Thriving on the vine: Colorado wine industry upbeat after couple of tough years

In Colorado wine country, it’s “crush” season and vineyards and wineries across the state are looking forward to a more bountiful year after enduring back-to-back crops marred by bad weather.

Marcel and Julie Flukiger, who own Aspen Peak Cellars, a winery and bistro in Bailey, were getting ready for their first delivery of grapes earlier this week.

“We’re excited to get crushing,” Julie said.

Crushing, or breaking the grapes, is the first step in the process. Like most wine makers today, they use machines, not the traditional practice of stomping barefoot through the grapes.

The Flukigers are happy to have grapes on the way. Sudden cold snaps near the end of the harvests in 2019 and 2020 heavily damaged the Colorado crops. The vines were recovering in 2021, and this year the production is rebounding, Marcel said.

“We were not able to get any (Colorado) grapes last year at all. That was tough,” Julie said.

The Flukigers were still able to use grapes from California and Washington state.

“What we’ve seen in the vineyards looks really nice and what we’ve heard from other winemakers is that the grapes are of good quality and look really nice,” Marcel said.

Looking up

The abundance and quality of this season’s crop is a big improvement over the past couple of years, said Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a record-setting year,” Caskey said. “But given some of the damage that we’ve seen the last few years, it’s a relief that the vines are coming back from a difficult period.”

About 80% Colorado wine grapes are grown on the Western Slope. Caskey said most of the grapes come from The Grand Valley, stretching from Palisade to Grand Junction along the Colorado River.

Colorado has about 170 wineries and 200 grape growers, many of whom also have wineries. The wine board said the industry’s total annual impact on the state’s economy is roughly $300 million, which includes tourism generated by wineries.

Toward the end of harvests in October 2019 and 2020, many of the grapes in western Colorado were devastated when temperatures plunged by 70 to 80 degrees over a 24-to-48-hour period. The biggest blow was to the vitis vinifera varieties, the common wine grape that’s native to Europe.

“We essentially lost between 70% and 100% of vitis vinifera vines,” Caskey.

Although the vines might not be permanently damaged, Caskey said it can take up to two years to recover from that kind of weather. As a result, the 2021 harvest was lean.

“There appears to be a much higher crop this year compared to last year, especially for the European wine grape or common grape that were hit the previous couple of years,” Horst Caspari, Colorado State University professor and state viticulturist, said in a statement.

An annual report by Caspari for the state wine industry said the buds of the “cold-hardy” varieties suffered minor or no damage from the extreme weather.

Colorado tough

The grapes hit the hardest by the abrupt drop in temperatures were the varieties that produce the wines most people have heard of, including cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot. Grape varieties considered to be more cold-tolerant fared much better, Caskey said.

“The cold-tolerant grapes really became the champions,” Caskey said.

The grapes are hybrids, usually a cross of European varieties and grapes native to North America. Caskey said the grapes are better suited to Colorado’s climate and are usually more disease-resistant.

“There are wines out there made from grapes that people may not be familiar with: Chambourcin, St. Vincent or Aromella,” Caskey said. “For years, everybody said they don’t make good wine, but that’s because no one was treating them with respect.”

Wines made with hybrid grapes were among those winning top honors at this year’s Colorado Governor’s Cup Winemaking Competition in August. Caskey said the judges included people from around the country: sommeliers, wine buyers, masters of wine and writers.

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The Flukigers at Aspen Peak Cellars brought home a double gold, a gold and a silver from the Governor’s Cup. “We had a pretty amazing show. Eleven of our 12 wines won,” Marcel said.

Aspen Peak Cellars sold out of six of the eight types of wine it took to a recent festival. Wine making started out as a hobby for the Flukigers when Marcel bought Julie a wine-making kit in 2005. The two ran a bed and breakfast and restaurant in Conifer.

“We started entering competitions and winning some awards,” Julie said. “We’re both trained chefs, so we kind of thought, ‘Well, we can make a business out of this.’”

The couple plan to soon add dinner hours to the lunch menu at their bistro. They also plan to keep making wine. Marcel, who is originally from the Lucerne part of Switzerland, said the best way to introduce people to Colorado wines is by word of mouth.

“I think that’s the best way of advertising,” said Marcel, “and to grow from the inside out.”