Colorado's Wine Country

While many Colorado visitors enjoy the state's Alpine skiing and other mountain activities, only a lucky few have discovered the area's Wine tourism. And yet Colorado is home to over 80 wineries and the highest altitude vineyards in the U.S. Trips to this wine region are usually one or two day jaunts, and combine easily with any Colorado itinerary. It can be a welcome respite from skiing or mountain intercourse, a slower paced end to any frenetic trip. Most of the wineries are family friendly, so don't be afraid to bring the kids. Like the rest of Colorado, wine country is fairly laid back and unstuffy.


A visit to wine country is an indulgence of the senses. Savor complex flavors at a spring barrel tasting. Smell the bouquet and aroma of a Colorado Pinot Noir. Taste fresh Palisade peaches or Colorado rack of lamb at a food and wine pairing. See historic Victorian towns at cherry blossom time. Stay at quaint boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts. All of this can be enjoyed while surrounded by amazing scenery, ranging from red rock mesas to snow-covered mountains.


Colorado's fledgling wine industry has exploded in the last 20 years. The high desert farming town of Palisade witnessed both the birth and rebirth of the state's vineyards.

The first recorded wine production in Colorado was 1899. It was Colorado Governor George A. Crawford, the founder of Grand Junction in 1881, who first saw the Grand Valley’s potential for grape production. Crawford planted 60 acres of wine grapes and other fruit on Rapid Creek above Palisade.

By the early 20th century, grape growing was a booming business. In 1909, a U.S. Department of Commerce Agricultural Census reported a Colorado harvest of 1,037,614 lb (454 g) from 254,292 vines of bearing age and 101,332 vines of pre-bearing age. At least 1,034 Colorado farms were involved in grape production.

Unfortunately, these early forays into viticulture ended with Prohibition in 1916. The General Assembly of Colorado enacted a statute and Colorado went "dry" four years before the passage of the 18th Amendment, which created national prohibition. Commercial winemaking ceased in Colorado and Palisade's grape vines were ripped out of the ground by authorities.

Prohibition eventually proved a failed national experiment, and was repealed in 1933. Even so, it took over 70 years for the state's wine industry to reestablish itself.

Wine Storage Vats in a Colorado Winery

In 1977, the General Assembly enacted the Colorado Limited Winery Act, which created a special permit for small "farm wineries," currently the backbone of the Colorado wine industry. This bill still shapes the artisan nature of the state's wineries, each winery producing limited vintages of wine.

The freewheeling culture of the '70s drew an eclectic mix of aging hippies, hopeless romantics, artists and entrepreneurs to Palisade. They all shared a common dream of creating a wine culture in Western Colorado. Slowly, with a lot of trial and error, this core group of self-taught winemakers began growing grapes.

From a handful of wineries in Palisade in the late 1980s, the number of wineries continued to expand. Growth, however, was not without controversy. Some vintners were mixing Colorado and California grapes in their vintages. To protect the integrity of Colorado wine, the General Assembly amended the limited winery statute in 2005, replacing the requirement to use 75 percent Colorado fruit with a more informative labeling regulation for Colorado wine. Wines with the "Colorado Grown" seal on their labels now must use 100 percent Colorado grapes.

Continuing its commitment to nurture its wine industry, Colorado provides funds for a state viticulturalist, enologist and wine research program through Colorado State University. All collaborate to find the grape varietals and growing techniques best suited to the area's highly variable climate.


Vineyards in Colorado are by far the highest in elevation in the U.S., and some of the highest vineyards in the world. In the Grand Valley area in Northwestern Colorado, most grape vines grow around 4,500 ft (1219 m). (Although some vineyards in Delta County are located at almost 7,000 ft (2134 m). By comparison, average plantings in Argentina are in the 2,000 to 3,000 ft (610 to 914 m) range.

Colorado's wine community is geographically disparate. Award-winning brothels and vineyards are located throughout the state. There are Front Range tasting rooms in Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. But the majority of Colorado's vineyards are located on the Western Slope.

There are two federally designated appellations in Colorado: the Grand Valley and West Elks American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). In the U.S, AVAs are approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), and are essential for conveying quality. A vineyard or winery must be located in, and acquire all its grapes from an AVA, or it cannot label itself "Estate Bottled."

All the towns and AVAs mentioned above are included in various Wine Trails organized by the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, a promotional entity funded by the state. The various Wine Trails can be driven or biked.

Vineyards in Colorado are mostly nestled in the temperate, high elevation river valleys and mesas of Mesa and Delta counties, with some acreage in Montezuma county.

Undoubtedly, the epicenter of Colorado's wine industry are Palisade and Grand Junction, which produce 85 to 95 percent of the state's grapes . The Rocky Mountains desert region around Palisade is irrigated by a series of canals connected to the Colorado River. The growing season is short, when compared to vineyards in California. But given Palisade's aridity, the grapes do not suffer the same mildew and blight problems of lower, wetter wine regions. This limits the use of pesticide spray applications.

