Wine Country. It’s a term that conjures idyllic images of quaint wineries nestled among acres of bountiful vineyards. Most of us at one time or another have planned a trip to Wine Country, perhaps California’s Napa Valley or Colorado’s own Grand Valley.
But the reality is most of us don’t actually do that very often. It takes a lot of time and effort and — by time you factor in travel, lodging and food — it costs a lot of money. Similar concerns have led many winemakers and owners to establish their operations in urban areas. The costs of buying and maintaining vineyards can offset the benefits of being located in Wine Country, especially for small, artisan producers.
In recent years, these factors (and often a preference for city life) have converged to help create somewhat of a boom in wineries located in urban settings. Among others, notable wineries have opened in New York City, Seattle, Portland and the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Denver metro area has joined these cities as a major urban winery hub. The leader of this trend has to be The Infinite Monkey Theorem. Originally established in 2008 in an industrial area off of Santa Fe Drive just south of downtown, IMT settled into a warehouse in the River North, or RiNo, neighborhood just north of downtown, in 2012.
IMT founder and winemaker Ben Parsons says being an urban winery “is all about embracing city culture and giving guests an experience that they can relate to. Something tangible, real and unpretentious.” Since the beginning, Ben has made a name for being an innovator and skilled marketer and the urban location has facilitated the winery’s involvement in the community and his embrace of alternative packaging.
“We currently keg a quarter of our production and distribute kegs in 6 states. We put roughly half our production in cans and are distributed in 37 states,” he says. The business model has been so successful he is on the verge of opening an IMT winery in Austin that will source Texas-grown grapes.
But IMT wasn’t the first urban winery in Colorado. That distinction may belong to Balistreri Vineyards, which began making wine at East 66th Avenue and Washington Street in 1998. Spero Winery followed at West 64th Avenue and Irving Street in 2000. Bonacquisti, nestled in a commercial strip just off of Interstate 70 and Pecos Street opened in 2006. These wineries, joined recently by Rykers Cellars in the same building as Bonacquisti and Kingman Estates a couple blocks from Balistreri, are close enough to each other it would make a fun day trip to visit them all.
A visit to Boulder Wine Studios — where Settembre Cellars, Bookcliff Vineyards and What We Love Winery are all located a few feet from each other — also makes for similar experience. In the last decade, wineries also have opened in downtown Denver, Centennial, Parker, Castle Rock, Colorado Springs, Highlands Ranch, Littleton, Englewood, Arvada, Broomfield, Longmont, Loveland, Fort Collins Greeley, Brighton, and Fort Lupton.
That’s a lot of wineries! Actually, “There are now more wineries and more wine being produced on the Front Range than the Western Slope,” as Michelle Cleveland, winemaker for Creekside Cellars in Evergreen told me. Creekside, like a few other urban wineries, also owns a vineyard in the Grand Valley.
Some might think it’s a stretch to call Creekside an urban winery, but I don’t. The location in downtown Evergreen combines the winery, an Italian cafe and an outdoor deck overlooking Bear Creek. The setting is ideal for producing a synergy between Colorado wine, good food and beautiful Colorado scenery.
Similarly, The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey is about as far as you can get from downtown Denver, but I still consider it an urban winery. Located just outside of downtown Cañon City, the winery has only a few vines of its own. Rather, like most other urban wineries, it gets most of its grapes from the Western Slope and supplements those as needed with juice from outside the state.
Winemaker Jeff Stolz, an area native, suggested, “Maybe we’re more of a hybrid, because we do use some fruit grown in the area, but we wouldn’t be able to sustain the production level we have without our proximity to Colorado Springs and Pueblo.”
Typical of urban wineries, HCA works hard to become an integral part of the local community. (Of course, that’s not to say Wine Country wineries don’t!) Most host a regular schedule of community events and charity fundraisers, often partnering with local chefs or food trucks and other local businesses.
Expect the urban winery trend to continue. Paraphrasing Parsons, Cleveland and Stultz, “That’s where the people are.” And urban wineries dovetail with the growing consumer appreciation of smaller, local, artisan producers — like the farm-to-table movement and the craft-brewing explosion. Everybody wins as Western Slope growers have more buyers for their fruit, the wineries are closer to their customers, and consumers have more opportunities to enjoy Colorado wine. It looks like urban wineries are riding a wave.
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, gabbygourmet.com and his own website, rmpeoplesopalate.com. He was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in 2006. He can be reached at Rich@rmpeoplespalate.com.