Lance Hanson scrutinizes his Pinot Noir vines in the dry heat, gesturing towards the alfalfa, the tall grass, the flowers that fill the aisles between rows of trellised grapes.
This isn't typical vineyard design. Space between most rows, from Sonoma to Soave, tends towards the manicured. The logic: Don't let other plants compete with vines for nutrients. But Hanson, the founder of Jack Rabbit Hill winery in remote Hotchkiss, trumpets the green life as complements rather than competition. The plants break-up his tough soil, and help deliver nutrients to the subterranean vines.
"Jack Rabbit Hill, where we are standing, is a giant rock pile," said Hanson, a bluff, engaging guy who studied Ancient Greek in college and then worked in tech in Silicon Valley, before moving his family to Hotchkiss to make wine — and now also exquisite New Avalon cider and a wide range of spirits through his distillery CapRock. "Without the plants that are growing alongside the vines, I think we would struggle. This is what biodynamic agriculture is all about. All of the good stuff is connected, in beneficial ways."
And the bad stuff, like chemicals, is far away. As Colorado's first biodynamic winery, his vines have never been sprayed.
Colorado supports about 100 wineries on 1,000 acres or so, with most of the action taking place in the Grand Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), which encompasses the state's winemaking epicenter, Palisade. Jack Rabbit Hill, at 6,200 feet elevation (making it one of the highest elevation wineries in the United States), is in the state's other AVA, called West Elks, about 60 miles southeast of Grand Junction — essentially on the other side of the world's largest flat-topped mountain, Grand Mesa.
Here at Drinking With Doug, we buy bottles, visit breweries, tour distilleries, hang out in bars and even drive across the state to check out wineries — all on behalf of our adoring readers. The point of this grueling toil? To encourage only the best kind of (responsible) drinking.
So as the Colorado Mountain Winefest gets ready for its 27th grape-sodden throw-down (Sept. 13-16 in Palisade), we hit the state's two AVAs and hunted for Colorado's finest. And in each AVA, we encountered fantastic wines and committed, even visionary winemakers.
Jack Rabbit Hill's elevation is helpful for Hanson's style of winemaking — the cool temperatures help preserve acids, which lend zip to grapes like Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Riesling and Chardonnay. Instead of jammy Pinots and tropical-fruit Chardonnays that are typical of hotter regions within California and Australia (and often quite enjoyable), Hanson conjures more nuanced flavors and aromas — violet, fresh cherries, mushrooms for his Pinot, golden apple, Meyer lemon, a little almond in the Chardonnay. The style is more Burgundy than Napa or Colorado, and it stands apart in the Centennial State for more than flavor — his wines also fall into a hazy, undefined style of winemaking called "natural."
Without diving too deeply into the term "natural wine," which provokes an array of strong emotions among wine enthusiasts (and is the subject of an upcoming Drinking With Doug), let's just say natural wines involve minimal intervention on the part of farmers and winemakers. Chemical-free vines and soil. Wines conjured from little more than grapes, yeast and time. Sulfites? Some say minimal amounts are OK, others disagree.
Either way, Hanson's farming rejects chemicals, and his winemaking is so hands-off that he depends upon spontaneous fermentation to turn the sugars into alcohol, rather than inoculating his grapes and juice with yeast while they sit in fermentation tanks. The belief among natural wine evangelists is these wines have the best chance of expressing the vineyard's terroir — the soil, the climate, the things floating through the air and clinging to grape skins, like pollen from nearby peach trees. And terroir expression is a big deal to many wine crazies (like Drinking With Doug), even if the whole idea still remains more speculative than scientific.
