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Shawn Kauffman wanted to grow malbec grapes at his Bugling Elk Vineyards & Winery in Penrose. Badly. He planted more than 1,400 vines in 2018 to grow grapes for wine that would rival the finest Argentinian malbec. Then he added more.
Five years later, Kauffman is “done with malbec.”
“I have lost over 3,000 vines in the last five years,” he said. “I wanted malbec, but I’m done with malbec. Live and learn. I’ve learned more by the losses than the successes.”
In early July, Kauffman and his wife, Alexis, opened Bugling Elk, the newest winery tasting room in Penrose, enthusiastically serving up nearly a dozen wines, including his new loves: marquette and cabernet doré. His new favored wines each took a silver medal at the August Governor’s Cup competition at Metropolitan State University.
Kauffman’s grape experimentation isn’t over, and in fact is emblematic of what’s going on at farms, orchards and vineyards across the country in the face of climate change and water and labor shortages.
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In Fremont County, fruit orchards that in the early 1900s produced hundreds of thousands of bushels of apples, along with thousands of pounds of cherries, grapes, peaches and strawberries, have dwindled. Many factors led to the change — houses replaced orchards and farms, water became less predictable, trees weren’t replaced, farmers retired, labor was scarce.
Those challenges remain and are now coupled with more unpredictable weather resulting from climate change. This summer, Penrose got hit with heavy rains and hail, extreme heat and the ever-present winds.
Still, a lively agricultural community persists and is adapting by diversifying, experimenting and sharing what it knows and what has been tried. New small farms are finding niche markets. A cidery and a handful of wineries are thriving. And they’re all getting some help.
A Colorado College professor who is an expert in microclimates has for eight years been bringing students to Penrose orchards to measure such things as moisture in leaves, soil conditions and how cold air drains through orchards at night.
The Colorado State University viticulture extension team has been researching Colorado vineyards for two decades and is sharing data with fruit growers through webinars and workshops.
Fremont County even changed some zoning regulations to make it easier for small wineries and cideries to open.
“We wanted to open new pathways for people to do business,” Fremont County Commissioner Debbie Bell said. “We want to see orchards and vineyards. We allow roadside stands where people can sell their own produce or eggs.”
A resurgence of grapes
LEFT: Shawn Kauffman shows off the color of his 2023 marquette wine at his Bugling Elk Vineyard and Winery in Penrose. Vintners are setting up shop in Fremont County, betting on the relatively mild climate and friendly soils there. RIGHT:
Vines of marquette grapes are propagated at Jenkins Farm in Penrose. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
ABOVE: Shawn Kauffman shows off the color of his 2023 marquette wine at his Bugling Elk Vineyard and Winery in Penrose. Vintners are setting up shop in Fremont County, betting on the relatively mild climate and friendly soils there. BELOW: Vines of marquette grapes are propagated at Jenkins Farm in Penrose. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
In 1910, Fremont County reportedly had 133,000 vines that produced more than 300,000 pounds of grapes. Many were planted by Italian immigrants who came to work in the mines.
Those numbers shrank during Prohibition, but grapevines have always done well in the Arkansas Valley farmlands.
How many vines are in the county now is unclear, but people still are growing grapes.
Jeff Stultz, head winemaker at the Winery at Holy Cross Abbey, said when the call goes out for grapes for the Abbey’s annual Wild Cañon Harvest wine he gets plenty of calls.
The sweet blush wine is made from grapes that people sell to the Abbey at 60 cents a pound, and they must have at least 20 pounds to be included, Stultz said. This year, about 50 people — the so-called “wild bunch” — will be included on the back label as grape contributors. Last year’s Wild Cañon Harvest took a bronze at the Governor’s Cup — one of numerous awards that went to the Abbey winery, which is also the recipient of international awards.
Stultz said he has about 20 growers with 10 vines or more — small vineyards — that sell their grapes to the Abbey. But he knows there are many more people with just a couple vines on the back fence.
