and that would, in 1973, produce the Cabernet that famously went on to win the Judgment of Paris tasting.

Thanks in no small part to his influence, inspiration and efforts, the Colorado wine industry continued to grow in his absence, if slowly. By 1990 there were a mere five wineries in the state. But the last 20 years have seen explosive growth as the state rapidly established itself as one of the country’s most promising wine regions.

Today, Colorado is home to 140 wineries farming more than 1,200 acres (486 ha) of vineyards, mostly concentrated in the state’s two official American Viticultural Areas, Grand Valley AVA and West Elks AVA. These high-desert plateaux, carved first by glaciers and later by rivers, sit between 4,000 and 7,000 feet (1,220–2,135 m) of elevation, placing Colorado’s wine-growing areas among the highest in the world.

Colorado wine quality has evolved along a trajectory not uncommon among emerging wine regions around the globe, especially those without a significant history of viticulture. Experimental plantings of primarily Bordeaux grape varieties (with the notable inclusion of Riesling and Syrah) along with cold-resistant hybrids made up the state’s early wine production, most of which were picked too ripe and aged in too much new French oak. With increasing experience and confidence, the state’s vintners have begun to reduce their use of oak, determine which varieties are most suited to which regions, grow more balanced fruit, and they continue to experiment with new grape varieties.

Cabernet Franc has emerged as a particularly successful variety in Colorado. From Winiarski’s standpoint the best examples of the grape in the state are not merely competent, they’re distinctive. ‘The Cabernet Francs I’ve tasted here in Colorado were, on the whole, better than a similar group I might have tasted in California’, he says. ‘Napa still hasn’t found its way with that variety, but here in Colorado it’s doing something special.’ Winiarski was also particularly impressed with the Merlots on offer in this year’s competition entries.

Fellow judge and wine writer Jeff Siegel agrees. ‘This year was just mind boggling’, he says. ‘There’s always some lousy wines, but the increasing amount of competent, professionally made wine in Colorado is amazing to watch.’ Between 2009 and 2014, Siegel, along with Washington Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre, pioneered a series of wine-tasting events around the country under the title ‘Drink Local Wine’ promoting regional American wines.

Siegel has been judging the Colorado competition for nine years, and hopes that the state will continue to explore new grape varieties. ‘Colorado should look at some of the grapes that California doesn’t do well because the weather is so perfect – like Sangiovese and Tempranillo’, he says. ‘I know that sounds goofy, but some grapes like crappy weather.’

Washington, DC-based sommelier Andrew Stover, also a judge at this year’s competition, was particularly excited about a Teroldego and a Nebbiolo he encountered among the entries. Stover, a long-time champion of wines from lesser-known states, has been judging the Colorado competition for several years. ‘You have to get out of the mindset that the West Coast has a monopoly on terroir’, he says. Referring to the competition, he adds, ‘This year was a shocker. There were a lot of good wines this year.’

On the whole, Colorado wine quality continues to improve in leaps and bounds, but we also found our share of wines suffering from significant volatile acidity, brettanomyces and other winemaking faults that are less common in more mature wine regions. Weeding out such faults will take some time, suggests Winiarski, and some co-operation. ‘Winemakers just need to sit down together and be brutal with each other. That’s what turned Oregon Pinot Noir around. There’s nothing so cleansing as the truth.’

Colorado may need a touch better sanitation in some places, a little less new oak, experimentation with a few additional grape varieties and, yes, perhaps a dose of truthful, collaborative criticism, but it is well on its way to becoming one of America’s most distinctive terroirs.