By Beth Buehler
Colorado’s wine country isn’t just about wine anymore. The vines that helped put Grand Junction and Palisade on the map of culinary aficionados and travelers simply curious about winemaking have spread their reach. There is no doubt that grapes and all their liquid goodness still take front and center, but brewers, distillers, lavender growers, outdoor recreation options and vibrant historic districts have propelled the Grand Valley into a broader scope.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is lavender’s entry on the scene with at least eight lavender farms and cooperatives now present in the Grand Valley and Colorado’s only Lavender Festival happening July 8 – 10. “Lavender brings us into a whole different genre; it brings a connotation of France,” says Barbara Bowman, director of the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau.
Lavender Festival garden tours on Friday focus on how versatile this beautiful herb is in planted landscapes and ends with lunch at Avante Vineyards. Farm tours that day demonstrate the distilling of lavender into oil and includes lunch at Z’s Orchard and an afternoon reception at Grande River Vineyards to savor lavender wine and lavender-inspired appetizers.
On Saturday, more than 30 vendors selling lavender products and more fill Memorial Park in downtown Palisade. Demonstrations, seminars, live music, food and of course wine also are part of the experience. The day ends with a Feast in the Field at Adobe Creek Farm with Executive Chef/Owner Josh Niernberg of Bin 707 Foodbar preparing a four-course meal served outdoors. On Sunday, lavender farms along the Western Slope are open for tours.
Sage Creations Organic Farm, a nine-acre certified organic farm located on East Orchard Mesa in Palisade, was among the first to plant lavender crops in the area. In 2005, Paola Legarre and her husband, Bobby, purchased a cherry orchard and moved to Palisade the following year.
Today, Sage Creations has 3½ acres of lavender that is sold, turned into a line of lavender products, and is available for u-pick experiences. “It’s fun to pick lavender, and a lot of people like to take photos. It’s an activity that especially appeals to women,” Legarre says. Open April through September, the farm also grows and sells sweet cherries and heirloom tomatoes and operates a greenhouse with lavender, heirloom tomato, culinary and aromatic herbs, and specialty bedding plants for sale.
The bloom time for lavender is from mid-June to mid-July, turning the fields soft shades of purple. “The second bloom is in September, which is a really pretty and a good time to visit with the wineries and wine festival,” she suggests.
Rory Donovan also saw an opportunity with all the orchards nearby and launched Peach Street Distillers, which now produces 18 handcrafted spirits and operates a tasting room that has tours, a creative cocktail menu and a patio with great views. More than 90,000 pounds of peaches and 90,000 pounds of pears are used annually, says sales and marketing manager Moose Koons, and the distillery’s grappa is made with leftover crushings from area vineyards.
With Palisade Brewing Company and DeBeque Canyon Winery’s tasting room nearby, it’s possible to sample local wine, beer and spirits all within one block. And don’t forget to check out the five other brewers in the Grand Junction, Palisade and Fruita areas.
Grapes Set the Stage
Today there are 21 vineyards and wineries in the Grand Valley, and nearly all of them offer tastings and tours. Wineries like Canyon Wind Cellars and Two Rivers Winery & Chateau continue to take Colorado’s wine country to a new level, Bowman says, while newer businesses like Red Fox Cellars are expanding the boundaries.
Planted in 1991 at 4,700 feet in elevation, Canyon Wind Cellars is a family-owned, estate winery, meaning it is among a limited number of operations in Colorado growing all the grapes that go into the 17 or 18 varieties of wine they produce and bottle. Jay and Jennifer Christianson are the current owners/winemakers, and Jay’s parents, Norman and Ellen, founded the operation that has 30 acres of grapes and is known for its sustainable practices. “We are the first second-generation run winery in Colorado,” confirms Jay Christianson.
Two unique events the Palisade winery hosts involve the art of blending. Teams of two to four will compete in the Cutthroat Blending Challenge mid-to-late June, while the third annual Team Blending Challenge in late August is a bit more mellow with a blending seminar, 45-minute competition, lunch and awards. Dessert and wine pairing also has been offered, and a land game event is in the works. For more information on both events, check out the website at canyonwindcellars.com
Two Rivers Winery & Chateau also has a rich tradition, with the property built from ground up on 15 acres in 1999 by owners Bob and Billie Witham. Located in Grand Junction, the vineyard, outdoor pavilion and grounds offer beautiful views of Grand Mesa, Colorado National Monument and the Book Cliffs mountain range. Two Rivers currently produces eight varieties of wines and 16,000 cases annually, which includes grapes grown on eight acres they own in Palisade.
The Chateau truly sets this winery apart, with 10 upscale rooms for overnight accommodations, patios and a conference/event center perfect for parties, weddings, business meetings and relaxing. “Every room has a view,” confirms Hospitality Coordinator Brittany Witham-Crowell. “The reasons we located on the west side [of Grand Valley] are Colorado National Monument and access to great hiking and biking trails.”
Two Rivers also has entertainment on-site, hosting a Jazz Among the Grapevines summer concert series that benefits the Western Colorado Center for the Arts on the third Tuesday of the month from May through August. Wine is available for purchase and concert-goers can bring a picnic.
Two other local vineyards host concert series, including Grande River Vineyards’ Hear It Through the Grapevine, scheduled for Saturday evenings from June through August. Held since 1994, the concerts benefit area nonprofits and are a chance to picnic, see amazing views of the Book Cliffs and enjoy a glass of one of Grande Rivers’ Bordeaux-style wines.
Garfield Estates Vineyard & Winery, also located in Palisade and established in 2000, hosts free monthly concerts from May through September on designated Saturdays and Sundays. Enjoy a glass of wine while listening to music on the patio.
