Step away from the IPA and embrace Colorado’s big tent wine culture


(This feature originally appeared in the September 2019 edition of Sensi Magazine/ Denver-Boulder)

Take this quick quiz:

Which kind of Colorado tasting room – beer or wine – do you associate with …

  1. Cornhole?
  2. Live music?
  3. Food trucks?
  4. Shorts and T-shirts?

If you’re being honest, beer pitches a 4-0 shutout. Maybe familiarity plays a part. Along the Front Range there are hundreds of tasting rooms for breweries, cideries, meaderies and distilleries and even the state’s first hard seltzer-y, but only a handful of winery tasting rooms.
Pinot Noir has a perception problem, i.e., we perceive wine as this super-elite, snooty activity with a steep learning curve and a special dialect denoting terroir and “aromas of violet, rhubarb, and rich forest floor.”

If you grew up in a family where wine was always on the table, you know how down-to-earth and entertaining wine can be.

To the uninitiated, wine culture doesn’t exactly scream “FUN!”

Luckily, the corkscrew is being passed to a new generation of wine drinkers. Unfortunately, Millennials don’t know what a corkscrew is. They tend to see the typical wine bottle, label and cork as a wasteful vestige, not a “tradition.”

That’s just fine with a new generation of Colorado wine makers who are upturning traditional ways of serving, making and appreciating wine. As was the case with the craft beer, cider and cannabis, Colorado does things a little differently when it comes to craft wine culture.


Sustainable Wine Means Local Wine

You know where you eggs came from, you patronize a local coffee roaster and, when it comes to beer, you try not to quaff any stout or IPA brewed outside the city limits. Yet somehow, when in picking a wine, you grab a bottle shipped from California, Oregon, Italy, France, Australia and Chile – in fact, anywhere but Colorado.

You are excused if you haven’t thought much about Colorado wines. While the state had a booming wine industry before Prohibition, by 1990 there were only five wineries in the state. Now there are more than 150 Colorado wineries including a slew along the Front Range producing some award-winning vintages. Wine Enthusiast, Vogue and other magazines have named Colorado’s Grand Valley as one of America’s up-and-coming wine-growing regions worth visiting.

If you need to get all nerdy and study wine and become a master sommelier, more power to you. Most of us just want to have something tasty to drink that goes with food and the independent Colorado way of life which includes doing stuff outdoors … where you don’t want to corkscrew.


Canned, Cottled, Boxed and Casked

In 2002 there was canned beer, but not great canned American beer. Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons took the leap and started craft-canning its Dale’s Pale Ale, sparking the ongoing U.S. canned beer renaissance.

There was canned wine in 2011, but Denver’s Infinite Monkey Theorem made it cool by canning highly drinkable craft wine, albeit made with California grapes. Now, the award-winning Colterris Winery cans some delightful wines including “Canterris” Rose of Cabernet made with Grand Valley-grown grapes.

Cans make wine unpretentious and accessible (and slightly bubbly). Meanwhile, Denver’s Kingman Big Hat Wines offers thoroughly drinkable upgrade on boxed wine including a Colorado Cabernet. Bigsby’s Folly is packing Colorado craft wine including Rose of Grenache in a groundbreaking aluminum Cottle, a can-bottle hybrid.

The most sustainable answer is to have zero packaging to recycle. Instead of selling only by the bottle, many Colorado wineries such as Denver’s Bonacquisti Wine Co. also offer their wine in refillable glass “growlers” or special wine kegs. It introduces the wonderful concept of drinking fresh wine – like you get fresh juice and fresh bread.

Bringing a wine bottle to the table may soon be a ritual reserved solely fort high end eateries now that great casked wine is commonly available. In Denver, Berkeley Untapped has two wine blends from Colorado’s Jack Rabbit Hill Farm on tap. The cask house wine at two Boulder’s award-winning Black Cat Farm Table Bistro is a Meritage blend produced by Boulder’s BookCliff Vineyards.


The Importance of Food with Wine

As with brewpubs, a few local destinations bring wine and food together in a big way. The 20-year-old Creekside Cellars winery and restaurant in Evergreen features casual dining and notable wines from Colorado grapes overseen by winemaker Michelle Cleveland. Look for Creekside’s 2016 Cabernet Franc, an ideal match for spicy grilled chicken.

As celebrated food critic John Mariani once noted: “One might as well test out a Ferrari by running it in a garage as taste wines on their own without food. You’d never know how it handles the curves.”

