Naomi Shepherd-Smith recalls a time when the fledgling Colorado wine industry was something of a novelty and some tourists were more interested in taking home a bottle with a Colorado label than drinking what was inside.
But like the fine wines its produces, the industry since has matured, says Shepherd-Smith, manager and co-owner of Grande River Vineyards in Palisade.
More than 100 wineries now operate in Colorado, selling products not only in tasting rooms, but also liquor stores and restaurants. By one estimate, the wine industry contributes nearly $42 million to the state economy through wine sales and wine-related tourism, although that figure is five years old and was likely conservative to begin with.
Colorado grape growers and wineries not only have increased the quantity of their production, but also the diversity and quality.
Wineries bottle an increasing variety of wines that consistently hold their own in international judging. And consumers definitely want to drink what’s inside.
Shepherd-Smith says the evolution of the Colorado wine industry has been remarkable and ongoing. While the increasing number of wineries in the state makes competition for market share that much more fierce, it’s also helped in establishing the industry. The growing interest in purchasing locally produced foods also bodes well for wineries, she says.
“The industry is moving. The industry is definitely going forward.”
Doug Caskey has observed the growth of the wine industry for 10 years as director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.
The board promotes and helps market Colorado wines and wine-related tourism as well as supports research and experimentation.
“I’m still really excited about the growth and the growth rate,” Caskey says.
The number of wineries in Colorado has grown from just a handful 20 years ago to more than 100 spread out across the state. Wineries operate not only in the grape-growing regions of Western Colorado, but also the urban areas of the Front Range. Over the past 10 years alone, wine production has increased from about 279,000 liters to nearly 1 million liters.
Wine grape production similarly has increased and in 2009 topped 1,665 tons from a total of about 800 to 850 acres of producing vineyards. While wineries are located all over Colorado, grape production is concentrated in the Grand Valley and Western Colorado.
Nearly 86 percent of 2009 production came from Mesa County, while Delta County accounted for 8.7 percent and Montrose County accounted for 3.1 percent.
Caskey says grape growers and wineries produce not only more wine, but also different types of wines.
Merlot remains the top varietal in Colorado, accounting for about 20 percent of production in 2009. Other popular varietals include riesling, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and chardonnay. But Caskey says it’s telling the third largest proportion of grape production by variety is labeled “other” — meaning other new varietals and hybrids.
Along with increasing quantity and diversity, the Colorado wine industry also produces a higher quality product, Caskey says.
Individual vintages have won medals at international competitions all along. But as grape growers and wine makers have gained experienced, they’ve produced consistently better wines. “We’ve had a major change in quality. We’re seeing some outstanding wines.”
The efforts have resulted in a growing wine industry and a growing contribution to the Colorado economy, Caskey says.
According to the results of a study conducted by Colorado State University, the wine industry contributed $21.1 million from direct wine sales and another $20.6 million from wine-based tourism to the economy in 2005. Caskey says that estimate was “very conservative” in 2005 and since increased beyond that.
Shepherd-Smith says the operation of Grand River Vineyards also has changed over the years, reflecting changes in the wine industry.
When Stephen Smith founded Grande River Vineyards in 1987, it was only the fifth licensed winery in Colorado. Smith quickly established one of the largest grape growing operations in the state, supplying grapes not only to other wineries in Colorado, but also wineries in other states.
Grande River sold a portion of its vineyards about four years ago. Some of the acreage went to make room for the nearby Wine Country Inn, while other acreage remained in grapes and was sold to other growers.
As overall wine grape production has increased in Colorado, Shepherd-Smith says Grande River has shifted its focus to bottling a growing variety of wines, including reds, whites and blended wines as well as dessert wines and the only true ice wine in Colorado made from grapes frozen on the vine. Grande River will introduce three new products at the upcoming Colorado Mountain Winefest: a malbec, petite verdot and tawny port.
As for the future, Shepherd-Smith says she has high hopes for Grande River Vineyards and the Colorado wine industry.
As growers and wineries work with researchers to determine which grape varietals perform best in a given location, wines will continue to improve. Meanwhile, Shepherd-Smith expects demand for Colorado wines to continue to increase along with interest in locally grown foods and agricultural products.
No longer a novelty, the Colorado wine industry will keep evolving, she says. “It see it changing in a much more positive direction.”