Mad Science – The Great Urban Wine Experiment

in Dining & Nightlife by

Let the tourists have the wine country. Denver has its own laboratory genius cooking up barrels of Colorado’s most buzzed-about wines.

By Amy Speer

backlit sign stenciled with black lettering hangs over the door of a nearly windowless building. The sign reads, “Wine Lab,” and unless you’re looking for it, you might miss it entirely.

Unknown to most who pass by, this cinder-block building in Denver’s up-and-coming River North neighborhood contains the production facilities for some of Colorado’s top-rated wines. Welcome to Infinite Monkey Theorem. If you can’t already tell, it’s no ordinary winery.

When Ben Parsons started Infinite Monkey Theorem in 2008, he decided tobarrels nestle his business in the heart of Denver, where his winery could embrace the flavors of the city, and where Denver could embrace the flavors of his wines. Needless to say, his “gritty corner” location goes against the norm of most Colorado wineries, which typically establish themselves on the Western Slope near rolling vineyards backed by picturesque mountains.

At Parsons’ winery, you won’t find marble floors — or for that matter, wines with Italian names that roll off the tongue. Instead, the concrete floors sport windshield-like fissures. Wines, like the 100th Monkey and The Blind Watchmaker, feature names that tell a story. And the labels themselves boast the same edgy graffiti-like chimpanzee with hypnotizing eyes.

But there’s a method to Parsons’ Infinite Monkey madness — hence, the “Wine Lab” announcement hanging outside the door. Infinite Monkey Theorem’s name comes from the idea that if a monkey is given an infinite amount of time with a typewriter, it will eventually create the work of Shakespeare. Parsons’ winemaking process bears some similarity, so the winery took the name of the theorem. “It’s the whole idea of creating order out of a chaotic system,” he says.

In Colorado, shorter seasons and unpredictable weather can throw a monkey wrench into winemaking, creating a whole batch of new variables to consider.

“There are so many choices and so many possible outcomes, but somehow we end up with a work of art in a bottle,” Parsons says. “It’s part manufacturing, part science and part art.”

Aaron Forman, owner of Table 6, the first Denver restaurant to carry the label more than four years ago, says Parsons has mastered winemaking.

“A lot of people are shocked to find out the Infinite Monkey Theorem is a Colorado wine,” Forman says. “It’s definitely some of the best wine from Colorado.”fruit

In fact, five Infinite Monkey Theorem wines made Wine Spectator’s top wine list. The niche magazine reviews over 100,000 wines with only 5 percent of those making the printed list. Infinite Monkey Theorem received Colorado’s highest score for its 100th Monkey, a dark and brooding wine with Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Malbec grapes. The wine scored an 89. Meanwhile, Details magazine named Ben Parsons one of five urban winemakers to know.

So how does Parsons create wines that garner rave reviews? The 36-year-old, who received a degree in oenology, the chemistry of winemaking, focuses on the variables he believes to be most important — from picking the best Palisade grapes to selecting the right yeast from among 10,000 different strains — and ignoring the details that don’t — the vineyard location or the marble tasting room. During harvest, Parsons might make a hundred different decisions in one day.

Still, the smartest choice he ever made seems to be opening his winery in Denver. By establishing it here, Parsons built a loyal customer base, while Western Slope wineries battle a lack of off-season tourist traffic.

“If you think about it, 85 percent of Colorado’s population is living on the Front Range, so we really wanted to embrace the community, and we’ve been very successful at doing that,” says Parsons, who even packages some of his wine in skinny aluminum cans to meet the demands of Coloradans who hit the slopes, jam out at concerts and take in outdoor adventures.

“People are really embracing his wine,” Forman says. “It’s like he put Denver in a bottle.”

Parsons’ formula is working. Last year, the winery raked in $1 million in sales, turning his 2,000-case business into a 12,000-case success in four years.

An observant wine enthusiast, though, might wonder why Parsons’ successful winery isn’t listed on the Colorado Wine Industry registry. He’ll tell you the reason is quite simple. He chose not be on that list.

“I wanted to distance my winery,” he says.

And that’s exactly what he’s been doing for four years now on a gritty lot in the heart of Denver.

INFINITE MONKEY THEOREM FACTS THAT’LL WET YOUR PALATE

COLORADO GRAPES
95% of the fruit used in the Infinite Monkey’s bottled wines comes from Palisade, Colo.; the other 5% comes from out-of-state vineyards to make up for any inconsistencies with local crops.

THE STORY BEHIND THE 100TH MONKEY
So how did Parsons’ highest-ranking wine get its name? Well, in 1952, scientists on the island of Koshima observed a macaque monkey who learned how to improve the taste of sweet potatoes by washing them in the ocean. Over time, the monkey taught others its washing technique. By the 100th monkey, the behavior instantly spread. Parsons’ wine seems to be having a similar effect on Denver.

WINE IN A CAN
The Infinite Monkey Theorem is one of only two wineries in the nation that puts wine in a can. The $6.99 Sparkling Black Muscat, available in a 250-ml can, is ideal for music venues and sporting events (even at Invesco Field at Mile High). The Muscat is the only Infinite Monkey Theorem wine not made from Colorado grapes.

AN ULTRAHIP LABEL
Infamous album graphic artist Zach Larner designed Infinite Monkey Theorem’s counter-culture wine label. Larner, who garnered a Grammy nomination for best packaging design with his Chester French Trojan condom album cover, has designed album covers for Blink 182 and Tom Petty.

WINERY HAPPENINGS
On the first Friday of every month, the winery treats wine enthusiasts to a live band and a mobile pizza oven. The winery also sponsors events such as the USA Pro Cycling Challenge and the Jazz Aspen Snowmass. In collaboration with the winery, a “swine, wine and seafood” restaurant, the Old Major, opened its doors at 33rd and Tate Streets in early 2013.

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