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Western Slope vineyards bubble over with young wine drinkers raised on fizzy beverages

Sparkling wines open the door, but Colorado wineries appeal to younger tastes with unconventional grapes and labels that read natural non-GMO, gluten-free and 100% vegan

From left, Juliette Kaplan, Courtlyn Carpenter, Andrew Sturtz and Madeline Kil, all of Boulder, listen to Michelle West’s tasting notes at Sauvage Spectrum winery in Palisade, Colo., Saturday, July 31, 2021. In addition to more traditional varieties, Sauvage Spectrum offers wine cocktails and Sparklet, their signature line of sparkling wines. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Four Front Range millennials are tasting wines at Sauvage Spectrum winery in Palisade following a morning of river rafting and hiking. As they work their way through plastic cups of unfiltered and sparkling wines nestled in muffin tins, the conversation around their outdoor table goes like this:

“This reminds me of kombucha, which I love.”

“Definitely, this tastes hoppy.”

“I am kind of obsessed with these sparklings.”

“I think the natural wines are really exciting.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

There is no serious, nose-in-the-glass talk about detecting fruit-forward flavors with undertones of mushroom and leather. There is no swirling and spitting. Your boomer grandparents’ typical type of visit to wine country is out the window with this crowd.

Colorado’s wine industry may be half a century old, but a young vibe has busted out in many of the Grand Valley wineries. It is driven by a younger generation of winery owners, young tradition-challenging wine makers, and a trend of younger people adding wines to their penchant for beer-drinking.

It is also thanks, in no small part, to bubbles. A slew of sparkling wines is appealing to a crowd that entered adulthood in breweries.

“They are more my speed,” 24-year-old Juliette Kaplin said of the sparkling wines in her muffin tin at Sauvage Spectrum.  

But winemakers are finding ways beyond bubbles to appeal to those born after John Lennon was shot and Mount St. Helens erupted. They are marketing to the younger oenophiles by adding edgy artwork to their labels. They are putting some wines into cans or growlers. They are topping some with beer-style bottle caps rather than corks. They are tagging their products with attributes that the younger generation are drawn to: all natural, non-GMO, gluten-free, 100% vegan.

“We decided, ‘let’s market like a brewery. Let’s be cool,’” Sauvage Spectrum’s winemaker Patric Matysiewski, 35, explained. He partnered with grape grower Kaibab Sauvage, 41, three years ago to produce wines from hybrid grapes that Sauvage has been growing for other wineries for years.

“We are challenging people to try new styles of wines,” Matysiewski said, rather than catering to “conventional wine drinkers” – a code word for older imbibers.

New energy rolling on rental e-bikes, Segways and pedicabs

In Colorado’s most concentrated wine country around Palisade, that kind of attitude has translated into a new energy. On any given weekend, roving bands of millennials, Gen Xers and Gen Zers roll from winery to winery on rental e-bikes, with a Segway gliding along here and there. They pack into open safari wagons or bump along in pedicabs custom-built to accommodate wine purchases and charcuterie boards under the seats.

They don’t come simply to taste. Live music thumps from the garden spaces between vineyards and wineries. There are comedy acts, food trucks, cornhole games, bridesmaid parties and a general air of see-and-be-seen jollity.

“It’s not just, ‘here’s the wine to try, thank you, bye bye,’” observed Restoration Vineyards owner Gary Brauns, as he poured tastes on a recent weekend. Outside his tasting room, while a folk musician performed, hundreds of wine drinkers downed glasses of sparkling rosés and Semillons and munched on fancy food truck tacos under umbrellas printed with watermelons and lemons.

Below Restoration’s perch on east Orchard Mesa, at Maison La Belle Vie Winery, rental bikes crammed the dirt lane into the winery where a patio was crowded enough to qualify as a rave.  At Red Fox Cellars, wine sips were interspersed with bean bag tossing. At the Colorado Vintner’s Collective, pedicabs dropped off celebratory groups of wine drinkers who parked themselves under teal patio umbrellas and ordered flights of innovative wines made by a variety of young winemakers.

Back at Sauvage Spectrum, the slushie machine was churning up icy rosé and passion fruit drinks for a youngish gang of visitors. Some were opting for the “bombtail” – a chunk of frozen peach or pineapple puree tossed in a glass of sparkling wine. 

Michelle West makes a peach “bombtail” at Sauvage Spectrum winery in Palisade. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A crowd ready to try something different 

This energized winery scene has taken a cue from Colorado’s breweries and their boundary-pushing willingness to branch out with new flavors and styles.

The young winemakers are fermenting wines from hybrid grapes that aren’t so prone to freezing in Colorado’s increasing weather swings. Grapes like Aromella, Petit Pearl and Roussanne that some longstanding winemakers had shied from, are more accepted by newbie wine drinkers who aren’t rooted in the era of merlots, cabernet sauvignons and other traditional European grape varieties.  

“The younger demographic is definitely willing to try different things,” said Laura Black, 37, who bought the Mesa Park Vineyard three years ago with her husband, Brandon, who is also 37. Their vineyard has become a popular spot for comedians who perform under the stars between the Blacks’ bucolic red barn and their sleek, refurbished tasting room.

Brandon Black is continuing to make wines from traditional grapes, but he has added some hybrid blends made from grapes that most wine drinkers have never heard of. Some of those hybrid blends have outsold their more traditional wines.

Pali-Tours operator Dave Smith, left, waits as Bernadette Gough, Mary Kate Gough and Ashley Paulson finish their wine at Restoration Vineyards in Palisade. The group was in Palisade to celebrate Mary Kate’s 30th birthday. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This movement to hybrid grapes isn’t confined to Palisade. ChillSwitch in Cedaredge, LaNoue DuBois Winery in Montrose and Infinite Monkey Theorem in Denver are all owned and operated by the younger set that is embracing new grape varieties.

