Wine County

The burgeoning and challenging landscape of Boulder County wineries

Susan France

Boulder County wineries are producing award-winning wines in the quietest manner, in a most hidden corner of Boulder and Gunbarrel.

Producing wine in Colorado, and selling it in Boulder County, presents unique challenges and offers unique rewards, according to these local winemakers, and there are varying degrees of optimism about the future of wine in the county.

To start, not many people realize there are expert craftsmen making wine in the area. The first winery in Boulder County was Augustina’s Winery, opened by Gussie Walter in an old industrial complex off of Broadway in North Boulder 17 years ago. Since then, several winemakers in the county began buying, fermenting and aging wine at home, saving money while building up a product to sell. Now those home brewers have taken their product to market, and there are four award-winning wineries, including three in a row in a Lee Hill Drive strip mall, within a one-mile area of Boulder; and then a fifth award-winner in Gunbarrel.

Opening shop in Boulder County was either personally important or economically necessary to many of the winemakers in the area.

“I was born in Boulder and have lived here my entire life,” says Settembre Cellars co-owner Tracy Eliasson. “I moved to Denver and lived there for six months before moving back.”

“The great adventure,” jokes her husband and Settembre co-owner Blake Eliasson.

“You’ve got a really great, educated, wine-drinking public [in Boulder],” says Tracy. “It’s a foodie town.”

John Garlich, who runs Bookcliff Vineyards next door, says he and his wife were looking for vineyards in New Mexico and Utah before stumbling upon a winemaker in Moab, Utah, who said they sourced their grapes from Palisade, Colorado. After buying land in Palisade, earning a wine cultivation degree from the University of California, Davis and reformatting a peach orchard into a vineyard, Garlich opened Bookcliff in Boulder in 2008.

“We live here,” Garlich says. On opening a taproom in Boulder, he says, “It’s not always the wisest but that’s the way it worked.”

There is a communal feeling between the five vintners — Settembre, Augustina’s, Bookcliff, What We Love Winery and Boulder Creek Winery — of camaraderie, and they have worked to support each other and share knowledge and equipment.

“We get a lot of grapes from John [at Bookcliff ],” says Tracy Eliasson. “And if we don’t, he helps us get them transported. It’s funny that they’re right next door, but it’s great. Michael [at Wines We Love] lets us rent his forklift so we don’t have to buy one.”

The camaraderie is also beneficial to local wine drinkers, Eliasson says.

“I think it’s great for consumers,” she says. “It’s fun for people to come up here. We’re all really different. We’re different personality-wise, our wines are different, our spaces are different. Come up and do them all, or just do one.”

Indeed, each winery seems to have carved out a niche: Bookcliff is the only county winemaker to own and operate its own vineyard in Palisade; Settembre focuses on single varietals and pinpoint wine-making technique; Wines We Love has an exceptional mulled wine and sangria; Boulder Creek Winery has a unique taproom experience; and Augustina’s produces on such a small scale that it can make wines from small batches of grapes grown here in Boulder County that are rarely made into wine elsewhere.

But this all leads up to the most important question about Colorado wine: Is the wine good?

“Quality-wise, I think we’re just as good as any wine in the country,” says Bookcliff’s Garlich. “It’s never going to be very big in Colorado, but I think quality-wise we can be as good as anyone. And that’s my goal in life, to take it as far as we can and take it to that upper echelon. There are advantages. We don’t have to use as much sprays or pesticides; all the mildews other regions have to deal with, we don’t have in Colorado.”

Despite nearly every vineyard dealing with a poor harvest after back-to-back harsh winters — as much as 70 percent of the harvest was lost at some vineyards this year — local winemakers are certain that if the grapes do grow, they’ll make great wine.

“It’s a really great growing region,” says Blake Eliasson at Settembre Cellars. “Yes, we had the winter damage that got us this year, but it’s so dry so we don’t have the mold problems. To the extent that the growers are educated, you can really have immense control over the irrigation, which is a big thing. … It’s [also] nowhere near Lodi temperature [a wine-making region in California], and it’s really cold at night so you get that shift in temperature that you want. It really helps hold the acids.”

If you’re growing grapes in Colorado, you’re probably growing in Palisade. Famous, of course, for its peaches, the region is also ideal for growing wine grapes. The farther east in the Grand Valley toward De Beque Canyon in Palisade, Garlich says, the more ideal the land. That’s because wind coming off the Colorado River will keep the area from getting too hot during the day, but also prevent it from getting too cold at night. The region also has unique soil characteristics that promote intriguing elements in the grapes.

“Sommeliers or restaurateurs say that we have a lot of character in our wines,” Garlich says. “They also note the minerality, which is due to the soil. We have a lot of calcium in our soil versus some place like Napa Valley, which is more acidic, which translates more into a minerality that shows up in the wine, and you get that in France and places in Europe. So I always say we’re closer to Europe in terms of flavor than California, [which has] that big, jammy flavor.”

One small example of the minerality of Colorado wine was evident when Garlich dipped a spigot in a barrel of aging cabernet sauvignon and the predominant taste, among mushroom, oak and cherry, was something like oyster. Garlich says that’s because the Palisade valley used to be seabed.