In addition to the relatively hands-off approach to farming and vinification, Hanson also takes seriously bottle-aging — he still has 50 cases of his 2012 Pinot Noir, even though selling it means instant cash injection (and cash matters to most people in the wine business). His goal with his annual red blend called Roundtable (Malbec, Petit Verdot and Merlot)? Four years in bottle. This represents another important effort on the part of Hanson. Financially, it makes more sense to just bottle the wine, sell it, and place responsibility for aging in the hands of consumers. But consumers, like Drinking With Doug, are impatient louts. We buy. We drink. We have fun. We do it all over again, as fast as possible. Bravo to Hanson for giving his wines more time to mature in bottle before sending them to Boulder County liquor store shelves and restaurant bars, and then to the lips of us louts.
Another outstanding Colorado winery — the state supports more, but we are just spotlighting two this go-around — sits above the Colorado River and in the shade of the Grand Mesa, which also nearly looms over Hanson's winery 65 miles away. Here in Palisade, the heart of Colorado wine country, Scott High at Colterris Wines grows all of his own grapes, making Colterris one of the only 100-percent estate-grown wineries in Colorado (Jack Rabbit Hill is another).
High, who spent decades in the wine distribution business prior to starting Colterris — "Col" for Colorado, "terris" for land — less than a decade ago, hews to the principle that animated his purchase.
"It's my mission in life — truly, my mission in life — to create world-class Colorado wines, not just fantastic grapes," said High. "Everything I do here finds its foundation in this mission."
High is off to a great start. Before his head winemaker, Bo Felton, led me on a tour of the vineyards and winery, I tasted most of the current Colterris portfolio. The Chardonnay was a Burgundy-Napa cross — elegant and restrained (like Burgundy), but flashing exuberance and a certain friskiness (like Napa). Sips of velvety Malbec invoked white pepper, plum and leather, in an excellent way. The Cabernet Franc was one of my favorites. The French varietal, a key grape in France's northern Loire Valley, thrives better than many others in colder climates. And Palisade is not chilly, at least not in summer. But High and Felton managed to craft an excellent Cab Franc in Palisade's heat, complete with its signature bell pepper flavor — one that should appear as a seductive whisper rather than a shout.
Climate change could hobble Colterris's ability to turn Cabernet Franc grapes into liquid show-stoppers. With its cold, long winters, logic suggests that climate change could improve Colorado's wine industry. Extreme cold can kill vines, and spring frosts nip plenty of Colorado grape harvests in the bud. But once summer strikes, grapes begin to ripen quickly in Palisade. The high elevation (close to 4,800 feet) takes credit for winter's severities, but also for summer's intensity. Way up here, UV light drives down upon fruit like lasers. Temperatures can be punishingly hot.
"We get sugars to ripen fast, that's not a problem," said Felton. "But it takes much longer to achieve phenolic ripeness."
Translation: Palisade grapes, unlike those in places like Alsace or Italy's Piedmont region, never struggle to transform from bitter, acidic, green globes into honeyed, juice-swollen grapes. That happens relatively fast, and is advantageous. But the grapes' complexities beyond sweet juice — back to the elusive terroir idea — require more time to evolve. You want the aromas of forest floor in that Pinot Noir? That's good news, because who doesn't savor the soul-rousing aroma of forest floor in a glass of wine on a cloud-spangled, blue-streaked 53-degree Saturday afternoon in late-October, while standing before a backyard firepit blaze? But the ideal wine accompaniment to the atmospheric day requires incremental, rather than rocket-like, ripening to bring on the moss, brown leaves, roots, wet rocks, earth.
It's not just rising heat that threatens the Colorado wine industry. This year's Western Slope drought could have been devastating for Palisade, but the Colorado River irrigates the area's many vineyards. For now, at least, the river continues to meander around the lush town and the vines receive plenty of precious water. But over in the West Elk AVA, Hanson lacks a next-door swollen river. His grapes muscled through the rain-free summer — he credits biodynamic farming for his robust vines — but if the drought is more a condition than a blip, his treasured Old World-style wines might disappear along with the precipitation.
Let's hope for the blip, and drink good Colorado wine for as long as it's around. Jack Rabbit Hill and Colterris are superb places to begin.
Longtime journalist and Boulderite Doug Brown writes about adult beverages for the Camera. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @drinkingwithdoug.