Colorado Grand Valley’s reputation for outstanding fruit goes back to the turn of the century. World-class Palisade Peaches have been stocked in the galley of Air Force One — the presidential air limo — since at least the Nixon Administration. Last fall, the juicy fruit enticed Michelle Obama to bring the girls to the Grand Valley to pick tree-ripened peaches. In an area so prime for fruit growing, it is not surprising that winemakers would eventually discover this little spot of heaven, and now so can you.
The lush Grand Valley AVA lies at the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers, at the foot of the cold Rocky Mountains western slope. The viticultural area includes a trilogy of visitor-friendly towns to explore: Fruita, Grand Junction and Palisade.
“In this valley, vinifera – grapes from the original European vines – grow very well. We don’t have to rely on hybrids and clones,” says Bob Witham, owner of Two Rivers Winery & Chateau in Grand Junction. “Our wines are in the French style which is appropriate for this area. The high desert sun sugars up the grapes and cold nights allow them to rest. We say, ‘sugar up and rest, sugar up and rest’ – it gives intense fruit qualities to the wine, but with less acids and nice tannins.”
Witham, a past president of the Colorado Wine Board, shares how over a decade ago he serendipitously got into the wine business. “One evening after sitting around sampling Colorado wine, I asked my family, ‘Why is it that they can carry around Colorado peaches on the presidential airplane and Colorado wine is not so good?’ We continued the conversation the next day. The result of that conversation is this winery,” says Witham, standing inside a multi-building complex designed in the style of a French country manor surrounded by acres of vineyards. After touring Two Rivers’ barrel room, bed and breakfast and outdoor terraces with views of the Colorado National Monument, I enjoy “always complimentary” tastings of their award-winning wines. (www.tworiverswinery.com)
“Estate grown fruit is my claim to fame,” says Theresa High of High Country Orchards & Vineyards in Palisade. On this fabulous agri-tour, I experience how 40,000 boxes of peaches are sustainably grown, picked and shipped to Whole Foods and other outlets each year. High is a Whole Foods’ “Featured Farmer” and her passion for premium products shines through in the carefully manicured grounds, high-tech packaging facility and new solar array that powers the farm and tasting room. It was here that Michelle Obama and her entourage came to pick peaches. I’m taking home some of the same peaches and fruit preserves — like Peach Jalapeno Preserves — that Mrs. O did.
I’m impressed with High’s Bordeaux-style Colterris Cabernet Sauvignon. Scott High, Theresa’s husband, explains that one component to the success of the wine is the Grand Valley’s clay loam soil. “This was once a sea bed. There is also a sub-base of carbon volcanic soil. The key is choosing where to grow,” says Scott High pointing out the surrounding mesas which keep the warm air inside the valley and make this such an agricultural haven. (www.highcountryorchards.com)
While in Palisade, rent cruiser bikes with baskets to fill with box lunches from Mumzels’ Crumpets, Cups & Cones. It’s a leisurely ride from vineyard to orchard to fruit stand. Eat lunch at one of Palisades green areas where you can find more parks than in any other Colorado town. (www.rapidcreekcycles.com)
Don’t want to self-power via bicycle? Have a stretch H2 Hummer pick you up at your hotel or B & B. The $175/hour ride includes water, soft drinks and glassware for wines you might buy to enjoy en route to the next winery. Other limo options include stretch F350 Ford pick-up limo, Excursion stretch limo and Lincoln Town Cars at different rates. (Absolute Prestige Limousine Service: www.aplimo.com) You might even be able to convince Shirleen to harness up the horses for a carriage tour.
With over 21 wineries and tasting rooms in the Grand Valley, it’s hard to choose, but each place has its own character. I recommend Carlson Vineyards, making Colorado wines since 1988. “We’ll start to crush cherries on Wednesday,” says pourer Garrett, also known as a cellar rat. “Our fruit wine is 100% of the fruit that is on the label. That makes for a lighter and fresher wine than a grape wine that simply has fruit syrup added.” Buy a bottle of the Tyrannosaurus Red crafted from 100% Colorado-grown Lemberger grapes and sit in the shady backyard in deep, wooden Adirondack lawn chairs. The wine is named to commemorate the T-Rex dinosaur bones discovered in the Grand Valley. (www.carlsonvineyards.com)
Don’t miss Meadery of the Rockies where honey wine meets the cherries, peaches, apples and apricots of the area. Owner Glenn Foster grew up in the wine business when his father founded Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma. “We were glass droppers as children,” laughs Foster referring to the old, labor-intensive bottling methods. Today his state-of-the-art Italian equipment bottles, labels and seals the wine in seconds. Visitors come from as far away as Japan and even Emilio Estevez stopped by for a tasting last month. Foster also owns two other Palisade wineries: St. Kathryn Cellars and Talon Winery. (www.meaderyoftherockies.com)
After a behind the scenes tour of the meadery, cool off on a Palisade Wine Country Float Trip. Rafting guides will pick you up and, after 2-3 hours on the river, drop you off. I enjoyed learning about the Bookcliff Mountains and Mount Garfield from the water. (www.palisaderivertrips.com)
The following day, head to Fruita to view some of those dinosaur bones at the Dinosaur Journey Museum. Or golf in Grand Junction at Redlands Mesa which is consistently ranked as one of America’s greatest public golf courses by Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, Sports Illustrated and Golfweek. My stay at the Courtyard by Marriott, centrally located in Grand Junction, was complemented by a spacious room and outdoor spa area located next to a full canal of cool water. (www.marriott.com/hotels/hotel-deals/gjtcy-courtyard-grand-junction)
Less than a day’s drive from Phoenix, the Grand Valley offers an abundance of fun, fruit, water and wine experiences. I’m going back!
FUN FACT: One of Arizona’s newest wineries – Sand-Reckoner, in Willcox, AZ is owned and operated by Rob and Sarah Hammelman. Rob was the head winemaker at Two Rivers Winery in Grand Junction from 2004 to 2008. Rob brings his experience and knowledge of high elevation viticulture with him to Arizona where he has noted similar growing practices.