“Grapes can be very successfully grown in Fremont County year after year if you plant the right varieties,” he said. “I’ve had 20 to 22 years growing grapes myself.
“True vinifera (a European grapevine) is not working — they are not cold hardy enough, bud out too early, ripen too late. In our climate late spring frosts can have devastating effects.”
Stultz, locally known as the grape expert, ticks off a list of grapes that do grow well here: baco noir, marechal foch, chambourcin, norton, marquette, frontenac and frontenac gris.
Charlotte Oliver, a CSU extension specialist in viticulture, agrees.
European varieties don’t work on the Front Range, but there’s plenty of room for creativity, she said.
She also favors the marquette, which was developed in Minnesota and survives temperatures to negative 35, for Fremont County. And Catawba (the most widely planted grape variety in North America), tosca, clarion and chambourcin.
People are planting throughout the county and she said some varieties might do better in some spots than others, based on elevation, moisture, soil, etc.
“I have 1,000 norton grape vines at 7,000 feet where I live — between Cañon City and Westcliffe,” Stultz said. “My vineyard in the Wet Mountains I have not irrigated a single time this summer.”
There’s room for more growers in Fremont County, and once established grapes don’t need excessive amounts of water, he said. “Vines don’t like wet feet.”
Kauffman, who recently retired from 10th Special Forces and fell in love with “wine culture” in Europe, has visions of grapes growing throughout Fremont County and would like to establish an American Viticultural Area in Penrose. But that requires documentation of a certain tonnage per acre and is unlikely to happen any time soon. There are two AVAs in Colorado — the Grand Valley AVA and the West Elks AVA.
Meanwhile, he’s joined forces with Justin Jenkins, a nearby farmer and apple grower, in experimenting with starting marquette vines in a greenhouse at Jenkins’ farm. Jenkins built the greenhouse during the pandemic to grow vegetables, but those sales never took off, he said.
This summer, the vines in the greenhouse were looking quite lush, despite the grasshopper invasion, and the ones outside were mostly dried up. That local experiment became part of a Colorado College classroom in early September.
LEFT: Colorado College Prof. Miro Kummel leads at field seminar at Jenkins Farms in Penrose. RIGHT: Alejandra Mendoza, left, measures the stomatal conductance of a grape leaf at the Jenkins Farm in Penrose during a Colorado College field seminar. Chuck Harrington, center, records the data as Prof. Kummel looks on. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
ABOVE: Colorado College Prof. Miro Kummel leads at field seminar at Jenkins Farms in Penrose. BELOW: Alejandra Mendoza, left, measures the stomatal conductance of a grape leaf at the Jenkins Farm in Penrose during a Colorado College field seminar. Chuck Harrington, center, records the data as Prof. Kummel looks on. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
CC professor Miro Kummel stood under the eave of a tractor shed at the Jenkins farm in Penrose and talked to about 15 students about stomatal aperture, and the allocation of water between roots and leaves.
They took turns using a small machine to measure the stomata in leaves of apple trees and on grapevines. Essentially, they were measuring the moisture in leaves, which could help farmers adjust irrigation.
Not surprisingly, when it came to grapevines, those in the greenhouse had more moisture and were less stressed than the ones in the field.
Although relatively simple and predictable, the measurements were intended to show environmental science and environmental studies students how to apply their knowledge of microclimates to real world situations, Kummel explained.
He said the farmers have historical perspective and are in touch with how things change from season to season. He brings students in early fall to take various measurements to create a database that over time can show trends.
“What we can do is sort of think with them and measure the environment — time of frost, irrigation issues — and how to improve the ability of the landscape to support agriculture,” he said.
The students spend time listening to farmers, and set up instruments to measure wind, temperature and moisture.
Senior Greta Cahill, 21, of Durango, called it “practical stuff” that can help farmers understand such things as how horizontal winds circulate pollution and how wind affects tree growth.
Jenkins leaned against a tractor and listened to Kummel lecture. While the individual student projects are small because of time constraints, he appreciates the relationship he has built with Kummel and the data offered.
