Mike Richard of Vagabondish tells us why Napa is “out” and the Colorado Wine Country is “in.”
Aaaahhh, Napa Valley. Breathe it in … roll the words around your tongue… It’s legendary! Can’t-miss! Bucket list worthy! America’s Mount Everest of Vino for oenophiles! Blah, blah, blah… If you ask me, it’s also staid, pretentious and (most important for budget-wise travelers aka normal people) it’s overpriced. When celebrity chefs can bilk their clientele for $500+ dinners per couple without wine (I’m looking at you, Thomas Keller) when the classic, once venerable Wine Train becomes little more than a rolling fish bowl for mildly intoxicated, purple-toothed tourists dropping $120 per lunch aboard “Napa’s most unique restaurant”, while stumbling from one predictable, mediocre winery to the next; when an over-hyped, well-to-do vintner constructs a monstrous, Disney-esque replica of a 13th century Italian castle (complete with moat, drawbridge and torture chamber!) along the Valley’s rolling hills, it’s safe to say that Napa has finally “jumped the shark”. For travelers seeking an up-and-coming, affordable, back-to-basics wine country experience, look no further than…
Western Colorado Wine Country
“Colorado wine country, eh? Wait … did you say Colorado?” If you’ve never heard of the Grand Valley or West Elks AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), you’re not alone. Most out-of-staters are blissfully unaware of these vast, rolling expanses of Western Colorado viniculture. (Hell, most Coloradans are too.) While best known for a thriving beer scene, the state is also home to a growing number of excellent vineyards and wineries – more than 80 small, family-owned estates in total. Be forewarned though: if you fancy your adult beverages “neat”, have ever considered purchasing an ascot, or routinely use the word “zeitgeist” in passing conversation, you’re probably not Colorado Wine Country material. This area is for wine lovers looking to eschew uppity, pinky-up tastings in favor of a no-frills tour with a laid-back vibe. If you can’t have fun and catch a cheap buzz on excellent local wines here, you’re doing it wrong.
Getting Around in the Colorado Wine Country
A handful of “official” trail will guide you through the area’s best wineries, but I highly recommend the Heart of Colorado Wine Country Trail. Those fortunate enough to travel this entire loop beginning and ending on I-70 in Glenwood will have seen where almost every grape in Colorado originates. Make sure to pack your drinking shoes though! This massive trail covers both of the aforementioned federally designated AVAs. Allow two days minimum, three to really enjoy yourself. The area is most easily traversed by car as most of the wineries are on or near major highway routes. However, the region also offers some of the best biking trails in North America. So, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, hop a mountain bike and pedal the entire route. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous but a little lazy, hop a pedicab ride with Palisade Pedicab (call: 970-250-1654) and pay someone else to pedal it for you.
Where to Taste
I’ll be so bold as to say that virtually every winery and vineyard along The Trail is worth a visit (although it’s worth noting that I spent the tail end of my two days babbling semi-coherently about the dearth of In-N-Out Burger joints in Colorado. But that’s another story for another post…). Allow me to present a brief selection of my favorite Western Colorado wineries:
Sample a Cherry Pie at Carlson Vineyards The fun, knowledgeable staff here pours generous samples of more than a dozen varieties with names like Laughing Cat, Pearadactyl (Pear-Apple), and Prairie Dog Blush. While they’re most famous for their Rieslings, don’t miss their cherry wine. It’s served in a small, plastic cup with a chocolate dipped rim and described as “cherry pie without the crust”. Or their Cherry Lemonade – a blend of cherry wine and frozen lemonade. (Napa snobs, turn back now. It doesn’t get any prettier…)
Get High at Terror Creek Winery This oddly named winery is located high above the town of Paonia on Garvin Mesa. At an elevation of 6,400 feet, it is “the highest estate bottled winery and vineyard in the northern hemisphere” (just in case you were hoping to finally check that one off your bucket list). The tasting room boasts excellent views of Terror Creek’s vineyards and the West Elk mountains. Inside, winemaker and sole proprietor Joan Mathewson is happy to chat about each of her Alsatian-style wines, including a smooth chardonnay vinted without oak and a spicy gewurztraminer.
Help Yourself at Colorado Cellars Winery The folks here have been producing wine since 1978, making it Colorado’s oldest winery and the only one legally allowed to use the state’s name. It’s also the largest and (in their words) “most award-winning”. The best part: they offer most of their 23 varieties in a self-serve, imbibe-as-much-as-you-like setup. Oh, and it’s free. And there’s often food samples, including fruits, salsa, and gourmet cheeses. Don’t miss their meads – light, soft bodied wines with rich, sweet honey flavors. (Come to think of it, you might just want to stay here and skip the rest of the trail.)
Sample Cabernet and Peaches at Colterris Wines Opened in 2010, Colterris (literally: “from the Colorado land”) is the new kid on the block. They’ve taken to doing one thing and doing it well: red wine blends aged in French oak barrels. For two dollars per, grab a sample of their 2010 Cab Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon (currently 2009 or 2008). The tasting area is a small, open-air patio where the winemakers themselves are happy to serve you and chat about their unique blends. Don’t miss: the small fruit stand next door. The peaches are out-of-this-world good!
Taste Specialty Seasonals at Grande River Vineyards The ambiance of the polished wine shop here might feel more like a gift shop to some. But the selection of wines is solid and the tastings inexpensive – first three are free, and just $3.50 for the next five. The real win here is the specialty offerings which vary by season. During my summer visit, I couldn’t get enough of the Late Harvest Viognier – like a full fruit basket upfront with a mellow, not-too-sweet finish. Don’t miss: their outdoor summer concert series featuring everything from jazz to Latin, bluegrass to classical … and of course plenty of food and vino. Well there you have it. Who needs the Napa Valley now we’ve got Western Colorado to play with?
Mike Richard is a Rhode Island native, professional web designer and travel junkie with an unhealthy addiction to backpacking, hiking and seeing the world. Since 2006, he has edited, written for, and kept the gears running behind the scenes as founding editor of his blog, Vagabondish. He absconded from corporate life in 2010 to travel full time and hasn’t had a permanent residence since. He has spoken professionally as a featured panelist at the annual TBEX (Travel Blogger’s Exchange) conference. Other noteworthy credits include “Woman’s World magazine contributor” and having once been interviewed by Tyra Banks (seriously). Find Mike on Google+. Follow @vagabondish.