Changes to Fremont County’s zoning code made it easier for farms growing grapes and apples to open cideries and wineries in the town of Penrose

The start to a Fremont County wine trail might follow narrow and sometimes muddy rural roads, but there’s plenty of buzz about it leading to an agricultural renaissance in the region.

With the recent launch of a fourth winery and two more on the way, and a blossoming cidery and the move from Denver of a second, some owners are meeting to see how they can keep the momentum going.

“Everybody agrees that if we can grow together and make this a destination, it will be good for all of us,” said Justin Jenkins, who recently opened the Western Skies Winery at his Jenkins Farms Apple Valley Orchard.

The 36-year-old Penrose native led the charge for a Fremont County zoning change in October that makes it easier for small farms in residential agricultural areas to open a limited winery or cidery, and recently invited some of his fellow entrepreneurs to brainstorm about marketing.

He and others were thrilled by news last month that C Squared Ciders is leaving Denver’s RiNo arts district, taking up residence at the deserted Red Barn, at one time the largest orchard in Penrose.

C Squared owner Andy Brown, who bought the property and will live in the house at the farm, was equally thrilled with the welcome he received from Jenkins and his crew.

C Squared Ciders is moving into the long-vacant Red Barn Orchards facilities in Penrose. Andy Brown bought the property to save $12,000 a month on the rent he was paying in the pricey RiNo arts district in Denver. (Provided by C Squared Ciders)
C Squared Ciders is moving into the long-vacant Red Barn Orchards facilities in Penrose. Andy Brown bought the property to save $12,000 a month on the rent he was paying in the pricey RiNo arts district in Denver. (Provided by C Squared Ciders)

“I knew it was a good fit for us – the building and the area of Penrose, too,” Brown said. “I started getting phone calls and emails from people encouraging the farm’s restoration and welcoming my business to the neighborhood.”

Brown, who distributes his hard cider in Colorado, New Mexico and Minnesota, said he loves the idea of a farmhouse cidery. And the move will save him $12,000 a month in rent, he said.

Steve Smith started Pop’s Vineyard in 2016 after years of making wine for friends and family and working as a supervisor in the Colorado Correctional Industries agriculture program. He said the area winemakers and farmers share tips and advice and sometimes equipment. They don’t have time to be competitive or jealous of each other.

That goes for the flagship The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey, too, where Smith said the smaller winemakers often turn for advice. The Abbey winery is the oldest in the area. It opened in 2002, was sold in 2005 to Larry Oddo and has grown significantly in the last decade.

“I’m excited,” Smith said, noting that he’d met recently with Jenkins and Kevin Williams, owner of Apple Valley Cider Co. “I think we can become a destination. We used to be a destination.”

Fremont County Commissioner Dwayne McFall, who also has a small farm, said the zoning change eased the process for those wanting to start a winery or cidery (which fall under winery licensing) on the smaller farms that line the alphabet-lettered streets that run north/south in Penrose. Previously, they could pursue that through a more cumbersome and costly special review process.

“It’s amazing how many people are growing grapes around here,” he said, noting that he expects growth to continue. “When you start to look you see little vineyards everywhere.”

The growers sell their grapes and apples to the wineries, helping them use as much locally grown produce as possible. Williams this fall bottled a Penrose Apple hard cider made from the juice of only locally grown apples; the Abbey Winery each year makes a Wild Cañon Harvest wine, blended from grapes purchased from as many as 100 growers in the Cañon City area.

Evolution of a farming region

The fertile Arkansas River Valley east of the Royal Gorge has long been known for its farms. Italian immigrants who came to work in mines planted grapevines in pre-Prohibition days, and small vineyards again are popping up throughout the Penrose/Florence/Cañon City area.

The huge apple orchards that once stretched across the wide valley have been replaced by hay fields and houses and are unlikely to reappear, but smaller orchards are being revitalized with heritage varieties and U-pick offerings.

Further east, beyond Pueblo, the ever-broadening river valley boasts of the famed Pueblo Chile and then the melon farms of Rocky Ford.

The agricultural renaissance in Fremont County, though, is most likely to be built around smaller specialty farms and related businesses, like the wineries, said Blake Osborn, a water resource specialist with the Colorado Water Center who works at the CSU Extension office in Fremont County.

He calls these “value added” farms, where the owner finds a niche market and makes a go of it on small acreage. Recent startups in Cañon City beyond the orchards and vineyards include a lavender farm and a community supported agriculture operation New Roots Farm, said Osborn, who wants to raise Navajo-Churro sheep on his own small farm in the Lincoln Park area of Cañon City.

But, he adds, many people have day jobs or retirement income to support their farm endeavors.

Dormant vines at Legatum Cellars in Canon City. The mild climate in Fremont County along the Arkansas River makes the region hospitable to commercial vineyards and orchards. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Dormant vines at Legatum Cellars in Canon City. The mild climate in Fremont County along the Arkansas River makes the region hospitable to commercial vineyards and orchards. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Part of what’s driving the movement is the same as elsewhere: an increased interest in healthier foods, the farm-to-table movement and the desire for a rural lifestyle. In addition, Fremont County has affordable land and the Arkansas River Valley is less prone to extreme weather, making it hospitable to fruit trees and grape vines.