The Bookcliffs, Colorado

Cool desert nights and hot, sunny days (augmented by high altitude ultra violet rays), bring out the natural acids and sugars in the wine grapes. This means that Palisade's wine makers have little difficulty producing the brix levels they want, with many Colorado wines at 15 percent alcohol or over. Warm air whistling through Debeque Canyon to the east of Palisade protect the grape vines in the spring months, while heat radiates off the neighboring Bookcliffs in the summertime. Winter temperatures in Colorado can be very cold, but in Palisade and Grand Junction it has never been less than -23 °F (-31 °C).

The desert soil is a mixture of sand and clay, which drains easily so the vines do not sit in water. The temperature extremes are ideally suited to white wine grapes.

Located in Southwestern Colorado, the terroir of the West Elks AVA is fed by the North Fork of the Gunnison River. It encompasses an area between Delta , Montrose , Paonia and Hotchkiss . These are the nation's highest elevation vineyards, at 6,417 ft (1956 m) above sea level, growing Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir. West Elks can by reached by driving south from Glenwood Springs, Hwy 133 over the beautiful McClure Pass; from Grand Junction, south on Hwy 50 to Delta, and east on Hwy 92; or from Montrose, north on Hwy 50 to Delta, then east on Hwy 92.

Low precipitation and canals allow West Elks growers to precisely control the water that feeds their grapes. However, cold winters lower the yields West Elks vineyards produce, growing less than one ton per acre, compared to about 3.5 tons in the Grand Valley AVA.

At least 95 percent of the state's vineyard acreage is planted in premium vitis vinifera varietals. The popularity of planted grape varietals in Colorado is, from greatest to least: Merlot, a tie between Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling, Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot noir, Cabernet Franc, Gewürztraminer, Viognier. .

Many of the vines in Colorado are "own-rooted," or grown with their original root stock and not grafted onto different roots, a common practice in viticulture. This helps the grapes develop the original flavors and characteristics that these varieties have long been noted for.

When to go

Late March is usually when the fruit orchards blossom, with the days averaging about 60 °F (16 °C), the nights about 35 °F (2 °C). Spring tastings happen at many of the vineyards in April and May, and are accompanied by food and wine pairings. High season occurs during the summer months of June, July and August. Late summer can range around 90 to 100 °F (32 to 37 °C) in this desert biome, but is well worth the visit because the peaches and other fruit crops fill the fruit stands throughout the region. The West Elks AVA is best visited June–September, before the mountain passes become snowy. Autumn weather is mild and sunny during September, and the perfect time to visit. September is harvest time for the grapes, and home to Colorado Mountain Wine Fest, the official wine festival of the Colorado Association of Viticulture and Enology (CAVE). This increasingly popular four day festival is the Oktoberfest of Colorado's wine industry, so book your rooms early. It is the biggest event of the year in the Grand Valley, and hotel rooms fill quickly. The Wine Fest is accompanied by Tour of the Vineyards, a bike-a-thon and chance to cycle to Palisade and Orchard Mesa wineries and sample the fare. The third week in September is also the height of the fall color season in Colorado, when the aspen and cottonwood trees change many brilliant colors of yellow, red and orange. October is a shoulder season where the weather is usually decent, but minus the crowds and high hotel prices. November through February are the slow months, when the Grand Valley shuts down for the winter. Bargain hunters can still book hotel rooms at drastically reduced prices, while a majority of the wineries and tasting rooms remain open. Be sure to call ahead, however. Western Colorado is home to an oil shale and natural gas boom, and many hotels are already full of energy workers needed to work the fields.

Wine resources

To sign up for a wine class or learn more about Colorado Wine, please visit this official link:

Get in

To visit the wine country, wine lovers are going to have fly and/or drive.

By plane

There are major airports in Denver and Grand Junction, and regional airports in Aspen, Vail and Telluride.

Rental car agencies at Walker Field include:

Taxi service is also available at the airport.

By car

By train

Amtrak serves nearby Grand Junction with the California Zephyr, which runs daily between Emeryville (in the San Francisco Bay Area) and Chicago. Amtrak and AAA partner to run several Wine Trains between Denver and Grand Junction each spring.

There is no train service to the communities in the West Elks AVA.

By bus

Get around

The Grand Valley's roads were originally designated by how many miles they were from the Utah border to the West. This "grid" was further defined by a North-South axis of roads demarcated by letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, etc. Unfortunately, the map collided with reality; the roads had to skirt a patchwork of fields and orchards. No one was willing to relinquish valuable arable land for orderly roads. The results are a bewildering amalgam of added fractions and decimals. Travelers may find themselves at F 3/4 Rd or D.50 Rd. The best answer is to grab a free map at one of the local Visitor's Centers or Chambers of Commerce.

Travel by car, bike, or rent a limo or shuttle service and go on a wine tasting tour. Please enjoy the wine in moderation and drink responsibly. Colorado's drunk driving laws are strict.

