It’s the breeze, they say, that creates plump grapes and a wine destination in Palisade, Colo., the heart of hops country.
Dubbed the “Million Dollar Breeze” by locals, winds waft in over the Grand Mesa, one of the largest flat-topped mountains in the world and a keystone geographical feature here. Air flows between canyon walls, warming and then flowing out over wineries nestled near the Grand Mesa’s base.
The 4,700-foot-high climate, featuring sunny days, dry air and cool nights, finesses what local winemakers say are globally unique elements for their craft.
In a state known for breweries, people in Palisade want to make sure Colorado is squarely on the map — as a confident marker, not a curiosity — when people plan travel toward wine tastings.
Palisade is a town of about 2,700, about four hours west of Denver along Interstate 70. It boasts two-thirds of the state’s vineyard acreage and more than a quarter of the overall wineries. Vines twist together, creating a picture-perfect foreground framed by the Grand Mesa’s ridges.
“It’s a really well-kept secret,” said Jay Christianson, owner of Canyon Wind Cellars.
Also known for peaches, lavender and alpacas — yes, alpacas — the town slogan, “Life tastes good here all year round,” reflects the 25 area wineries.
Unlike rambling go-to vino destinations such as California’s Napa Valley, 22 wineries are within a 7-mile radius.
Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, said grapes for reds and whites grow well — from syrahs and grenaches to rieslings.
“It’s hard to say Colorado has one signature wine, because we have such a diversity of climates,” he said.
In national wine tastings and competitions, he said, “the wine is received remarkably well. People are just dumbfounded that we can make wine as good as we do here in Colorado.”
The geography pins Palisade as an on-the-way or short-drive destination for many. It’s about a two-hour drive from cities like Moab in Utah and Aspen, Vail and Telluride in Colorado.
“We’re actually seeing a huge growth in our tourism,” said Juliann Adams, executive director of the Palisade Chamber of Commerce, “not just in numbers but also where they’re coming from.”
Tasting rooms have seen an uptick in visitors from outside Colorado, she said. Surveying visitors to last year’s Palisade Peach Festival, about 23 states were represented.
Instead of leaving after buying a box of peaches, visitors increasingly stick around.
“The wineries give people the reason to really stay a while in Palisade,” Adams said. “You can do quite a few wineries in a short trip, and most of the time the owners and/or the winemakers are right there, and they’re the ones you can talk directly to.”
Palisade’s quaint downtown includes an art studio, the Blue Pig Gallery, with mountain-inspired paintings, and Slice O’ Life Bakery, offering doughnuts and pumpernickel bread. In a restaurant like Palisade Cafe, where local wines are on the menu, it’s not unusual to hear, “Are you going to the wineries?” Even a summer yoga series skips around, stopping at a winery — the fee includes a post-workout drink.
While in other destinations a group might rent a limo, walking or biking to wineries is common. Although some wineries have been around long enough to collect distinctions, others are new enough that at most places, tastings are still free. Bottles range from a $13 riesling at DeBeque Canyon Winery, to a $100 blended red, the 2012 IV, at Canyon Wind Cellars. Most tasting rooms are open year-round, excluding holidays.
Some proudly tout awards; others prize a casual image. At Carlson Vineyards, winemakers pose the question, “Why make drinking wine complicated?” and playful names include Tyrannosaurus Red and Laughing Cat Sweet Baby White.
So many busloads of international tourists have arrived that some wineries have started charging for tastings. Canyon Wind is getting maxed out on the weekends: As many as 500 people can come through on a summer weekend.
Now the tasting room feels full with 10 people. It used to be his father’s office — the elder Christianson planted the first vines in 1991, and when tourists arrived, he’d simply throw a white bedsheet over desk clutter.
“My father was a firm believer that nobody would ever come to western Colorado to be a tourist,” Christianson said. Now, he said, they’re planning a larger tasting space. The 50 acres, which Christianson took over in 2009 with his wife, Jennifer, include nine different kinds of grapes.
Winemakers range from relatively new experimenters to family-owned generations. At Maison la Belle Vie, winemaker and chef John Barbier incorporates elements from France, where his family has tended grapevines for more than a century.
Bike racks were fashioned from wine barrels, and labels for rich reds inspired by playing cards. Many who come for a tasting opt to buy a glass or bottle and enjoy the view in the courtyard, where mountains frame the bloom-accented vineyards.
At Red Fox Cellars, named after animals seen scurrying around the vineyard, owner Sherrie Hamilton said when they opened in September they needed to stand out.
“Each one of our wines reflects that,” she said.
So they’ve aged them in a bourbon barrel, adding a smoky, rich taste to, for example, the bestselling Bourbon Barrel Merlot.