Exploring Western Colorado’s Undiscovered Wine Region

While many people know Colorado for its rich beer culture and plethora of breweries across the state, their wine regions have somehow managed to go undetected. The reality is, western Colorado is home to many fertile vineyards, boutique wineries and vino-related events. To help shed some light on the subject, here is a guide to exploring western Colorado’s wine region.


Historically, western Colorado was too dry to grow the grapes and fruit necessary to make wine. While the soil was rich and the climate mild, the precipitation was uncertain and the land barren. Then, in 1882, water from the Colorado River was diverted to irrigate orchards and vineyards. Because a reliable water source had been secured, fruits and vegetable crops began to flourish. Although Prohibition in the 1920s halted wine production for a bit, it didn’t stop it forever. Today, there are more 100 wineries, many of which are boutique venues putting an emphasis on quality over quantity.Wine Regions

There are two regions in western Colorado that are designated American Viticultural Areas (AVA), The Grand Valley AVA and The West Elks AVA. These areas feature unique geographies and climates that allow for grape growing. The Grand Valley AVA includes Grand Junction and Palisade, residing along the Colorado River. Moreover, the West Elks AVA rests around Paonia and Hotchkiss, along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

What Makes Western Colorado Wines Unique?

The elevation alone makes western Colorado a unique wine region. The dryness of the area helps vintners to control the water because they’re forced to irrigate. Too much water can actually be detrimental to the fruits, so this gives them a leg up in production. Additionally, the elevation, about 4,700 feet, allows the strong sun to beat on the grapes and fruit, making them more flavorful. And, because the region is new, they barely have to deal with pesticides and diseases many wine regions encounter. The dry and mild climate actually kills many popular crop diseases, so this may never become a problem for the region.

Wine Tasting In The Grand Valley AVA

The region makes 70 percent to 80 percent of Colorado’s grapes. They have the longest growing season in the state, thanks to the cooling effect from nearby canyons, and the milding effect from the surrounding Grand Valley. While there are myriad wineries in the area, my top picks include:

Carlson Vineyards– Open since 1988, Carlson Vineyards offers free tastings in a fun environment. While low-key, the staff is extremely knowledgeable about wine and the region. For example, they informed me that wine doesn’t have to have grapes, but can be any fermented fruit, which you can sample with their numerous fruit wines. Make sure to try their cherry wine, described as the original “cherry pie without crust.” They serve it in a small plastic cup with the rim dipped in chocolate. Likewise, their cherry lemonade, which contains Carlson Cherry Wine and frozen lemonade is delicious. If you’re interested in buying a bottle, it’s $12.99 or less.

Colorado Cellars Winery– Open since 1978, Colorado Cellars Winery is the state’s oldest winery and the only one allowed to have Colorado in the name. What’s really nice about tastings at the winery is it’s self-serve, with numerous pull handles to pick and choose from (shown above). They’re also well known for their meads, which are extremely sweet and combine wine and honey. And if you’re hungry for some vino-inspired foods, they sell goodies like garlic riesling mayo, zinfandel orange mustard, merlot chocolate almonds and chardonnay havarti cheese. There are often free samples of these out, as well.

Grande River VineyardsGrand River Vineyards has an extremely charming ambiance, with bottles and knick-knacks set up around an oak room. The winery features numerous wines with quirky labels, for example, their “Havin’ A Cow” features a clothed cow sipping wine and jumping on a pogo stick. Their focus is on French-style wines, using grapes grown from western Colorado. A tasting of three is free, while five will cost $3.50.

Wine Tasting In The West Elks AVA

There are many excellent vineyards and wineries to visit within the West Elks AVA. This is where you’ll find the highest wineries in the northern hemisphere, making the products exceptionally unique. When I visited, my favorites were:

Terror Creek Winery– At 6,400 feet, Terror Creek Winery is the highest estate bottled winery and vineyard in the northern hemisphere. The winemaker, Joan Mathewson, is a woman who studied the craft in Switzerland, and came to Colorado to open her own boutique winery. She makes Alsatian-style wines, featuring a dry riesling, a spicy gewurztraminer, a unique chardonnay vinted without oak, a dry and fruity pinot noir and her own creation, a light red chalet. All grapes used to make wines are from western Colorado. From the tasting room, you’ll be able to look out at the vineyards and West Elk Mountains.

