Colorado Wineries Emerge to Battle California

It may seem that wealthy Coloradans have only recently followed Californian entrepreneurs into the wine business. But Colorado was producing nearly 2,000 gallons of wine a year as far back as 1899.

By 1968 — around the time Robert Mondavi revolutionized the California wine industry — the first modern Colorado winery, Ivancie, opened in Grand Valley. Now there are more than 50 in the state, and visitors can drive Colorado Wine Trails to Loveland, Boulder, Evergreen and Arvada in search of them.

Or you can stay in downtown Denver and visit The Infinite Monkey Theorem (TIMT) winery, which, since 2008, has operated out of a Quonset hut in a back alley of the city’s Santa Fe arts district. The winery gets its name from the idea in probability that a monkey striking typewriter keys at random for an unlimited time will eventually type out the works of Shakespeare.

"We like the simple irony of comparing such an endeavor to the incredibly controlled process of premier winemaking," says TIMT’s winemaker and partner Ben Parsons. "We are the Shakespeare, not the monkey."

The enterprise produced 4,500 cases last year, with 95 percent of the grapes grown around Colorado’s Western Slope, the rest sourced from California. Parsons and his partners have made TIMT a community project within the arts district, donating $25,000 to the University of Colorado Cancer Prevention Center (Parsons’ father died of colon cancer in 2007).

"We have local restaurant sommeliers digging dirt and bottling the wines," he says. TIMT offers three- and five- gallon kegs to more than 400 local customers, bars and restaurants through its wine club.

Dicey Neighborhood

The winery plans to open its own restaurant this year, though right now the neighborhood gets dicey with druggies at night. "Good idea to lock your car," says Parsons.

From the outside, the cement block building of the winery looks nothing like the baronial wine estates in California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Inside is a room full of cardboard boxes, open wine bottles and a tasting table. A young, black dog runs around at leisure. The tanks and barrels are in the Quonset hut, and the only real decor is the graffiti on the walls and a painting of a chimpanzee on the side of the delivery truck.

Parsons is a Brit, from Kent, who worked for London wine merchant Laytons, then moved to the vineyards of New Zealand, eventually graduating top of his class in oenology at Adelaide University. A job ad for a winemaking position, with no interview required, brought him to Canyon Wind Cellars in Palisade, Colorado. By 2004 he’d expanded Sutcliffe Vineyards (founded by another Brit, John Sutcliffe) to 4,000 cases a year, from 400.

Rhone Climate

Wanting his own winery, he figured he could source the best grapes from the Western Slope, which, with a 200-day growing season and less than 7 inches of rainfall, he compares to France’s Rhone Valley.

While everything about TIMT seems unorthodox, Parsons bases what he does on traditional winemaking. Though I expected that expertise to show in his wines, I really was quite amazed at the results. Tasting bottled, finished wines at the winery, I was immediately impressed by a mouth-filling, pleasantly fruity 2010 sauvignon blanc.

Parsons’ rose of cabernet franc was a beautiful, true rose color, very fruity and well suited to summer foods. A 100 percent petit verdot 2009 was still tannic but solidly knit, a big chewy wine, best with roasted meats. A 2009 petite sirah was very true to its varietal character, with a fine, expressive bouquet, and a sensible 14.2 percent alcohol, one of the best petite sirahs I’ve tasted anywhere.

100th Monkey

Not everything was so wonderful: an unfiltered 2009 malbec, with 10 percent petit verdot, smelled reedy and was a little sweet in the finish. And a red blend of petit verdot, malbec, petite sirah and syrah, called 100th Monkey, was too massive, almost cloying on the palate.

I tasted a number of other Colorado wines while out there and when I got home, and found that some producers still cling to a sweet, outdated style; others are experimenting with way too many varietals — many from out-of-state fruit — while others produce small quantities specific to the terroir.

If you’re ordering online from outside Colorado, antiquated interstate alcohol shipping rules may block your purchase, so check first with the winery.

I very much enjoyed the Rhone-style syrahs of Whitewater Hill, Boulder Creek, and Sutcliffe, but was surprised at the particular flavor of Sutcliffe’s 2008 Down Canyon Blend Red Wine, from around McElmo Canyon.

A mix of cabernet and syrah, the former giving excellent structure, the latter a sweet grape softness, it tasted the way I would think a wine from Colorado would taste — a bit unpolished and a little wild, but for a red wine to go with a lot of grilled foods, this is a winner.