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An early freeze loomed for Colorado’s grapes, but wine drinkers’ evolving taste is the real threat

As varieties like riesling — which grows well in the Grand Valley — fall out of fashion, wine grape growers are in a delicate balance of supply and demand.

Crews from Talbott Farms, the largest grape producer in Colorado, rush to harvest before a hard freeze near Palisade, on Oct. 10, 2019. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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It’s grape harvest season in the Grand Valley, and that means it’s time to ponder an emerging wine-country dichotomy. Vintners were recently scrambling to save their grapes as an early freeze settled in and temperatures plunged into the low 20s. But, in the next few months, some of these same growers will be struggling to find markets for certain varieties of grapes. Some of that fruit will go to waste.

The supply of wine grapes has outstripped the demand in Colorado’s prime wine country.

Last year about 400 tons of grapes were left on the vines and went unused, unless one takes into account birds that feasted on the grapes after they shriveled on the vine. 

This year isn’t expected to be much different in the Grand Valley American Viticulture Area.

This freeze turned the leaves in the vineyards to a crinkled brown but didn’t harm the glut of grapes. The low temperatures didn’t stick around long enough to freeze and split the fruit. Plus, the dead foliage actually made it easier for pickers to see the grape clusters and speed up the harvest.

But the threat of freeze had growers sizing up potential losses as they considered what to save and what to sacrifice. On the save-first list were the more coveted grapes like the malbecs and barberas. They were either picked quickly or sprinklers were turned on to freeze the ground beneath them — a last-ditch measure that helps hold cold air nearer to the ground and increases temperatures at grape-level. Some of the old standbys, like riesling and merlot, and some hybrids, including Frontenac and Marquette, were left for last.

“We triaged our grapes,” explained Bruce Talbott of Talbott Farms, the largest grape producer in the state. “We looked at what we have orders for, what are the least protected and what are the most valuable varieties.”

Migrant workers harvest grapes for Talbott Farms near Palisade in advance of a hard freeze. Talbott Farms boss Bruce Talbott said the workers were doing triage, rushing to get the most valuable fruit in and leaving the rest to possibly freeze. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

With that freeze crisis in the past, many of the valley’s 2,200 tons of grapes are now safely in crushers and tanks as picking is continuing in temperatures that have moved back into Indian summer zones.

That means it is time for growers to contemplate the long game and the future demand for grapes, said Horst Caspari, who for 20 years has been the Grand Valley’s resident wine expert as a viticulturist with the Colorado State University Western Colorado Research Center.

“This was a good reminder year,” Caspari said about the surprise mid-October freeze.

Caspari said growers will, for now, be focusing on finding markets for some of their less-in-demand varieties. Last year, Caspari was able to find a market in Minnesota for some of the unsold grapes after a crop failure in that state. Some growers froze grape juice while hunting for buyers, or they saved it for fermenting in future years. At one point, Caspari said, there were 150 tons of juice in wine-country freezers.

There are a variety of reasons for the too-many-grapes dilemma.

For one thing, tastes for wine varieties are changing. Riesling grapes grow well in the Grand Valley so more than 280 tons are grown, but the wine is no longer that popular. Neither is merlot.

The bulk of vineyard development is now taking place on the Front Range. As more small vineyards are planted there, that has cut into the demand for Western Slope grapes. 

Talbott Farms worker Alvaro Rubio harvests grapes near Palisade. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Another factor is a five-year stretch of good weather during growing seasons that the Grand Valley just experienced. The area had no grape-bursting freezes (only a few scares) after deep cold that decimated the vineyards in 2013 and 2014. Five years without damaging freezes have meant hefty grape harvests.

That weather lull also left some growers feeling braver about the Grand Valley weather. They took more gambles by increasing acreages of popular varieties that have longer growing seasons. The malbecs, mourvèdres and barberas don’t ripen until weeks later than many other varieties – pushing the envelope for the average first killing frosts in the tail end of October.

Saving those late varieties this fall prompted S.O.S calls from the vineyards for volunteer pickers this year.

Red Fox Cellars put out a Facebook plea and had 30 pickers who showed up to strip the vines in a single day.

At Restoration Vineyards, where owners Gary and Linda Brauns’ most popular wine is a barbera, they turned on sprinklers to freeze the ground throughout the vines and then waited nervously. The fat bunches of purple grapes survived for the last stages of ripening.

Down the road at Talbott’s, Bruce Talbott had his 40-person crew clipping off cabernet francs and malbecs first. They moved into the chardonnays and rieslings later. Talbotts grows 700 tons and had more than 200 tons still on the vines when the freeze came. Working at top speed, his pickers could harvest 30 tons a day. He sent some of them out to help other growers with their most valuable varieties.

At Grande River Vineyards, vineyard operations manager Prescott Bell was more relaxed about both the freeze and the supply dilemma. On day one of the freeze, he had a small crew of pickers working to the sound of a boombox cranking norteña music. He said some grapes will be left on the vines again this year because there is not a market for them.

“We have a lot of fruit. We need some more wineries,” Bell said.

Margarito Moreno, center, and other workers from Talbott Farms clip grapes from vines. Some vineyards tried to save their crops by freezing the ground below the vines to draw cold air closer away from the still-ripening fruit. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Grande River is for sale. So are two other of the oldest wineries in the state — Colorado Cellars and Plum Creek Winery. Bell said he believes having those wineries cutting back production has also affected the grape demand in the Grand Valley.

While this season works itself out, Caspari is looking more at the big picture and the future. He said growers need to assess the oversupply of certain varieties of grapes. For the last decade, he has been pushing the planting of cold-hardy varieties. Some growers have listened. More haven’t. Caspari said cold-hardy hybrids such as Frontenac and Marquette can address three problems in the Colorado wine industry: the freezing risk, the menace of an aphid that snuck into the valley two years ago, and the need for more affordable Colorado wines.

He said the hybrids could give Colorado decent $10 bottles of entry-level wine – something currently missing.

The hybrids are also resistant to the aphid called phylloxera that feeds on vine roots and damages vines by blocking water and nutrient flow. The vines eventually die. This insect has affected about 100 acres in the Grand Valley since it was discovered in 2017. Cold-hardy American hybrids are resistant to phylloxera while the European varieties have no resistance.

The good news for Colorado wine drinkers is that none of this behind-the-vine angst and change should come through in the products going into bottles in the Grand Valley this fall.

“I think the quality is going to be good again this year,” Caspari said. “I have tasted about 50 varieties, and they are all nice.”

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