Vintage effort nears end

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Stephen Smith has demonstrated for more than 30 years that while oil and water don’t mix, oil and wine definitely do. Even as Smith managed his energy development business, he grew his vineyards and winery into one of the largest operations in Colorado.

Sitting in a second-floor office at Grande River Vineyards in Palisade and looking back on a career that’s bridged two very different industries, Smith says he’s grateful. “It’s just been a great life, a great experience to see it unfold the way it has.”

He expects at least part of that life to change.

Smith has listed Grande River Vineyard and the property on which it’s located for sale. While Smith hopes to find a buyer interested in a turnkey winery operation, he says he’s willing to consider other proposals for what could offer a prime location for commercial or retail development.

The 9,400-square-foot-building that houses Grande River Vineyard includes a tasting room and retail area, two offices and wine production and storage area. The parking lot accommodates more than 100 vehicles, and the site also includes an amphitheater that’s long served as a venue for summer concerts. The operation sits on 5 acres.

Grande River Vineyards is listed with Fruit & Wine Real Estate in Palisade for $3,990,000.

Smith says he willing to sell the winery and real estate together or separately. Another 5-acre parcel located west of the winery isn’t part of the listing, but also is available.

Located near Exit 42 off Interstate Highway 70, Smith considers Grande River Vineyard one of the most accessible and visible wineries in the Grand Valley, a proverbial gateway to the Colorado wine country.

But after growing grapes and making wines since 1987, Smith says he’s ready for a change. “It’s time to start thinking about doing something else. It’s time to put it on the market.”

Like others in the wine industry, Smith says what started out as an avocation became a vocation — and for him, one of two business ventures.

Smith has worked in the energy sector since he graduated from Drury University in his hometown of Springfield, Mo., in 1974. He worked for two years for Gulf Oil before launching Stephen Smith Inc., an oil and gas exploration and development firm.

Smith says he works as what’s called in the industry a landman — someone who negotiates for and acquires the rights to explore and develop oil and natural gas.

Smith says he works with geologists to identify promising areas for exploration, acquires leases and presents the deals to energy companies. He says he’ll keep a financial interest in  the project, which can pay off if oil and natural gas are produced. Smith relocated his business from Wyoming to Denver in 1980.

At about the same time, Smith says he began to pursue his interest in wine by learning more about growing grapes and making wines. He joined with some friends in acquiring some grapes and made wine with what he recalls was a surprising result. “It was a killer wine.”

It was then, Smith says, he realized consistently high-quality wines could be made from grapes grown in the Grand Valley. He purchased a foreclosed property on East Orchard Mesa and in the spring of 1987 planted his first vineyards.

Smith moved to the Grand Valley in 1989 in part to raise a family in a smaller community and in part to live closer to his vineyard and what became a commercial winery. Grande River Vineyards was just the fifth winery to receive a license in Colorado.

Smith initially sold most of the grapes grown on his property to other wineries, which he says promoted the early growth of the industry. Smith’s grape growing operation grew into the largest in the state and supplied wineries not only in Colorado, but eight other states, he says.

Grande River Vineyards fermented its first wine in 1990 and Smith opened the winery at its present location in 1994. He says he acquired the land along Interstate Highway 70 because of the visibility and accessibility it offered.

Grande River Vineyards now produces about 5,000 cases of wine a year and offers 20 different products, Smith says. “The customers seem to want them.”

Smith says he’s seen substantial changes in both the wine and energy industries over the course of his career.

Colorado is now home to more than 150 wineries. Production for the 2018 fiscal year totaled nearly 179,000 cases.

Along with an increase in the quantity of wine produced in Colorado, there’s been an increase in quality, Smith says. “I’m very proud of what the Colorado wine industry has accomplished and what it’s going to be.”

Technological advances in oil and natural gas exploration and production have made the United States the top energy producer in the world.

Smith says it’s been rewarding to play a role in those transformations. But what’s been most gratifying, he says, is the relationships he’s developed over the years. He’s benefited from the support of mentors and served as a mentor himself. “I’ve worked with really great people in both businesses.”

Even if oil and water don’t mix, Smith has demonstrated for more than 30 years that oil and wine definitely do.