One of the newest wineries is Red Fox Cellars in Palisade, which is breaking the mold of winemaking by honoring tradition yet focusing on invention. One of its most unique products is Bourbon Barrel Merlot, which ages in bourbon barrels from various Colorado distilleries. Red Fox also crafts and bottles 44, a red blend, and Rosé Cabernet Sauvignon along with eight rotating fruit wines and ciders on tap in the tasting room, with plans to start bottling these in limited quantities this year. A recent event held at Red Fox was Yoga & Wine, with one hour of yoga followed by a social hour with a glass of wine, cider or wine cocktail included.
Theresa and Scott High are doubly blessed, owning and operating High Country Orchards & Vineyards in Palisade, while Theresa owns Colterris Winery, offering the option to see both operations in action. The couple met while working in the wine industry and upon proposing “promised we would own a vineyard someday,” Theresa says.
That vow took a turn toward reality when they purchased a peach orchard on East Orchard Mesa in 1999. Today, they have 35,000 grapevines on 35 acres, 32,000 peach trees on 71 acres, and the rest of the 126 acres is devoted to cherries and vegetables. This translates into 30,000 to 40,000 boxes of premium Palisade peaches (with many going to Whole Foods), produce sold to the public, several kinds of homemade salsas and preserves, and 3,500 cases of wine.
After aging its first batch of wine for two years, Colterris Winery released its first bottles in 2010 and now makes three varieties, including one of the few U.S. white cabernet sauvignons. Malbec will be introduced in 2016, she shares, possibly including the region’s first white Malbec. In the next three to five years, the family hopes to make a reserve wine that combines the “best of all of the grapes we grow,” says Theresa, noting that they are committed to making Bordeaux-style wines using only grapes from their vineyard.
The orchard’s Country Store and the winery’s tasting room are next door to each other, with an abundance of roses and lavender planted nearby. The lavender is turned into products sold in the tasting room, and a short walk down a lane brings guests to a pavilion used for weddings and events that overlooks the valley and Colorado River. Visitors can buy wine and picnic items to enjoy the vistas.
Foodies can savor wine and food pairings offered at downtown Grand Junction’s 626 on Rood, serving modern American cuisine and recognized as one of 10 Great Wine Bars by USA Today.
Bin 707 Foodbar’s Niernberg, a fifth-generation Colorado native also focusing on American cuisine, is passionate about primarily sourcing ingredients from local and Colorado-based producers. The business was initially intended to serve 75 to 100 diners per day, but this number has grown to 500 to 600 per day and resulted in the establishment of West Slope Supper Club to handle off-site events.
The new Grand Junction Food Tours offer tastes of downtown Grand Junction restaurants and sweet treat locations on select afternoons and evenings each week. Speaking of samplings, Grand Valley Winery Association presents barrel tastings twice a year, in April and May, typically featuring several wineries, food paired with the wine, and opportunities to meet the winemakers and taste wines right out of the barrel. The tastings are so popular that they often sell out six to 12 months in advance, Bowman says.
Ways to Explore
Tapping into unique ways to tour wine country is half the fun, with bikes, limousines, horse-drawn carriage, scooters, vintage cars and a bright pink Mini Cooper being among the options. Limousines and vintage cars are available through Allen Unique Autos in Grand Junction, home to a museum that features one of the finest private automobile collections in the country, owned by local Tammy Allen.
The vast majority of wine country is easily accessible by bicycle, with Rapid Creek Cycles in Palisade renting eight-speed cruisers, road bikes and electric bikes (all with baskets for stashing purchases and goodies). The business also rents mountain bikes to explore area trails and stand
Or combine two favorite pastimes with golf and wine tasting packages for two or four people, including golf and lunch at the public 18-hole Tiara Rado Golf Course, a three-hour wine tour with Absolute Prestige Limousine and two nights of lodging at a hotel of the guests’ choice. The package can be booked by contacting Tiara Rado.
Other unique ways to explore the area are viewing the Colorado National Monument and catching a bird’s-eye view of area vineyards and orchards during a helicopter ride with Gateway Canyons AirTours or riding on horseback into the 36,000-acre Little Book Cliffs Wild
An especially sublime time to visit the Grand Valley is September, when temperatures are cooler, the grape harvest and second lavender bloom are underway and everything is beautifully green. Plus, Colorado Mountain Wine Festival, the state’s largest and oldest wine festival, happens on Sept. 15-18.
Last year’s festival action included a scenic wine country bus tour, Wine & Glass Experience by Riedel, and a winemakers dinner and chocolate and wine tasting at Wine Country Inn in Palisade. With more than 50 Colorado wineries, a grape stomp, live demonstrations and seminars and music, Festival in the Park in Palisade on Saturday was the pinnacle of the event, which wrapped up on Sunday with the Palisade Farmer’s Market and tours of area wineries. For more information and this year’s schedule of events go to coloradowinefest.com
Every great excursion requires equally great lodging. Look at the vines right outside your window from Two Rivers Winery & Chateau in Grand Junction and the 80-room Wine Country Inn, located on 21 acres in Palisade that are adjacent to two vineyards. Sister properties Marriott – Downtown Fairfield Inn and Marriott – Downtown SpringHill Suites offer spacious guest rooms in Grand Junction’s downtown and are within easy walking distance to many shops and eateries. There are a host of bed and breakfasts in the Grand Valley along with several other familiar brand names around Grand Junction, such as the recently remodeled DoubleTree by Hilton.
Now is the perfect time to plan a summer or fall Grand Valley getaway to enlighten your senses, get outside and find out what eating, drinking and picking local is all about.