A few years ago, renowned winemaker Warren Winiarski took a break from judging at the Colorado Governor’s Cup wine competition to learn firsthand about the state’s wine industry.
He and several winemakers spent half a day traipsing through Palisade vineyards, discussing the challenges of high-desert winemaking and trading insights on which varieties to cultivate.
Although the time was informative and educational, Winiarski, famed for winning the 1976 Judgment of Paris (surprising the wine world with a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) and one of the people who helped transform the California wine business into the world-famous region it is today, later was oddly dissed for being “out of his element” when it came to talking about Colorado winemaking.
A California winemaker, particularly one specializing in the Napa Valley, offering advice to Colorado winemakers?
“Oddio,” as they say in the vineyards of Friuli.
Fast forward to mid-January when Stuart Pigott, a popular Berlin-based wine writer who specializes in all things Riesling (mostly German), addressed attendees at VinCo 2020, the annual gathering sponsored by the Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology.
Pigott’s rapid-fire (and well-received) 40-minute presentation covered ground like a tsunami, ranging from global climate change to a comparison between Colorado’s winemaking regions and, well, yes, Napa Valley.
And nary a diss was heard. Back then, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.
“Climate change has changed the whole ballgame,” Pigott said, standing in front of a large screen showing the effects of global warming on the world’s wine regions.
He warned of “radical implications” from rising temperatures and aridification.
He told winemakers water (or the lack thereof, in Colorado’s case) is the crucial difference between California and Colorado.
Climate change will only exacerbate the problem, Pigott said.
A recent article in the Washington Post was titled “Goodbye cabernet sauvignon. How climate change will end wine as we know it.”
But in Pigott’s opinion, that “as we know it” translates into opportunity.
Winemakers must find grapes that will grow in this climate. That they also have to make good wine goes without saying, he said.
“So your climate is harsh and challenging. What to do about that?” he asked, not waiting for an answer since none was coming. “My personal feeling is you have to embrace your situation. Face up to the problems and not do things which are just not going to work.”
Hmm. Not much new there, but there was more.
“Look for wines which are distinctive,” he half-suggested, half-demanded.
To which Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, agreed.
“Colorado has to find its own style and path,” Caskey wrote in an email. “We have been struggling since our beginnings to make our name on Merlot and Chardonnay and the consumer doesn’t really care about that.”
Local winemakers have found that road particularly rocky because when you’re small and seeking your niche, it’s easy to get derailed by capricious consumer whims.
I reached out to Jenne Baldwin-Eaton, the former prize-winning winemaker from Plum Creek Winery in Palisade and now the technical instructor for viticulture and enology at Western Colorado Community College.
She sees the challenges both from an experienced winemaker’s view as well as from the classroom.
How do you instill in would-be winemakers the passion and curiosity to experiment with new grape varieties?
Recent local climatic events and the continuing spread of phylloxera through the vineyards have been “a wake-up call to growers that we need to diversify cultivars” better suited to the local conditions “and/or (start) planting more of the cultivars that have proven consistency,” she said.
Baldwin-Eaton recalled Pigott’s comment that decisions made today might not be realized for a decade or more.
“But we have to take on these challenges now,” emphasized Baldwin-Eaton, who recently presented the results of her studies involving cold-hardy grape varieties.
Successful wineries must be “open to change, doing trials, diversification, and actively marketing/selling their wines,” she said.
Back to Pigott. “Look for wines which are distinctive… if you produced a distinctive wine which doesn’t taste like anything else produced in the U.S., and it’s really good … then you have a unique selling point.”
This isn’t easy. California wines still dominate the market and the average consumer’s palate. It isn’t rare to hear a visitor to a local tasting room comment, “This doesn’t taste like a California Cabernet Sauvignon” or whatever it is being poured.
The server, who often is the winemaker, grits her teeth, smiles like a divorce attorney and mutters, “That’s because it’s not a California Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Caskey added, “We need to establish a unique Colorado profile separate and distinct from California and even Washington. It will be easier to do that with Teroldego than with Merlot.”
Teroldego (te.ROL.de.go) is a red wine grape from the Trentino region of northern Italy and Pigott thinks it would do well in the Grand Valley.
He tasted a 2016 Teroldego made by Red Fox Cellars in Palisade and judged it “delicious and totally original.”
One of Jenne Baldwin-Eaton’s students, after listening to Pigott and state viticulturist Horst Caspari, recently wrote this for a post-VinCo evaluation: “I believe that Colorado will have to find something unique within the guidelines that are starting to form by climate change.”
So the awareness is there. What’s next?