“We grow grapes at the very fringe of viability,” says Jayme Henderson of The Storm Cellar winery, located in the town of Hotchkiss, Colo., part of the West Elks AVA. She and her husband, Steve Steese, transitioned from being sommeliers to winemakers in 2017, when they founded their brand. They are mostly self-taught, relying on textbooks, online resources and nearby winemakers for advice. The climate can be fickle, with dramatic vintage variation. Henderson reports that 2018 was one of the driest years in recent memory, and 2019 one of the wettest.
Henderson and Steese are part of a growing group of winemakers making quality bottlings in what has become the new wine frontier in America—the interior western states of Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. I recently surveyed wines from these states, blind-tasting more than 130, nearly all from vinifera grapes, and talked to dozens of winemakers about the challenges they face and the rewards they reap.
I found plenty of wines to recommend, and many passionate vintners. Each state has its own winemaking history, distinct regions and pioneering winemakers, but there are similar threads that run through this group.
First, though there are compelling wines made in a variety of styles, it’s clear that these states all lack signature grapes to spur recognition among wine lovers. “We struggle with the question, what are we going to be known for?” says Idaho winemaker Earl Sullivan.
Second, most of the wines are made from grapes grown at high altitudes with unpredictable climates and compact growing seasons. Conditions can be arid, with large diurnal swings and intense UV rays, which thicken grape skins. The average alcohol percentage of all of the wines tasted clocks in below 14%, and the wines are consequently restrained as a group.
Maynard James Keenan, vocalist for the metal band Tool, is perhaps the most famous Arizona vintner, founding Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards in 2004 in the town of Jerome. He says that late-spring frosts, hail and harvesttime monsoons are to be expected, so vintners need to respect these variables and adjust accordingly.
“The biggest hurdle we’ve had to navigate is our own ego,” admits Keenan. “Once we started to let go of all that, many, many things started to fall into place. Rather than hanging our hat on a few outlier successes, we tracked our failures and weather challenges, and tried to understand where we went wrong. [We] also stopped trying to fight Mother Nature, or stop with rolling the dice each vintage. If we’re going to be a recognized region, we need to be consistent, be able to repeat our successes.”
Remoteness is also a factor. Far from major cities, these winegrowing areas lack both a steady stream of customers and resources to make wine. “There are many hurdles to making wine here,” explains Leslie Preston of Coiled in Idaho. “Any equipment, barrels, glass, etc. always has to be shipped in, and there is no bottling truck locally.” When equipment breaks down, there are no experts to help fix things.
It can feel like the Wild West in other ways. “We probably have a unique spin on wildlife,” says Lisa Strid at Aridus in Wilcox, Ariz. She describes coyotes playing in the snow, roadrunners, herds of javelina, and a wild ring-tailed cat at one point living in the walls of the winery. “We text each other with alerts about rattlesnakes at the different entrances to the winery,” she adds.
These states also suffer from the stigma of making wines in what appear to be unlikely places. Sam Pillsbury of Arizona’s Pillsbury Wine Company says that when he planted his first vineyard in 2000, in Cochise County, there was a David Letterman Top 10 List of the best ways to lose money; one was to plant a vineyard in Arizona. Pillsbury says he was able to buy some of the best winegrowing land in the United States for $400 an acre. “Now it’s $5,000 and climbing,” he says.
Martin Fujishin of Fujishin Family Cellars in Caldwell, Idaho, says, “There is this trap we all fall into, saying things like: ‘It’s a lot like Eastern Washington.’ Or Yolo County or Rioja. The truth is, the wines are uniquely Idaho, and when we or our consumers taste the wines using one of those regions as our frame of reference, they are inevitably confused or disappointed that they don’t taste like wines from those regions.”
150 wineries; 1,000 acres planted to grapes
Colorado vineyards are by far the highest in elevation in the U.S., and among the highest in the world. Vintners seek out spots around 4,000 to 7,000 feet above sea level, mostly west of the Rockies, where climates are more temperate.
Vintners don’t consider Colorado to have a cool climate, just a compressed growing season. Winters bleed into spring, with frost a lingering threat for more than 100 days each year as cool air drains down from the Rockies. There are also monsoonal rains in the summer and fall.
Colorado’s wine production dates to 1890, when the state’s governor saw the potential for viticulture and planted 60 acres. In 1968, Napa’s Warren Winiarski, of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars fame, was a winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery when he was hired to work at the now-defunct Ivancie Cellars, the first post-Prohibition commercial winery in Colorado. At first, the process involved flying California grapes to Denver to be processed there.
Even after Colorado’s own vineyards came into production, Colorado vintners were known to blend Colorado and California grapes. In 2005, the General Assembly decided that wines with the “Colorado Grown” seal on their labels must use 100% Colorado grapes.
Red wines are most successful; they can be quite dense and tannic, but with appealing savory notes and plenty of concentration. Cabernet Franc has the potential to become a signature grape.
68 wineries; 950 acres planted to grapes
Arizona vintners rely on higher elevations to get away from the heat of the desert floor, and vineyards are scattered in both the central and the southeastern corner of the state. Modern Arizona winemaking began in the 1970s, but there was a snag: A state law mandated that wineries sell only to distributors, outlawing selling wine directly to consumers. Winemakers banded together in 1981 to form the Arizona Wine Growers Association; a year later, thanks to the group’s efforts, a bill passed allowing wineries to open tasting rooms and sell to visitors.
