Tucked away on the western slope 70 miles south of Glenwood Springs and 75 miles east of the vineyards of Palisade, this fertile valley is holding its own when it comes to wine-making. Some 15 wineries can now be found in this region, which surrounds Paonia and Hotchkiss along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.
Vineyards are planted at elevations between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. The high altitude supports hardy grapes and premium hybrids. Surprisingly, more-delicate varieties, such as Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet France, do well, too. Mountain wine-makers in these parts are known for creating new blends with superb results. And though the industry is young, the West Elks Wine Country is producing award-winning wines.
But wine isn’t the only drink worth sampling here. Distillers have found local fruit and grain to be excellent ingredients for their vodkas, gins and other spirits. Summer is the perfect time to visit this part of Colorado. You’ll be able to visit the wineries, as well as many pick-your-own orchards and vegetable stands. Life moves at a slower pace here on the sunny lower slopes of the Grand Mesa. Most farms and vineyards are family-run establishments, and tours are more personal and informal. You’ll meet the wine-makers and learn their stories. Heck, you might even meet the winemaker’s family and their family pooch. Most wineries offer complimentary tastings.
Local tasting rooms often have fluid hours. Be sure to call ahead to make sure the winery is open.
Here’s a little more about some of the unique wineries found in the West Elks Wine Country.
41716 Reds Road
Paonia, Colo., 81428
Tasting room open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, Memorial Day-end of September
Owners and winemakers Brent and Karen Helleckson have been making wine for 20 years, starting when they were students in Boulder, where they made small batches in their condo. Desiring to get back to rural roots, raise a family (which now includes Stephanie, 17, and Jacob, 15) and pursue wine making, they purchased the current Stone Cottage Cellars vineyard property in 1994. At first Brent and Karen commuted the 500-mile stretch from their Boulder home to the Paonia vineyard every weekend to rehabilitate the run-down property. In 1997, their first home – a stone cottage – was ready and they relocated.
Built from a small two acres of vines and a pump shed, the vineyard now operates with an underground wine cellar, tasting room, fermenting shed, the stone cottage and more than 4 acres of growing grapes (in addition to the large new family home).
Stone Cottage Cellars produced its first barrel of vintage Merlot in 2001 (equal to 25 cases). Now in 2010, they produce close to 800 cases in six selections of wines. These are mainly sold in the tasting room from May to October, although the wines are also sold in a few Colorado restaurants and liquor stores.
Among the wines are Dry Gewurztraminer, Barrel Fermented Chardonnay and Alpine Dessert Wine. The Dry Gewurztraminer is an Alsatian-style wine made from 26-year-old vines. With the high altitude, sunlight and cool night temperatures, the grapes develop a crisp acidity and spicy fruit flavor. This pairs well with Asian, Indian and Mexican dishes. The owners also suggest Oktoberfest and Thanksgiving food pairings.
The Chardonnay grapes grow with a true Colorado flavor, with the influences of limestone minerals, volcanic clays and high elevation. A nutty flavor is introduced with barrel fermentation, so the end result is a fruity, buttery, nutty and toasted oak flavor.
The Alpine Dessert wine is harvested in mid-November. The chill and dry air produces an ice-wine effect, and the fermentation process, although hard to begin, proceeds rapidly until the sugar and natural acidity is perfectly balanced. The fermentation process must stop at just the right time to get it right, so the owners refer to this as “white knuckle wine-making.” The flavor is worth it though, producing sips of honey, apricots, peaches and cedar.
16764 Farmers Mine Road
Paonia, Colo., 81428
Tasting Room open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, Memorial Day weekend-October
After sailing the world for more than six years, artists/winemakers Ty and Helen Gillespie sought to create an art studio space in an area that would also allow growth in the high elevation of the Colorado mountains. Six years ago they settled in Paonia on a little stretch of road that was home to other wine growers. With the help of Steve Rhodes, a professional wine grower, they began a gallery and tasting room – named for their sailboat the “Azura.”
They built the winery together: Helen mixed the concrete and Ty laid the bricks until their fine art and wine space was complete. Now including a courtyard overlooking the valley, visitors will be able to take in the entire experience.
Only five barrels (equaling 1,500 bottles) of their special boutique wines are produced each year. The type of wine offered depends on the season – this year three varieties have been grown: a Merlot, Syrah and Montage (which is a blend of Cab Franc, Merlot and Syrah). Each of these is aged 20 months in French oak barrels either at the Azura Winery or at some of the best vintners in the Paonia valley.
Black Bridge Winery
15836 Black Bridge Road
Paonia, Colo., 81428
Tasting Room open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, Memorial Day-Halloween.
Since 1997, owners Lee and Kathy Bradley have grown quality wine grapes in their high-altitude vineyards at Orchard Valley Farms. They believe that part of what makes their food great is the beautiful Gunnison River Valley they call home. They operate their own fresh fruit and veggies market, and visitors get to experience it first hand – either at the market or picking their produce right from the orchard, gardens or vineyard.
In 2005, they started the Black Bridge Winery, named for the historic bridge spanning the Gunnison River nearby. They began selling their own vintage-style wines made from the Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot and Pinot Noir wine grapes grown in their vineyard. Using their farming expertise, unique location and handcrafting traditional techniques, they now produce Pinot Noir, Breaker Row Red, Farmers Ditch Red, an oaky Chardonnay and Marcellina Riesling wines, among others.
In 2007, the Bradleys completed the “wine cave,” an underground steel structure made from recycled mining material that serves as the wine-making and barrel-tasting site. Wine tasters can convene here to taste, then explore the rest of the vineyard, orchards and gardens, taking in the scenery that, in the Bradleys’ opinion, is what makes their work grow.
