A trailblazing winemaker opens up Southwest Colorado to new vineyards

Grape harvest at the vineyard

Above all else, Guy Drew has an easygoing sense of humor. Which is what you want, I suppose, when your hands touch every aspect of a burgeoning winery.

The day I caught up with him, he was dealing with a plumbing issue of some sort, and I offered to postpone the interview. “Nah,” he said, unphased by these kinds of minor upsets. “I’ve got time. What’s up?”

Like the start of a campfire chat, we launch into all things Guy Drew. First, the origins: “I was always a wine drinker,” he quips. “Seriously, though, I was in the industrial equipment business for years, which moved me from Florida to Colorado back in 1988. Then business got boring and I started to look for different work.”

At the time, Colorado’s wine industry was fledgling—only a handful of wineries were brave enough to launch into production. Drew and his wife had a mountain home at the time—tucked away at 8,500 feet—and while they tried in earnest to grow a crop of world-class tomatoes, nature wouldn’t oblige. Fed up with the cold and eager for new adventure, they began looking for warmer climes—first in Durango, then New Mexico, and finally, Cortez. Ultimately deciding to settle in Cortez, they made the move to the Southwestern corner of the state in 1997.

“That’s when I really started thinking about wine,” Drew recalls. “It wasn’t long before I decided to make a go of it. In 1999, Guy Drew Vineyards was incorporated and we began planting grapes for wine.”

The property was an impressive 150 acres—more than they ever could have purchased in Palisade. Over the years, they’ve added parcels here and there, including a 44-acre patch recently purchased by Drew’s brother, which they’ll being planting next year. The initial 150 acres has yielded quite the bounty—vineyards full of Syrah, Merlot, and Pinot Gris, among other grapes.

While this appears to be a dream realized, few still believe Cortez can produce the quality fruit available to vineyard owners in the Palisades—the long-sung mecca of Colorado grapes. Over the years, however, Drew has come to see tremendous advantages to growing in Cortez.

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde

The Cortez Advantage
Beyond its young and fertile character, the Cortez region boasts an additional winemaking benefit. For centuries, the Anasazi grew squash, beans, and corn in this corner of Colorado—even domesticating turkey and hunting fowl. That cultivation began about 500 AD and ended when the tribe left in roughly 1300 AD. That means they had 800 years to figure out the frost-free zones, and the best spots for premium crop yield. Taking advantage of that knowledge, Drew consults regularly with an archaeologist to help determine where vineyards will grow best.

“Palisade is falling apart because of winter cold,” he explains. “I committed to using only Colorado fruit for my wine, and in the last five years, that fruit has depleted. Last year, for example, most of Palisade saw only a 25-percent crop yield, down from 50-percent the year before. The problem is, it’s a flat valley, which lets the frost creep in and settle. The wind doesn’t carry the cold out.”

So what makes Cortez the Arcadia of grape-growing? “Here, we have a lot of topography,” Drew explains. “We have vines planted up to 7,000 feet. In fact, I can drive 20 miles and gain 2,000 feet in elevation. That means that we have a place for the cold air to go—downhill. We can plant close to canyon rims or sites that have good air flow.”

Then, there’s the soil. “We have a lot of this red dirt—dirt that blew in from Monument Valley 10,000 years ago. It’s up to seven-feet deep in places with great water-holding capacity. That allows us to engage in dry farming—there’s enough moisture in the ground so we don’t need to irrigate.”

And yet, if the growing conditions in Cortez are ideal, why is it deemed unfavorable by established Colorado winemakers?

“We just don’t have a workforce down here,” Drew laments. “In Grand Junction—the municipal heart of Palisade—you have 70,000 residents. Our entire county is only 25,000. The means we have to automate our work, and that costs money.”

Guy Drew

Then there’s simply the marketing side of the whole business. Most Colorado residents know that Palisade is the heart of the state’s winemaking industry, but few venture out to Cortez. The main attraction for tourists coming to the region is Mesa Verde National Park, which draws close to 500,000 people per year, but few know there’s more to experience than archaeology.

“Sure, it’s mostly the cliff dwellings that draw folks,” Drew says. “But I’m trying to capture that audience. I opened a second tasting room in town just to pick up street traffic.”

Another boost for Guy Drew wines is their distribution rep—Southern Wine & Spirits. “We’re the only Colorado winery in their portfolio, and they’re a big name. Plus, our wines retails for a relatively modest $16-25 a bottle, and as low as $9 for restaurants. That’s great pricing for wines by the glass, which is the ideal way for wine drinkers to try new wine.”

At this juncture, Drew says that he’s mostly producing white wines, since most of his red grapes have come from Palisade. But the last time he bought any was 2012; since then, the yield has been too small and the cost too high to make it worth his while.

With two-thirds of his sales in whites, anyway, Drew isn’t too concerned about the lack of reds on his shelf. “People come into the tasting room and say they drink only reds, then they’ll try some of our whites, and walk out with three bottles. They just haven’t experienced good white wines before.”

Guy Drew Wines

That conversion is happening all over the state—from small, fledgling restaurants to the Colorado Convention Center, where Guy Drew wines are poured in astounding volume.

The gist of it all is, Guy Drew is becoming not only a recognized name in wine, but a respected one. And he’s bringing attention to a grape-growing region still in its infancy. Which is really what Drew’s mission has been from the beginning—to show people Colorado wines can be fantastic, and that they should look beyond Palisade.

Sure, he admits, business is ebb and flow. “It’s slow now, but when tourism kicks in again, we’ll be flush. And some day, I just won’t have to worry about it anymore.”

At the end of the day, his passion is what keeps the winery going. “I love what I do,” he says with a grin. “I haven’t worked a day since I started making wine.”

We’ll drink to that.

—Jeffrey Steen, Dining Out Magazine

Learn more about Guy Drew vineyards, and all of the delicious wines they’re making, atguydrewvineyards.com.