“These guys have been phenomenal about it,” he said. “There’s always an emphasis on getting data we can use — not just doing a project.
“I’ll take any free data.”
Data from Kummel as well as from the CSU extension office and climatology report have led Jenkins to conclude that grapes may be a more sustainable crop for Penrose than apples, though he still maintains his orchard. Hay is a big part of his operation and he also buys and repairs equipment to sell.
Jenkins opened Western Skies Winery in 2019 and had a small tasting room at the farm, which he has shut down. If he has enough apples he might make a batch or two of apple wine that would be sold at Bugling Elk, but he didn’t enjoy the retail side of the winery — something that Kauffman relishes.
“The amount of water use is substantially less — mature grapevines don’t use much water, although I struggle to believe that in this climate,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said apples take “100,000 gallons a month to keep trees alive — and not produce a crop,” he said of this year’s paltry production. “This year we just didn’t have the blooms and I don’t know why.”
The story was the same at most area orchards. And at the Apple Valley Cider Company in Penrose, Kevin Williams will be making cider with apples from Washington.
“I never was able to get many apples in Penrose — maybe enough for one batch,” he said. He tries to get apples from the Western Slope but hasn’t had much success there either.
Still, his cidery is growing and he recently moved his tasting room into an adjacent spot in the small strip shopping center where he produces about 8,000 gallons of cider a year. It’s distributed throughout Colorado.
A farmer’s life
LEFT: Justin Jenkins is a farmer in Penrose considering moving from apples, once a staple in Penrose, to grape production. RIGHT: An apple hangs in the orchard at Jenkins Farms. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
ABOVE: Justin Jenkins is a farmer in Penrose considering moving from apples, once a staple in Penrose, to grape production. BELOW: An apple hangs in the orchard at Jenkins Farms. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
The “I don’t know why” that troubles Jenkins — and other farmers — is what keeps Mannie Colon up at night. His family started an orchard on the east side of Cañon City in 1890. His father took it over in 1937 and Colon took over in 1972. Now, he runs it with his daughter Britt Colon.
They had 35 acres of fruit trees and were packing and shipping fruit all over. Today, he has 3 acres of apple trees. But he isn’t giving up on apples and said Britt is bugging him to get new trees planted.
The Colons’ work about 200 acres of their farm, including growing feed crops such as hay. Diversity is what’s kept Colon Orchards going, and that started years ago when Mannie traded some potatoes for apples, much to his father’s chagrin.
That was the start of the seasonal farm store that today offers an array of Colorado produce and other products as well as items grown on the Colon farm.
“Britt brings in products that are unique and people like that,” he said, noting that they also added agritourism with a pumpkin patch and corn maze.
They brought in kettle corn made by a vendor, but when the vendor’s truck got stolen they started making their own kettle corn. Now they are enlarging the production kitchen.
The weather is always a factor in farming, Mannie Colon said, but “this year has just been extremely difficult. Somebody really upset Mother Nature and she’s taking it out on us. I think she wants us to be nicer to her.”
Other issues loom, too: water rights, labor, government regulations. And one that not many others mentioned: a lack of interest in farming among younger people.
“The next generation of farmers is a hell of a challenge,” he said. “You can see the decline at the State Fair — the lack of participation. The decline in FFA (Future Farmers of America) and 4H.”
He sorts through a stack of magazines in his office — American Vegetable Grower, American Fruit Grower, Nursery Management, Western Grower & Shipper.
“That’s the stuff I read between 2 and 4 a.m.,” he said.
The headlines are about sustainability, climate, water, consumer preferences.
Mannie Colon talks about Israel growing food with less water, rooftop gardens in cities, trellises that protect grapes from severe weather, drones that pinpoint where water is needed — or not needed. So many interesting things are going on in farming.
Challenges? Yes, “but we’ll figure it out,” he said, as he offers a peek at a new variety of green chile that he thinks might be the next great thing at Colon Orchards.
“I want to grow that chile.”