The Black Bridge vineyard sits at 5,800 feet and enjoys 150-plus frost-free days of sunshine so that even the delicate Pinot Noir grapes thrive in the soil.
The grapes are picked and carefully de-stemmed then fermented in berries. This process is all by hand and the two-week fermentation process is controlled by way of a walk-in cooler. Afterward, the wine is pressed then transferred to oak barrels, which are set in the wine cave for 16 months. The temperature here is natural, ranging from 40 degrees in winter to 60 degrees in summer.
The result is a line of wines including red blends of Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as white Chardonnays and Rieslings. These are made in limited quantities and are sold exclusively in their tasting room or online.
Alfred Eames Cellars
11931 4050 Road
Paonia, Colo., 81428
In 1999, at 6,000 feet amid the mountain scenery of Paonia, Alfred Eames planted a vineyard that has become part of the proud Paonia-area’s wine-making tradition. The little winery produces 1,500 cases of European-style wine annually, drawing from his inspirational travels as an 18-year-old throughout Europe.
The property consists of his home in one building, and the winery in the other. The cellar is the most intriguing portion of the winery, being one of the only European-style wine cellars in Colorado. Unlike most wineries, Alfred Eames Cellars doesn’t have a public tasting room, but personal tours can be arranged.
The 3 acres of Eame’s hillside vineyard, named Puesta del Sol, grow Pinot Noir wine grapes. These create the winery’s Pinot Noir estate wine. For other wine varieties, Eames sources grapes from his regional vineyard neighbors to produce Syrah, red blends and Carmena wines.
The red wines are fermented in open vats, then transferred to French oak barrels to age unfiltered. The white wines are also barrel fermented, but slightly filtered for clarity.
Alfred Eames wines are sold at numerous restaurants, tasting rooms and liquor stores in the North Fork and Roaring Fork Valleys, as well as several other Colorado locations, including Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs.
Leroux Creek Vineyards
12388 3100 Road
Hotchkiss, Colo., 81419
When Yvon Gros first saw the mesas and lush countryside in Hotchkiss, it reminded him of his old home in Provence, France. He and his wife Joanna had been living in Vail for 28 years, where Yvon had participated in the local wine club. In 2000, the couple decided to move to this little slice of France in Delta, which they saw as the perfect place to grow a vineyard.
They grew their grapes, built the Leroux Creek Vineyards winery and started a bed and breakfast to complete their income. They soon found that planting a vineyard doesn’t mean immediate business, but they knew they were on the right track. Surrounded by people they like – many organic farmers – on a land that grows everything from fruits to vegetables, they’re now part of the community and thriving, experimenting with what the grape can do. They have grown hybrid wine grape varieties that do well in the high mountain climate, and Joanna even has a natural skin care product line called Leroux Creek Spa Vine Therapy that brings out the antioxidants found in organically grown grapes and other natural ingredients (for more information, visit lerouxcreekspa.com/about_us.htm).
At Leroux Creek, the wines are certified organic and the grapes are locally grown. Their wine list includes My Cherry Amour, Chambourcin and Apres Vous. Their Chambourcin and Cayuga White grapes are grown in their own vineyard, and the Merlot and Chardonnay grapes are sourced from local farmers in the community.
My Cherry Amour is made from locally grown cherries, with a taste that’s balanced perfectly between sweet and bitter, and best served chilled. The Chambourcin is a French-style wine, made from Leroux Creek’s main grape – a French hybrid grape. Apres Vous is a dessert wine in a port style, that is, along with the other wines, drinkable without a lot of aging.
Jack Rabbit Hill Estate Winery and Peak Spirits
26567 North Road
Hotchkiss, Colo., 81419
In 2000, Lance and Anna Hansen and their two children were visiting relatives at their new farm in Hotchkiss and were asked to help start growing the first grapes. The Hansens liked the experience so much that two months later they decided to leave their jobs in software sales (Lance) and teaching (Anna) and sell their house in California to move to Colorado.
Ten years later, they now operate the Jack Rabbit Hill Estate Winery at 6,200 feet on the 70-acre farm in the North Fork Valley. In 2005, they added distilling to their wine-making, producing vodka from their grapes and gin with an apple base. In 2006, they began focusing on biodynamic methods, completing the Demeter Biodynamic certification two years later. It’s what they call “an old way of farming,” creating a closed system that generates a natural wine-making process. This has improved the vineyard’s soil quality, lowered their compost needs for growing and bettered their understanding of the importance of wildlife habitats on their farm.
The wine and spirits are made with pure spring water from the top of Grand Mesa. The juice of the operation, the grapes, are a winter-hardy hybrid, aided by wind machines that keep frost from the cool mountain air from settling on the vines. The Hansens sell their product through their store, Peak Spirits, which offers CapRock Organic Gin, CapRock Organic Vodka, Peak Organic Eaux de Vie and Peak Biodynamic Grappas, along with peach, apple, grape and pear eau de vie brandy. Jack Rabbit sells their spirits in 11 states, as well as around Colorado. The CapRock Gin is their best seller and the label says it all: “This is not your grandmother’s gin.” From light and fruity to smooth and dry, their wines have several vintage variations, including Pinot Gris and Barn Red. Look for their wine by the keg at the Mercury Café in Denver.
If You Go
Most Colorado winery tastings are complimentary, but tasting rooms often have fluid hours. Be sure to call ahead.
Travel Paonia’s West Elks Wine Trail to visit the featured wineries and enjoy the celebration of organic farming and wines. Visit paoniachamber.com to find out more information.