It’s fair to say the life of Gerald Ivancie was as complex and balanced as the award-winning wines he made.
Ivancie, who died Jan. 1 at 92, is remembered as a loving husband and father as well as a respected and successful periodontal surgeon, yet his biggest impact may be his role as the visionary winemaker who pioneered Colorado’s modern wine industry.
Colorado’s long but subtle love affair with wine goes at least as far back as the late 1800s when, according to federal records, the Grand Valley annually was producing more than 1,700 gallons of wine.
Prohibition dried up the wine business, which was replaced by the valley’s now-famous peach industry.
The end of Prohibition brought home wine making into the open but it was another 30 years before Ivancie turned his home wine making into the state’s first modern commercial winery.
Thanks in large part to Ivancie’s early efforts to raise awareness of Colorado wine, there are now more than 110 wineries across the state, generating $17 million in retail sales during the past three years, according to the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.
“He was a great pioneer,” said Doug Caskey, executive director of the Wine Industry Board. “Without his leadership there probably wouldn’t be (wine) grapes in the Grand Valley, or even a wine industry at all.”
Ivancie inherited his love of wine and his wine-making skills from his father, a Yugoslavian immigrant who brought his wine-making skills with him to the new country.
Ivancie honed his wine-making skills while teaching at the University of Iowa and watching the nearby Amana Colonies make fruit and rhubarb wines.
By 1958, Ivancie had moved his periodontal practice and his family to Denver and was using California grapes (the Colorado grape industry was years away) to make wine in the three-car garage of his home near the posh Denver Country Club.
It was a family affair, said his daughter, Elizabeth (Ivancie) Kennedy of Grand Junction.
“I remember spending hours helping Dad make wine at home and going to school with purple hands,” Kennedy said. “Mom was right beside him. There was a very special relationship between the two.”
In 1968, Ivancie established Ivancie Cellars, Colorado’s first post-Prohibition commercial bonded winery.
Ivancie imported more than grapes from California. He enticed well-known California wine consultant Warren Winiarski to be Ivancie Cellars’ winemaker.
“Gerry was out in California looking for grapes and he approached me about coming to Colorado,” said Winiarksi, who at the time was working for Robert Mondavi. “He was very much a visionary, just like Mondavi, and it was very exciting working with him to set up his winery in Denver.”
Ivancie by then had moved the wine making to a site on South Lipan Street near Interstate 25, becoming the state’s first urban winery.
That first year, Ivancie Cellars made 8,000 gallons of wine, including a Cabernet Sauvignon that won a gold medal at a prestigious European wine competition.
Determined to make a Colorado-grown product, Ivancie and Winiarski approached farmers in the Grand Valley about planting wine grapes.
Although the first Colorado plantings failed, some of the subsequent vineyards still survive among the 1,000 or so acres of wine grapes growing today, a tribute to the two men’s site-selection abilities as well as the skills and dedication of Grand Valley farmers.
Winiarski stayed until 1970, then turned his attention to his nascent Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, where he produced the wine that in 1976 won the famed Judgment of Paris.
In late 1973, Ivancie sold his winery to some business partners. The winery closed in 1975.
It was 1980 before Jim and Ann Seewald established Colorado Mountain Vineyards, and soon other winemakers followed.
Thanks to Ivancie’s ground-breaking work, the Colorado wine industry continues to grow and attract attention.
“I think Dad would be amazed to see all the changes,” Kennedy said.
Last week, during the annual VinCo Conference and Trade Show sponsored by the Colorado Association of Viticulture and Enology, Gerald Ivancie’s legacy was remembered with the renaming of the annual Friend of Colorado Wines award to the Dr. Gerald Ivancie Award.
“He had such a love of wine and was fascinated by Colorado’s wine-making potential,” Winiarski said recently. “I think he would be pleased to see where his idea has gone.”