Grand Junction Wine with Dr. Stephen Menke

Landscapes and Lifestyles in Colorado’s Wine

Grand Junction
Getting to Grand Junction from Denver International Airport is easy.  Whether you drive through, or fly over the mountains, the trip is worth the effort. Or, if time is not your concern, you could take a leisurely Amtrak train.  Go west through Colorado’s world-class ski resorts.  Continue through the snow capped peaks and passes.  The mountains gently descend into canyons and the canyons, in turn, open slowly into the Grand Valley.

Cradled in between Colorado’s National Monument, the Book Cliffs and Grand Mesa, the Grand Valley is home to eighteen wineries.  Fed by the Rocky Mountain snows melting into the Colorado River, the valley’s wineries dot the irrigated mesas.  The scenic beauty and idyllic charm masks the fragile balance of life underneath.  Late spring and early autumn freezes make wine making an art and a risk, taken only by those with strong hearts and undying passion.

The culture in Grand Junction emulsifies wine and food and landscape into daily life.  The restaurants flourish in this small town and the cuisine is superb.  The sunny weather begs you bask outside, exploring wineries, tasting rooms and cafes, all the while pondering the visible effects of nature on the wildly different landscapes around the valley.  Just when you thought your day was perfectly complete, with wine and food and activities, the landscape invites you to feel the inspiration of forces far beyond our daily lives.

The Wine Makers
Dr. Stephen Menke, Parker Carlson, Glenn Foster, and Jenny Baldwin

“When were you planning to clip those vines, Glenn?” Parker asks.  “I just did them today.”  Glenn responds, grinning.  The two continue the conversation, both smiling and jesting about their neighboring vineyards and the longstanding, friendly competition that has become their lives.

The conversation flows as freely as the wine at Il Bistro, a downtown Grand Junction favorite for its hand made pasta and authentic Italian cuisine.  The table is full of wine and food as we try award-winning varieties perfectly matched, course by course, from Plum Creek Winery, the Colorado Wine Room, Confre Cellars, and Carlson Vineyards.  Looking around the table, I realize that the winemakers have spent long years developing the scene we enjoy tonight.

Grapes were first planted in the Grand Valley in 1881.  Since 1991, the industry has enjoyed a 750% growth.  In recent years, Colorado has become a contender in many Wine Competitions, often surpassing California wines and finding their footing with Cabernet Franc, Late Harvest Sweet Categories, Rieslings, Sangiovese and Port.  Additionally, fruit wines and meads (honey wines) enhance the wine makers repertoire, using the valleys orchard fruit for superb peach and plum wines.

The day after our dinner, Colorado’s wine expert, Enologist Dr. Stephen Menke, led me through Palisades, a small town minutes from the heart of Grand Junction.  As a classic bon vivant, he shares readily, with a quick smile and earthy presence.  What’s your favorite wine Steve?  I ask.  “The one in front of me.” he responds. I laugh, relieved that I don’t have to live through an uppity expert on this trip.  It just wouldn’t fit the scene anyway—extreme mountains, desert, contrasted with budding vineyards and sun—it is as if the landscape itself decided that pretenses wouldn’t fit here.

Our day through Palisade wineries began with tasting at Two Rivers Winery and Chateau.  The newly built, deluxe winery uses state of the art equipment to create its award winning wines.  The 2006 Merlot won the Orange County Fair gold medal.  The Syrah, perfect with heavier foods won a bronze at the 2008 Monterey International. Their 2006 Riesling won the 2008 Monterey International silver medal.  Both the Syrah and the Riesling are well suited to the region’s soil ph and temperature….and balance blossoms, fruit, spices and herbs in an elegant composition of tannins, fruit, acid, body and after taste.

In between wineries, Dr. Menke’s wine expertise spilled into the land and weather as he described in minute detail the valley’s weather patterns and differing soil ph—both indicators of which vines would grow best—a Syrah here, better to plant a Riesling there.  His expertise fascinates me as he animates the spring day, and I sense his attachment to the land.  At lunch, we bemoan the politics of our country…..and his attachment to the land resurfaces.  “I have come to see making wine as radical, through our use of the land, we are creating a lifestyle and statement that all life is interwoven.  When you drink a glass of wine in Grand Junction that was made here, it makes the land significant in our day.”  I think about it and nod.

