“I think the wines this year show great balance and wonderful winemaking skills,” said famous Napa Valley winemaker, Warren Winiarski. The maker of the iconic 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon that won the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting (and who has made countless great wines over a 40-plus year career) believe it or not was talking about a recent tasting of Colorado wines.

For my first column for The Statesman, I thought it only appropriate to focus on Colorado wine. It seemed fortuitous an event showcasing the only statewide winemaking competition exclusively for Colorado wines was happening while I worked on the column, and fitting it was held on Colorado Day.

What better way to celebrate the advances in Colorado wine? While California dominates American wine, many states, including Colorado, boast a thriving wine industry. In 1990, there were only five licensed wineries in the state. Now there are more than 120. Statewide, vineyard area has grown about 500 percent since then. While the Grand Valley still is the heart of Colorado’s wine industry, as around 80 percent of all the state’s grapes is grown there, there now are more wineries along the Front Range than on the Western Slope.

According to research by Colorado State University, which has many programs to support the Colorado wine industry, Colorado wine production continues to increase and Colorado wines have grown their share of total wine sales in the state, though it’s still only a little more than 5 percent. Although Colorado wine production is quite small — most Colorado wineries are small, family owned operations — the study concluded the total economic contribution of Colorado wine sales and wine-based tourism was more than $144 million in 2013.

I’ve tasted and written about Colorado wines for 20 years, and the quality has consistently improved. Colorado wineries produce an amazing variety of wines, though most red wines focus on the traditional Bordeaux-style varietals and blends, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I tend to be partial to the Syrah and Cabernet Franc. Among the white wines, there is some good Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but don’t overlook the Viognier and Riesling.

This quality was well in evidence at the Governor’s Cup Wine Competition Tasting Event last Saturday at the History Colorado Center in Denver. It was a special opportunity to taste the 12 winners paired with locally sourced bites. Mr. Winiarski had joined a panel of wine experts from around the country to judge the competition earlier this summer and helped select the winners from 241 entries from 37 local wineries.

I felt validated when I found out two Syrahs tied for Best in Show. “Syrah often excels in Colorado as a varietal wine and also makes a wonderful component in blended wines,” said Doug Caskey, executive director of The Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. “It is quite a statement that four Syrah-based wines are among the top twelve wines in the competition.” He also pointed out that “the judges continue to note the rise in quality of Colorado wine, and this year was no exception.”

As the Colorado industry has grown into a fine adolescence, as I have heard Caskey describe it, I have thought the challenge for its journey to adulthood is to find an identity, a signature wine, like Malbec in Argentina. For now, merlot is the most widely planted red grape in the state, with cabernet sauvignon close behind, but plantings of syrah, petite verdot and cabernet franc are increasing, as wines from these varieties show real promise.

“Having been in the Colorado wine industry for most of my life, it’s great to see the industry evolve over the years,” said Jay Christianson of Canyon Wind Cellars. “Competitions like the Governor’s Cup are a great way to celebrate the craftsmanship that goes into each bottle and the quality wine that is being produced in Colorado.”

If you are like me and you believe in supporting local farmers and artisan food producers, you have been delighted to see the volume and quality of such producers improving. Don’t stop with supporting Colorado-grown food. Colorado’s wine producers also deserve your support.

And next month offers a great opportunity to taste many of these wines at the source, as the Colorado Mountain Winefest will be under way in Palisade Sept. 17-20.

Rich Mauro became interested in wine while working in wine shops during college where he became fascinated with the magical transformation of grapes into wine. Ever since, he has explored wine as a connection to the earth, history and culture. He has been writing about wine since 1994. His work has appeared in Out Front Colorado, The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette, Beverage Analyst, and his own website, He was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in 2006.

2015 Governor’s Cup Case

The Top 12 scoring grape wines

Canyon Wind Cellars/Anemoi (Palisade) – 2013 Lips (Syrah), Grand Valley AVA BEST IN SHOW (tie)

Turquoise Mesa Winery (Broomfield) – 2013 Syrah, Colorado BEST IN SHOW (tie)

Bonacquisti Wine Company (Denver) – 2013 Malbec, American

Bookcliff Vineyards (Boulder) – 2014 Viognier, Grand Valley AVA

Bookcliff Vineyards (Boulder) – 2012 Cabernet Franc Reserve, Grand Valley AVA

Boulder Creek Winery (Boulder) – 2012 Syrah, Colorado

Canyon Wind Cellars (Palisade) – 2013 Petit Verdot, Grand Valley AVA

Creekside Cellars (Evergreen) – 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Grand Valley AVA

Creekside Cellars (Evergreen) – 2012 Petit Verdot, Grand Valley AVA

Guy Drew Vineyards (Cortez) – 2012 Sweet Riesling, Montezuma County

Turquoise Mesa Winery (Broomfield) – 2013 Colorado Crimson (Rhône-style blend), Colorado

Whitewater Hill Vineyards (Grand Junction) – 2014 Sweetheart Red, Grand Valley AVA