“These new winemakers are not set in their ways like the first generation of winemakers,” said Jenne Baldwin-Eaton, who teaches viticulture and enology to 20-somethings at Western Colorado Community College in Grand Junction.

Baldwin-Eaton was 24 when she started making wine for Plum Creek Cellars in Palisade 27 years ago. She was a phenomenon then for her young age in an industry dominated at the time by the state’s wine pioneers.

Now, Baldwin-Eaton is teaching a whole crop of young aspiring winemakers who are looking to learn the ins and outs of classic wine making as well as taking the Colorado wine industry in new directions.

She said coronavirus accelerated the shift.

“It got people thinking outside the box. Young people especially are thinking outside the box. I give them great credit for that,” she said.

Some in that young cohort have turned to the aforementioned bubbles. They are making pet-nats — short for “petillant naturel,” a French term that roughly translates to “naturally sparkling.” The wines are unfiltered and fermented in the bottle. That leaves a yeasty layer of sediment in the bottom. It’s a style easily embraced by a younger generation that is steeped in kombucha and sour beers.  

“It’s funky,” said 31-year-old Denver musician Andrew Sturtz — with approval — as he tasted a pet-nat at Sauvage Spectrum.

“Youngsters” bought one of the oldest vineyards

Garrett and Cailin Portra, both 38, were among the youngest in the new wave of millennial winery owners. Garrett Portra joked they were still “youngsters” when they bought one of the Palisade area’s oldest wineries, Carlson Vineyards, in 2015. Since then, the couple has found that younger people seem to be more open to giving their wine a try.

Garrett Portra said he believes part of Colorado wine’s appeal to a younger generation is that it fits into the local-food ethos. Local wines are farm-to-table.  

The Portras added to their wines’ appeal to their generation by opening a second tasting room on Main Street in Grand Junction and adding events like yoga classes where a warrior pose might be followed by a splash of Sweet Baby Blush wine.

Portra observed that many winery owners formerly tended to be people who waited until retirement to buy a winery. They maybe envisioned spending their golden years in a sort of vine-draped movie set. Now, he said, young people with young families are diving into winery ownership with a lifetime commitment and a willingness to work harder than they could imagine.

“It is really encouraging to see all these young couples and young families getting into it now. They are looking at it as something they can make a living out of it for 30 years — not as a hobby,” he said. Portra added that he informs younger people who ask about getting into the business that they are “insane” for wanting to take on a dawn-to-dusk enterprise that is just as much work — or more — than any type of farm operation.

Joe and Meghan Rocchio of Denver follow a tractor towing produce through the orchards and vineyards around Palisade. The Rocchios visited seven different wineries on their bikes. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Kevin Webber, 42, is one of those jumping into the Grand Valley wine scene as he expands his three Front Range Carboy wineries to Palisade. He and his partners recently purchased the longtime Garfield Estates Vineyard & Winery. They are popping the top on what was a conventional winery tasting room to add a rooftop patio with a 360-degree view of Mount Garfield, the Grand Mesa and the vineyards and orchards that surround Palisade. They have ordered scads of bike racks to cater to the cycling crowd, including the mountain bikers coming to try out the new Palisade Plunge trail.

Webber said he plans to offer plenty of sparkling wines because he believes those are the future with a generation that already gulps down bubbles in beer, hard ciders and hard seltzers.

“There is a lot of market research that shows that sparkling wines are turning into an everyday drink – not a special-occasion wine,” he said.

His research also shows that about 70% of Palisade wine country visitors are coming from the Front Range – a number that is showing a drop until Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon can dig out from mudslides. A celebratory glass of bubbly might be called for when the highway reopens and the pipeline of Front Range visitors returns.

In the meantime, Palisade winemakers and young entrepreneurs in related businesses said they are enjoying working together to ferment a happening scene in Palisade.

They support each other with wine-making tips, loans of equipment and recommendations to visit each other’s wineries. They party together. They share babysitters and food trucks. Palisade Pedi-Cab, Pêche restaurant, Pressed Coffee, Cocktails & CBD, and Spoke & Vine motel all are owned by younger-generation business people. All are peripherally linked to the wine industry and contributing to the energized scene around Palisade.

“What is happening here in Palisade is just a really perfect storm of social media, of local movement and of new professionals coming here,” said Ally McDonald, the owner of the Vintner’s Collective, a wine bar and winery that pours from a variety of winemakers.

Front Range wine tourists, from left, Tia Bloom, Kahla Jacoby, Dustin Jacoby, Geoff Bloom, Jennifer Foster, Bradley Foster, Kaylin Felder and Theodore Felder, 2 months, enjoy a drink with their dogs at the Spoke & Vine motel in Palisade The Spoke & Vine recently added a bar and an outdoor lounge area. The motel frequently hosts a food truck in their parking lot. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Cassidee Shull, director of the Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology, said she is excited as she prepares for Colorado Mountain Winefest, the annual Grand Valley wine festival in September. Attendees will be able to see what new vintners have been up to in the wineries while Covid was keeping people home.

“I think it is absolutely fantastic we are seeing new excitement in Grand Valley wine,” said Shull, who is 33.

She said there are no hard numbers to chart the younger demographic in wine country. But, in an industry that has long been focused on aging, she can’t help but notice the many signs of young blood: the packaging and labels, the wine cocktails, the sparkling wines, and the wine-related posts showing up on TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and Clubhouse.

“Younger people are getting more excited about trying wine,” she said. “They are finding it’s a different thing. It’s a little different than sharing a six-pack.”


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