Our next stop is at Carlson Vineyards.  Parker Carlson understands the wine tourist’s need for discovery and personal experience.  His Siamese cat patrols the tasting room and inspired one of Parker’s favorite labels—Laughing Cat.  (Other labels include Pinotsaurus Red—in honor the valley’s many dinosaur discoveries and museums.) All of which Parker will happily describe as he pours a T-Red Lemberger and a not yet released 2007 Chardonnay.  To explore the sweets, he dips a wine glass rim in melted Endstrom’s chocolate (founded in Grand Junction) and pours a dry cherry wine.  The cherry wine over chocolate combination provides the perfect after lunch treat—not too heavy and not too sweet.

We continue on to the Meadery of the Rockies, where we meet up with Glenn Foster.  (The same Glenn Foster Parker had teased about trimming his vines the night before.)  Glenn pours Mead (Honey Wine) starting with the driest with notes of wood, honey and beeswax to the sweetest, with notes of butterscotch and jasmine.  I’m surprised by the lingering scent of orange blossoms after every sip, which Glenn explains, come from the orange blossom the bees are fed to make the honey.

Our last stop is  Plum Creek Winery….a winery that reminds me of Two Rivers, with its obvious investment in the best equipment and techniques.  Winemaker, Jenny Baldwin, takes us on a tour of the winery.  Plum Creek winery uses only grapes grown in Colorado for its Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Sangiovese.  It is the state’s most award winning winery, and the attention to detail and excellence shows in Jenny’s work.

As we end our day and say goodbye, Dr. Menke gives me two bottles, one Asian Plum and one Pomegranate wine, from Confre Cellars.  Fruit orchards grow alongside vineyards in the Grand Valley.  Creative wine makers extend their expertise and expand their repertoire by creating local favorites made from pomegranate, plums, and elderberries, just to name a few. Steve mentions that both should go very well with spicy Asian food and may be popular wines for Asian markets.

I think about the land and wine and food and wonder that really we are all connected.  Asian Plum wine, grown in Grand Junction, paired with spicy Asian food, eaten by an American travel writer for Appetite…. all connected to the land through the wine.

Activities by the Bunch

Endless ways of enjoying wine, food, scenery and the moment are available in Grand Junction….only limited by your curiosity, imagination and taste for adventure.  For those of you who prefer structured activities, there are many to choose from. September’s Wine Festival offers a unique opportunity to discover wines, participate in the harvest and enjoy the festivities.  Once you establish a base camp (easy enough to do with your days are yours to explore.  In town, you can walk, jog, bike or rollerblade on the Riverfront Trail—30 miles of paved scenic pathway skirting the edge of the Colorado River.  Excellent restaurants (Il Bistro is my favorite) and cafes pair Grand Junction wines with food.  Five public golf courses are at your service. And that is just a start.

Yearly Schedule includes
April 24—27    Fruita Fat Tire Festival
April 26—27    Spring Barrel Tasting
May 9—11    Downtown Art & Jazz Festival
May 10    Gateway Canyons Classic Auto Fest
May 17—18    Spring Barrel Tasting
May 24—31    Junior College Baseball World Series
June—September    Downtown Farmer’s Market, Thursday Evenings
June 26—29    Country Jam USA Music Festival
August 24    Tour of the Valley Bike Ride
September 5-6    Rock Jam Music Festival
September 5-7    Colorado Pro Rodeo Finals
September 18-21    Colorado Mountain Winefest
September 20    Tour of the Vineyards Bicycle Tour
Spetember 26—28    Air Show with the Blue Angels
September 26-28    Downtown Car Show
December 6    Winter Festival and Parade of Lights

Two Rivers Winery
2087 Broadway
Grand Junction, Colorado 81503
(970) 255-1471

Carlson Vineyards Winery
461 35 Road
Palisade, CO 81526
(970) 464-5554

Meadery of the Rockies
3701 G Road
Palisade, CO 81526

Plum Creek Cellars, Ltd
3708 G Road
Palisades, Colorado 81526
(970) 464-7586

Confre Cellars
785-37 3/10 Road
Palisades, Colorado 81526
(970) 464-1300

il Bistro Italiano
400 Main Street
Grand Junction, CO 81501
(970) 243-8622
(970) 243-8539 fax