Azura– Another excellent place to stop into is Azura in Paonia, an art gallery and winery combined. The space features contemporary fine art from artists and sailors, Ty and Helen Gillespie. Not only is it beautiful inside, but also outside, as the winery has a relaxing courtyard overlooking the North Fork Valley.

Black Bridge Winery & Orchard Valley Farm Market– Also in Paonia is the Black Bridge Winery & Orchard Valley Farm Market. This place is unique in that it’s a lot more than just a winery. They sell and do tastings of boutique wines, while also being one of western Colorado’s only orchards and vineyards combined. You’ll be able to pick your own produce, while also purchasing homemade jams, honeys, sauces, dried fruits, nuts and meats.

Wine Trails

Numerous worthwhile wine trails reside in western Colorado. Some of the best include:

Front Range Wine Trail– This trail contains 24 wineries and tasting rooms from Cañon City, near the Royal Gorge, to Estes Park by Rocky Mountain National Park. You’ll head west on I-70, traversing through Georgetown, Dillon and Winter Park, while sampling wines at high altitude. Additionally, these areas feature opportunities for adventure sports like skiing, snowboarding, rafting and hiking.

Heart Of Colorado Wine Country Trail– Resting between Glenwood Springs’ famous hot springs pool and Fruita’s challenging mountain biking trails, this wine route encompasses both the Grand Valley AVA and the West Elks AVA. Follow I-70 along the Colorado River, from Palisade to the base of the Colorado National Monument, just west of Grand Junction. From there, you’ll be able to drive south on US Highway 50, passing Delta to visit the sweet corn capital of the world, Olathe. Afterwards, you’ll turn east at Delta onto CO Highway 92, veering north on CO Highway 65. Here you’ll find wineries along Surface Creek, on the south slope of Grand Mesa, the largest flattop mountain in the world. You can take the outer loop of the mountain, following the Gunnison River along CO Highway 92 east until you reach Hotchkiss for some tastings, before going to Paonia. The drive is very scenic, and offers many excellent opportunities for the lover of wine and nature.

Four Corners Region– This trail mixes history and scenery with wine. Start at Durango, home to the narrow gauge steam railway, then head west to Cortez and the Four Corners Region near Mesa Verde National Park. You’ll see ancient pottery shards, ancestral puebloan ruins and, of course, vineyards.

Upcoming Wine Events In Western Colorado

West Elk Wine Trail (August 4 to 5, 2012)- This event will help you experience wine, food and closeness to the land as you set off to venture the West Elk Wine Trail. The nine participating wineries will feature local food and wine pairings, activities and complimentary vino. Email lisafairbank@gmail.com if interested.

Food, Farm, Film And Wine Festival (August 10 to 12, 2012)- Taking place in Paonia, this event will focus on local foods, wines and films. Click here for more information.

Dinner In The Vineyard At Stone Cottage Cellars (August 18, 2012)- The event begins with barrel tastings with the winemaker at Stone Cottage Cellars, tours of the vineyard and wine making demonstrations. A five-course dinner follows, emphasizing the art of food and wine pairing. Contact info@stonecottagecellars.com if interested.

Colorado Mountain Winefest (September 13 to 16, 2012)- This year will be the event’s 21st anniversary. It is the largest wine festival in Colorado, and will include wine tastings, food, music, art, golf, celebrity chef dinners, demonstrations and winery and vineyard tours. Click here for more information.

Uncorked Wine And Music Festival (September 15, 2012)- Surrounded by the beautiful San Juan Mountains, attendees will listen to live music while sipping wine and sampling delicious local foods. Click here for more information.