The best variety that grows in Colorado, according to nearly every vintner in Boulder County, is cabernet franc.

The cab franc makes a lighter red wine that is often used in blends elsewhere, but that grows so well here in Colorado that local winemakers are putting it on display. The cab franc at Boulder Creek Winery was the first Colorado wine to win a prestigious Jefferson Cup prize, and the same varietal at Bookcliff has won “Best Cab Franc” at those awards four times, including this year.

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea in terms of flavor,” says Garlich. “It’s a little light, it’s a bigger grape, so the body and flavors are a little lighter than a cabernet sauvignon, but because of Colorado and our climate, we do better than California or Washington. It has a perfume and a nice smell. It’s a nice alternative to the heavier reds. It’s a great food wine.”

Garlich says he is excited about a Colorado merlot that is currently aging (despite a decline in that variety’s popularity), and also recognized petit verdot and malbec as varieties that grow well in Colorado. Settembre Cellars is also selling a strong-bodied sangiovese from 2010, the first year in which that grape grew enough in Colorado for them to ferment, age and bottle it.

The process by which these local winemakers produce wine is remarkably similar, though on different scales, and all takes place here in Boulder County. Once grapes arrive at the winery’s facility, the grapes are sorted and sent through a de-stemming machine. The amount that can be done in a day depends on the number of volunteers who show up to help out — called crush parties — though Gussie Walter at Augustina’s Winery chooses to do it all herself.

“I can process two tons a day,” Walter says. “I usually try to keep it to one ton just because otherwise it’s too tiring. My husband helps me if I get swamped, but at this point I’ve got it pretty well under control.”

After de-stemming, the juice is set into large stainless steel containers to ferment with yeast. After one to two months — when it’s ready depends on taste and chemistry, Settembre’s Blake Eliasson says — the wine is filtered through a special piece of equipment that delicately separates skins and seeds, so as not to crush the seeds and introduce excessive astringency, and the wine is then aged in new, and sometimes “toasted,” French, American or Hungarian oak barrels for a varying amount of time. Then it’s bottled in-house and sold in the taproom or delivered to restaurants and wine distributors.

Getting to that point is what each winemaker is in it for. But it’s not easy here in Colorado, and in Boulder County specifically.

“It’s great to have these really cool varieties, but if you get a crop every four years, it’s not that cool,” Jackie Thompson with Boulder Creek Winery says, which she ran for 13 years but is set to close down at the end of the year.

“It’s a fun product to make,” she says. “It’s a tough business. To talk to a businessperson, they’d say you can’t sell anything for three years … so it’s a dumb business, but it’s a fun product. The worst case is you can go home and drink it.”

Garlich says trying to find out what the market can support is an ongoing battle but that wineries are making strides.

“That’s what we’re dealing with in Colorado: [Finding out] what grows in Colorado, what makes great wine in Colorado and what sells. It has to be all three,” Garlich says.

Walter at Augustina’s says while breweries can deftly react to what consumers want, brewing beer within a month of an idea or trend recognition, it takes at least five years for winemakers to react — and it’s hard to anticipate the fickle and often stubborn minds of wine drinkers.

“I can’t quite keep up on the sudden variability of what people want to drink,” Walter says. “If suddenly everyone decides they want to drink malbec, well, no one’s growing it. If you plant, you can’t sell it until seven years later and everybody’s moved on. You can’t switch that fast, and I can’t even keep up with this kind of cycle of people wanting white versus red so I’m always guessing wrong on what to make more of.”

There’s also the challenge of working with the City of Boulder and Boulder County to make wineries a viable business in the region. Boulder Creek Winery is shutting down, in part, because Boulder County refused to let it produce wine on agricultural land (instead of industrial land), and wouldn’t support a move to viable industrial-zoned land at the edge of the city of Boulder.

“They went through the process kind of fairly but in the end did nothing for us, but at least they listened to us,” Thompson says. “Out on Highway 36 as you leave North Broadway, there is a little industrial area and when our lease was up, we looked at that and said, ‘This would be great: It’s a falling-down building, it could be a beautiful winery. As you’re leaving Boulder we could make that crappy falling-down building our own,’ and they said, ‘No way, don’t think about it.’ It was zoned industrial; they just wanted that zone to be rezoned something else. I have a very bad taste in my mouth about that.”

The Eliassons at Settembre Cellars also had some issues finding affordable industrial space to rent, especially with the increase of marijuana dispensaries and breweries jacking up the prices of these finite spots.

“If you look at the industrial places in Boulder and then you look at the kind of places a wine-drinking customer would want to come to, it really limits what’s available,” Tracy Eliasson says.

Boulder County also refused to allow signage near the area’s wineries that would denote that they are part of the Colorado Wine Trail — something that both the state and the state wine board supported, according to multiple winery owners.

Despite the challenges of growing in Colorado, and growing a business in Boulder County, the wineries are optimistic about the future of Colorado wine — some more than others.

“It’s getting better and we’re getting better,” says Garlich. His cab franc recently took home best in variety at the L.A. Wine Competition (formerly Los Angeles County Fair). “That was a big deal… but we still get upturned noses.”