Making great wine, if one may paraphrase winemaker Warren Winiarski, demands much of a winemaker but nothing more important than vision and balance.
Winiarski fully comprehends the rigors of making great wine. In 1970, after prior stints for California winemakers, he built his own vineyard, converting an old prune orchard in the Napa Valley to grape vines and naming it Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.
From those grapes Winiarski made the 1973 SLV Cabernet Sauvignon, which won the red-wine competition at the 1976 Judgment in Paris, a competition initially set up to reinforce the superiority of French wine over the upstart Americans.
Winiarski’s unexpected victory, along with the equally surprising success of the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay by winemaker Mike Grgich in the white-wine portion of the contest, focused the wine world’s attention on California.
But shortly before his victory in Paris, Winiarski had a brief encounter with another man of equal vision, Denver periodontal surgeon Gerald Ivancie.
It was Ivancie who convinced Winiarski to leave California in 1968 for the Mile High City, where Ivancie was certain he could make and sell Colorado wine.
Unfortunately, Ivancie was a few years ahead of his time and Winiarski’s time in Colorado was brief, but the vision Ivancie and Winiarksi shared was the root of today’s Colorado wine industry.
Winiarski was in Colorado earlier this month to help judge the Colorado Governor’s Cup wine competition and also spend two days touring vineyards and meeting winemakers in the Grand Valley, North Fork Valley and McElmo Canyon west of Cortez.
Walking amidst rows of vibrant green vines near Palisade, accompanied by Kaibab Sauvage, owner of Colorado Vineyards Specialists, and winemakers Michelle Cleveland (Creekside Cellars of Evergreen) and John Garlich (Bookcliff Vineyards in Boulder), Winiarski marveled at the diversity of grapes, the dense canopy of healthy vines and the universal vagaries of grape growing.
At times the day’s conversation was top-heavy with the short-hand language of grape growing, but Winiarski’s consistent message was centered on achieving optimum production while achieving the balance needed for great wines.
At first, Winiarski was curious about the dense tangle of leaves he found in most of the vineyards he visited.
Why, he asked, weren’t some of the leaves and extra lateral growth trimmed away to get more sun to the grapes?
Sauvage explained to Winiarski that Colorado’s harsh climate often forces a grape grower to try methods not found in other regions.
“There is no book about this,” Sauvage said as they pushed aside Syrah vines to look at young clusters of green berries. “We’re writing the book every day.”
Balance is the key, Winiarski said, and Michelle Cleveland nodded in agreement.
“You have to find the balance you need,” she said, but in a winemaking industry as young as this, “it’s still a learning curve.”
A day later, while touring Stone Cottage Cellars near Paonia, owner and winemaker Brent Helleckson described the distinct challenges of growing grapes at 6,300 feet.
In a bemused tone, Winiarksi remarked, “Every day you are dealing with challenges we don’t even think about in California.”
At a dinner sponsored by the Grand Junction Visitor & Convention Bureau, Winiarski praised Colorado’s winemakers and grape growers.
“To see what Colorado is doing today is very heartwarming,” Winiarski said. “The wines I tasted this weekend had a sense of unity, some central core that says to me, this is not France, this is not California, this is something different.”
Winiarski said it’s part of that vision sought by Ivancie.
“Gerry Ivancie’s dream of what may come to be has come to be true.”