Colorado's Western Slope Wineries

In true pioneer spirit, Colorado's independent vineyards work together with growers to produce one-of-a-kind wines that could only come from the Western Slope

A golden canvas from a divine sunset pours over the Western Slope by a vineyard in Grand Junction, an area shining out with an eclectic range of wineries.

Grand Junction Visitor & Convention Bureau

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(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

HEADING WEST FROM DENVER, barreling past jagged snowy peaks, ski areas and roiling mountain creeks, one wouldn’t imagine local fruit to be on the menu. the growing season in this mountain land passes in the blink of an eye, a few brief months stuffed between a slowly thawing spring and aspens greening into gold.

Then the road drops out of the high country into the stark desert lands of western Colorado. There on the dividing line, between the alpine heights and the country beyond, lies the Grand Valley, a small sliver of land perfect for growing grapes and other fruits. Welcome to the heartland of Colorado wine country.

Cross the Colorado River into the serene Western Slope town of Palisade, and you can almost taste wine on the air. Vineyards stretch in every direction, punctuated by the severe slopes of the Book Cliffs on the town’s edge. Although peaches once defined Palisade, wine is this region’s newest harvest.

After a rough start due to a run-in with Prohibition, in the last 30 years Colorado’s wine industry has sprouted from a few scraggly vines to a successful niche trade. Today, nearly 100 wineries make many varietals, most teased out of Colorado grapes grown in the cold nights and hot days of the Western Slope. Conditions here ensure the right mix of sweetness and acidity that makes fine wine possible.

It's a young industry here, but Colorado vintners courageously jumped straight into the fray, putting their Shiraz, Lemberger reds and Rieslings on the competition chopping block, going head to head against European wines. In the last few years, they’ve started to win awards on the national and international stages, besting wines crafted with grapes from the most historic orchards, beating recipes developed over hundreds of years by monks in Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Most wineries in Colorado produce European-style wines, but this wasn’t the object of our pursuit. We were searching for something more local, more elusive, and more Colorado.

We found it with an elixir made from the fruit that gave the Western Slope its sweet reputation before that saucy wine arrived. The search led to Carlson Vineyards, a winery rumored to make some of the best peach and cherry wines in the state.

On the sun-drenched bench above Palisade, we pulled into the relaxed farm-style Carlson Vineyards where the tasting room is a 1930s fruit shed, and wine is served on a 1.7 billion-year-old black slab of gneiss rock.

Despite the fact that wine tastings often are still saddled with the sniffings of elitism, none of that exists here. It’s a winery for the every-man or woman who simply wants to taste Palisade perfection without any fuss.

Parker and Mary Carlson started their winery by planting just two acres of grapes in 1981 after Parker – while working for CoorsTek – was transferred to the Western Slope’s Grand Valley. The abundance of fruit in Palisade went to his head, though, and his simple wine-making hobby soon took over Parker and Mary’s house.

After a few years of selling their grapes to others, then producing small batches of wine of their own, Parker quit his job, and he and Mary started making wine as full-time professionals.

It was a big risk because there wasn’t a Colorado wine industry yet. Then, a few other wine makers guessed what varieties of grapes would do well, planted them, nourished them like children and started making wine.

Parker himself spun tails of the early days of Colorado’s wine industry as he poured tastings of wine for us. We tried his Sweet Baby Red, a dry Gewurztraminer, a Shiraz, and his famous Laughing Cat Riesling that won the World Riesling Cup at the 2004 International Eastern Wine Competition.