I found a variety of wines from Arizona to recommend, from elegant Syrah-based blends to more toothsome and dense Tempranillos and Bordeaux-style wines, as well as some perfumed whites.
56 Wineries; 1,300 acres planted to grapes
Idaho winemakers hear plenty of potato jokes, but viticulture in Idaho is serious business. It’s considered an extension of eastern Washington’s Columbia Valley winegrowing region. Most vineyards lie between the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and the Snake River.
Idaho’s well-draining soils are a mix of ash from volcanic vents and river and lake sediment. A multitude of grapes do well here. Riesling had some early success, but these days vintners are achieving better results with Bordeaux-, Rhône- and Spain-inspired wines, often made in approachable styles.
Grapes were first planted in Idaho in the 1860s, but Prohibition took its toll; it wasn’t until the 1970s that wine grapes were again planted in the state. Until recently the industry grew very slowly, but the number of wineries has doubled in the past 10 years.
50 wineries; 1,500 acres planted to grapes
New Mexico boasts the oldest wine country in the U.S., dating back to 1629, when vines were smuggled in from Spain and planted by monks along the banks of the Rio Grande for sacramental and celebratory wines.
By the 1880s, the New Mexico Territory produced almost a million gallons of wine a year, making it the fifth-largest producer in the country. It expanded and survived Prohibition, but widespread flooding of the Rio Grande in the 1940s destroyed many vineyards that never came back. The industry picked up again in the 1970s, primarily with hybrid grapes. Many winemakers have since moved on to vinifera.
My top-scoring New Mexico wine is a field blend based on the hybrid Baco Noir. Other highlights include subdued Cabernet Sauvignon–based reds that feature savory notes and fine-grained tannins.
Gruet is the most successful New Mexico winery, known for quality sparkling wines. But since 1995 they have mixed in grapes from other states, and the wines carry the broader “America” appellation.
Senior editor Tim Fish contributed reviews to this report.
RECOMMENDED WINES FROM THE MOUNTAIN WEST
More than 130 wines were reviewed for this report. A free alphabetical list is available. WineSpectator.com members can access complete reviews for all wines tasted using the online Wine Ratings search.
MAISON LA BELLE VIE
Mourvèdre Grand Valley Evolve Wines 2017
Score: 90 | $38
WS Review: Charming, featuring white pepper, loam and raspberry flavors that are vibrant and light on a fresh frame. From Colorado.
Conspiracy Arizona 2017
Score: 89 | $49
WS Review: Spice, cigar box and mahogany notes add lift to the core of dark and dense blackberry and cassis flavors. Petit Verdot blend. From Arizona.
Rule Of Three Arizona 2014
Score: 89 | $33
WS Review: Elegant, with notes of pine needle and fresh clay that give way to maraschino cherry and raspberry puree flavors. Syrah blend. From Arizona.
Syrah Snake River Valley 2016
Score: 89 | $30
WS Review: Zesty and loaded with spice accents, offering appealing blackberry and licorice flavors that finish with polished tannins. From Idaho.
DEEP SKY VINEYARD
Syrah Cochise County Constellation 2016
Score: 89 | $30
WS Review: Charming, with a fragrant note of dried violet complementing the blueberry and wild blackberry flavors. From Arizona.
Amatino Snake River Valley 2016
Score: 89 | $27
WS Review: Espresso, black pepper and fig paste notes complement the core of blackberry and blueberry flavors. Syrah blend. From Idaho.
Star Garnet Snake River Valley 2016
Score: 89 | $15
WS Review: Refined and focused, with expressive black cherry, tarragon and tea flavors that glide on the finish. Merlot blend. From Idaho.
Riesling Snake River Valley Dry Classic Fly Series 2018
Score: 89 | $18
WS Review: Juicy lime, green apple and pear flavors are vibrant and precise, with whiffs of minerality and lanolin on the finish. From Idaho.
Riesling Snake River Valley Special Harvest 2017
Score: 89 | $12
WS Review: This is crisp yet succulent, with creamy pear, citrus and toasted nut flavors. From Idaho.
THE ODDITY WINE COLLECTIVE
Tempranillo Arizona Siren Cimarron Vineyard 2017
Score: 89 | $38
WS Review: Dense and toothsome, with plum, blackberry and dried blueberry flavors, accented by fresh loamy earth notes. From Arizona.
Vintner’s Reserve Colorado 2017
Score: 89 | $28
WS Review: Concentrated, with violet and spice aromas giving way to vibrant notes of plum, raspberry and blueberry. Petit Verdot blend. From Colorado.
Garnacha Yavapai County Airavata 2017
Score: 88 | $50
WS Review: Fresh and light, featuring hints of crushed pine needle and sage that mingle with cherry and strawberry flavors. From Arizona.
Pinot Noir New Mexico Rosé 2018
Score: 88 | $15
WS Review: The strawberry and cranberry flavors are intense, with a touch of lime juice and peach blossom on a supple frame. From New Mexico.
THE STORM CELLAR
Riesling West Elks 2018
Score: 85 | $20
WS Review: Green apple, peach and orange zest notes are smooth and slightly candied in this off-dry style, showing terrific focus. From Colorado.