An ongoing CSU climate study in Fremont and Montezuma counties should help apple and grape growers determine which varieties grow best in their regions.

“I would be very surprised if we don’t see more growth,” said Osborn, a Cañon City native. “The market is starting to mature around us, and there are opportunities for food enterprises.

“Pueblo is doing a ton around local food right now. I would like to see us tie in more regionally.”

Most of the growers and producers said they’re open to partnerships and new ideas or joint special events. Some sell their products in Pueblo liquor stores as well those in Cañon City. Pop’s Vineyard, which does not have a tasting room, delivers its wines to area liquor stores and also specializes in custom-labeled bottles for businesses that want gifts for clients or employees, Smith said.

Legatum Cellars in Cañon City, on the other hand, only sells out of its own tasting room on Saturdays and owners Rich and Cindy Tupper are happy with that. They have a vineyard to tend to and make about 4,000 bottles a year, mostly special blends that Cindy Tupper creates.

They use their own grapes, others from nearby vineyards and ones that Rich Tupper drives to pick up elsewhere in Colorado, including in Burlington and on the Western Slope.

“I buy grapes, not juice,” he said. “That way, I can ensure the freshness and have more control. I’ve got to see and touch the grapes.”

He loves the wine culture that is establishing itself in several corners of the state and would love to see it permeate the Arkansas River Valley.

Young entrepreneurs, retirees

The wineries and cideries seem to be split among two groups of owners: young entrepreneurs, many of whom grew up in the region, and those who have recently retired or are about to. Most experimented with brewing beer or making wine for at least a few years before making the commercial leap.

For Jenkins, adding a winery was a way to make his U-pick apple orchard more sustainable and his income less reliant on the whims of nature.

Western Skies Winery in Penrose offers cherry and apple wines as well as a drier riesling at its recently opened winery. It is part of Jenkins Farms, which offers U-pick apples in the fall. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Western Skies Winery in Penrose offers cherry and apple wines as well as a drier riesling at its recently opened winery. It is part of Jenkins Farms, which offers U-pick apples in the fall. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Initially, he thought he’d make hard cider but when he looked into the options and licensing, he decided to go with wine.

Instead of pursuing the special review process necessary to open a winery on his K Street farm, Jenkins met with McFall and planning officials to see if there was a way to ease the process.

Jenkins didn’t want to be the only winery in the neighborhood, and he thought the change would help attract others. Indeed, as Brown was about to close on the purchase of his property for C Squared, he learned that the zoning change was to be considered by commissioners the next day. He drove from Denver to join Jenkins and others in speaking out for the change at the meeting.

Fremont County Planning Director Sean Garrett said the change allows wineries to produce 100,000 gallons of wine or cider a year and limits combined retail and tasting room space to 1,500 square feet. Larger operations must use the special review process, he said.

Jenkins said he talked with other licensed wineries in Fremont County before he pursued the changes. “I got a lot of good support.”

He said it took about eight months from when he first approached the county until the change was made and he and others researched how the permitting and licensing worked in other wine regions.

Along with C Squared, there are two other proposed wineries that will benefit from the new permit process: Bugling Elk Vineyards expects to open on Apple Lane within a couple of years and Tilde Vineyards on D Street was incorporated in October 2018 and Garrett said it has begun paperwork with the county.

Williams opened his cidery in the Penrose business district two years ago, after brewing beer at Walter Brewing Co. in Pueblo.

“I decided if I was going to work that hard, I was going to do it for myself,” he said, noting that he still has a day job in information technology.

But he switched to cider, which he’d been making and entering in the Colorado State Fair as an amateur.

“It seemed like cider was more exciting,” he said. “I love beer and I love brewing, but you can make really great beer and not stand out because there’s so many other people out there making beer.”

Williams, a Penrose native who can rattle off a list of who owned what orchard when he was a child, will celebrate his second anniversary in business next month with the release of a prickly pear cider.

Legatum Cellars owners Rich and Cindy Tupper chat with customers who stopped in to taste their wine in December. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Legatum Cellars owners Rich and Cindy Tupper chat with customers who stopped in to taste their wine in December. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Smith and Tupper are among the retiree producers, and they’ll be joined by Shawn Kauffman when he retires from the Army and opens Bugling Elk Vineyards. Kauffman and his wife, Alexis, have been planting grapes and experimenting with their vineyard for two years and hope to produce a high-altitude malbec that rivals those coming from Argentina.

He said he’s been warned by his fellow growers that malbec grapes are difficult to grow here but he wants to give it a shot. He’s planted several other varieties, too, including riesling and cabernet franc grapes, which tend to grow well in the county’s mild climate.

That includes helping create the wine culture, which he came to know and love while stationed in Europe and is embraced by the other local producers. It would help make Fremont County known for something other than the home of state and federal prisons, he said.

Interestingly, Colorado Correctional Industries tends to the largest vineyard in the county, and the grapes end up in much of the locally produced wine.

“The key for everyone right now is don’t over invest,” Kauffman said. “We’re trying to do something that will not break the bank.”

Penrose wineries and cideries:
The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey
Pop’s Vineyard
Legatum Cellars
Western Skies Winery
Apple Valley Cider Co.

Coming soon:
C Squared Ciders

In the works:
Bugling Elk Vineyards
Tilde Vineyards