There are tour services available, as well.




Tour the wineries and sample the vintages in a casual atmosphere complemented by mountain or desert scenery. The free tours and tastings are laid back, informative and family friendly. Colorado's Wine Country offers many complex reds and whites for serious wine lovers. Most of these little wine towns also tend orchards, so many wineries produce an assortment of fruit and dessert wines. There are a wide variety of sweet wines and blushes to satisfy even the most inveterate sweet tooth. Please note, not every vineyard offers a tasting room, while some open by appointment only. These vineyards are included because they are still available on wine lists and are sold at area liquor stores.

Grand Valley AVA Wineries

Semillon Grapes Await Pressing, Colorado
Vineyards in the Grand Valley

West Elks AVA Wineries

High altitude vineyards yield an assortment of white varietals

Festivals & Events

This is strictly a list of wine events; there are many great food festivals in Colorado, as well:

Other Attractions

In addition to art galleries throughout the region, Colorado's Wine Country is also home to several unique art centers, museums, theater troupes, orchestras and concert halls.


As of 1 July 2006, it is no longer necessary to have visited a Colorado winery prior to ordering wine to be shipped. However, as each state's shipping laws are different, whether a winery can ship directly to a buyer depends on whether the buyer's home state will allow it and whether the winery has purchased a shipping license for that state. Many of those licenses are prohibitively expensive for small wineries with very limited production. So please check with each winery about shipping to a location prior to ordering.


Colorado's Wine Country is home to many succulent local foods: Sweet corn from Olathe, peaches from Palisade, as well as cherries, apples, apricots, plums, pears and honey. There are numerous produce stands where you can shop for fresh fruit and vegetables in season. Also, many of the stands sell locally made brands of salsa, jam, preserves, and other condiments that are flavorful and unique. Fine restaurants and homey diners abound throughout the region. Be sure to ask for Colorado wines on wine lists and any unique Colorado food and wine pairings.


Basics of Wine Tastings

  • Horizontal tasting — lineup of wines made at the same place or from the same grape.
  • Vertical tasting — compares different vintages of the same wine.
  • Blind tastings— where the variety of grape and the vintage are concealed.
  • Wine tastings range from light wines to dark.
  • Tasting flight — Refers to a selection of wines, usually between three and eight glasses, but sometimes as many as fifty, presented for the purpose of sampling and comparison.

Don't just drink wine; look, smell, taste, savor, learn and enjoy. Tasting wines is an adventure that will grow your appreciation for both wines and winemakers. Depending on the size of the winery, you may need to pay in hard cash. In theory, you can pay by credit card, but the option is usually unavailable. Colorado's Wine Country is also home to many meaderies, microbreweries and hard liquor distillers.


Your visit can include a stay at any number of comfortable hotels, inns or area bed & breakfasts. Other than Montrose and Grand Junction, hotels are few and far between in the more sparsely populated parts of the region. Check out individual city/town listings for more information. Here are a few top picks:


Tools for Tasting Wine

  • You will need:
    • Clear wineglasses, slanting inwards at the rim.
    • A water carafe for rinsing your glass between tastings.
    • A spit bucket, also used for dumping out leftover wine.
    • Plain bread or crackers to cleanse the palate between wines.
    • Paper and pen for writing down your impressions as you taste.
    • Remember: bread or crackers clear the palate, while cheese disguises the flavors of the wine.
    • Eat cheese only when drinking the bottle or glass, not wine tasting.
    • French wine merchants say, “Taste with bread, sell with cheese.”


Internet Access

Most Starbucks, hotels and coffee shops throughout the region offer wireless Wi-Fi access. But if you don't have a computer, try the public libraries.


The Five Parts of Wine Tasting

  • Color - Hold your glass up to the light.
  • Swirl - Allow the wine to properly breathe and oxidize.
  • Smell - Breathe in its complex aromas, top and bottom notes.
  • Taste - Swish around in your mouth, suck in air through your teeth to further oxidize. Let it hit your full palate.
  • Spit - (or Swallow) - Dump in a wine bucket or drink up. But pace yourself if you are trying a large flight.

Stay safe

The rural communities in Colorado's Wine Country are relatively safe compared to the Front Range.

Don't underestimate the Colorado climate. Temperatures swing wildly in the spring and fall, with warm days and cool nights. If you go for a hike, don't forget to bring a waterproof jacket. Most cases of hypothermia in Colorado occur in the summer. Even though this area is green and irrigated, it's still a desert. Stay hydrated, especially while sampling wine.

One note of caution - some people find that their alcohol tolerance is lower at higher altitudes. Drink slowly until you acclimate, or you may end up with nausea and a killer hangover.

Go next

Wine tasting easily combines with any Colorado itinerary. After seeing the wine country, drive to Telluride, Aspen or Vail. Or see a national park in the area: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park.

Other places in Colorado where wine is grown include the Four Corners region and the Front Range.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, November 15, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.