That’s one of the things that makes Colorado Uncorked a cool encounter with the state’s best wines. Professional judges choose the top dozen wines of the years from hundreds of wines submitted for the Colorado Wine Governor’s Cup Competition. Attendees at Colorado Uncorked, Nov. 15 at the History Colorado Center sample those wines accompanied by fare designed to complement it from chefs at Julep, Narrative. Sazza, Postino, Ocean Prime and River and Woods.

The state’s major wine festival, the Colorado Mountain Winefest Sept. 19-22 in Palisade, has grown so popular that tickets to the big gathering, the Festival in the Park are sold out. Head to the Palisade area anyway that week for tons of tastings, bicycle winery tours, winemaker dinners, seminars and cocktails and yoga. (Look for them at

If that’s not enough, trek to Alamosa for the Colorado Wine Train which offers white linen dining with small plates and Cottonwood Cellars wines while rolling through the San Luis Valley this fall.

gallery-new_2016-5Tasting Rooms With An Altitude

Colorado’s current crop of wine tasting rooms provide a wide range of fun. Denver’s Infinite Monkey Theorem gets the credit for shifting the paradigm with Colorado’s first and hippest urban winery. With every scintilla of pretension missing, it has become an entertainment destination despite being a winery that produces some of the state’s best wines.

Across town in an industrial area near I-70, Balistreri Vineyards is the state’s unlikeliest wine oasis. Pull up and it’s a modern tasting room and garden that serves tapas paired with John Balistreri’s Italian-style wines made mostly with Western Slope grapes.

Balistreri also hosts the annual grape stomping party. Children ages 12 and under can stomp grapes during the annual Festival Italiano Sept. 7 and 8 at Lakewood’s Belmar center. Months later the juice ends up in bottles of Balistreri’s highly regarded Little Feet Merlot.

Other tasting rooms have their discrete charms. Carlson Vineyards’ room is Palisade is exceptionally welcoming – there’s nothing like sipping tart cherry wine in a chocolate-rimmed glass. Azura Cellars in Paonia boasts the most majestic mountain backdrop in the state for sipping wine and Alma’s Continental Divide Winery is touted as the world’s highest elevation winery.

The Wines of Colorado near Pikes Peak in Cascade boasts stunning views, casual dining and one of the largest Colorado wine selections in the state.

A Change of Grapes and Fruits

Sure, there is plenty of Cabernet Sauvignon growing in the Grand Valley, but the state’s winemakers are also turning to formerly obscure grape varieties like Chamboucin and Traminette. They suit the state’s changing climate, according to the Colorado Wine Development Board.

Local wine fans seem open to sipping something new over the big, popular varieties just as they choose unusual heirloom tomato varieties over standard Beefsteaks. When the wine is as tasty as the 2016 Teroldego from Palisade’s Red Fox Cellars, it’s easy to skip the Pinot and Merlot.

Some Colorado winemakers skip the grapes entirely. Carlson Vineyards bottles an outstanding Colorado plum wine, St. Kathryn Cellars has a refreshing Strawberry Rhubarb Wine and Vino Colorado Winery in Old Colorado City makes a dessert-worthy Palisade Peach Wine.

Our big (wine) tent even includes Colorado Sake Co. (from rice) and a bunch of meaderies creating honey wine, not all of them are sweet. Wine may need to draw the line at Skier Pee from Evergood Elixirs in Palmer. The lemon wine (best served over ice) is brewed rom organic lemons, water, yeast and sugar. They say it has a Gewurtraminer-like aroma, but it’s not made with Colorado produce.

Is it possible that Colorado is tired of beer? Not likely, but after all these years of craft beer lots of folks are weary of the increasing bitterness, especially the ubiquitous IPAs.

It’s OK to admit to hops fatigue. Even the breweries are coming over to the wine side. Odell’s Fort Collins brewery is planning to open the Odell Wine Project next year next door with a wine cellar, tasting room and facility for serving wine on tap and in cans.
John Lehndorff is the former Dining Critic of the Rocky Mountain News.  He hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU (streaming at


 Five Colorado Wines to Try

  • Monkshood Cellars Colorado Chenin Blanc (Minturn)
  • Whitewater Hill Ice Wine (Palisade)
  • Augustina’s Winery Bredo’s Blue Diamond (Nederland)
  • Carboy Winery 2017 Colorado Cabernet Franc (Littleton, Breckenridge)
  • Aspen Peak Cellars Sparkling Wine (Bailey)