Wine across the board

Despite challenges, industry grows in Colo.

By Kimberly Dean
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Some of you might agree that nothing goes better with politics than wine. In fact, wine can sometimes be the main event, or at least the main topic of conversation. Perhaps we should start at the beginning…

Let’s start with Colorado wine. We all know you can get wine from France, Italy and California, but Colorado wineries are not as well known. But why shouldn’t they be? Colorado has a variety of sheltered microclimates and valleys that are perfect for proper vineyards. In fact, Colorado’s warm sunny days and cool nights significantly contribute to the fabulous wine the state produces, and here is how it all began…

Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, left, pours wine for Gov. Bill Ritter.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman

In 1882, Grand Valley began irrigating the land, and a year later Arthur E. Pabor, seeing the potential of the Grand Valley region for growing fruit, started planting apples, peaches, grapes and other fruits near Fruita. Though peaches and apples were among the first successful major fruit crops grown in that area until about 1890, Governor George A. Crawford planted 60 acres of grapes and other fruit near Palisade, where much of today’s wine-making grapes are grown.

By 1899, the US Census reported a Colorado grape harvest of about 586,300 pounds and total wine production of 1,744 gallons. Ten years later, that number almost doubled. Pretty impressive. I guess once Colorado figured out how to make wine, it became easier to produce more of it. Now the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board has been tracking Colorado’s wine production and market share for the past 18 years, meaning the wine that is “first sold” or taken out of bond that year, depending on how each winery counts its tax paid inventory. From 1992 to 2008 there was a 1,085 percent growth in Colorado wines; 110,000 cases of wine were counted for 2008.

I recently sat down with Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, to learn more about the wine biz here in Colorado. I’ve been to a few wine tastings at wineries and have been to some wine-specific restaurants around Denver, but I’d always been curious as to where it all comes from and the story behind it.

Currently, Colorado has about 100 wineries, which may seem like a lot, but many of them are small, boutique businesses. “Only about a dozen of them produce a significant amount,” said Caskey, “which means about 4,000 cases of wine per year,” give or take. He said it is still a relatively new industry in the state, with only about 1,000 acres currently growing grapes. Most Colorado wine is made from Colorado grapes, and less than 10 percent comes from out of state.

Getting back to the history: Unfortunately, in 1916, just as the ground was getting used to the vines, the General Assembly of Colorado enacted the prohibition statute, and all vineyards were uprooted. In 1920, the 18th Amendment passed, creating national prohibition, and in effect giving birth to the peach and apple industries. (Eventually, the apples went away, since peaches were more profitable.) After 17 years of being publicly sober in Colorado, the amendment was repealed, restoring law and disorder to the delight of wine enthusiasts across the land.

In the 1980s and 1990s, wine became a little more official here in Colorado. In 1982, an organization of winemakers and grape growers called Rocky Mountain Association of Vintners and Viticulturists was formed. The organization is now known as CAVE (Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology.) The Colorado Wine Industry Development Board was formed in 1990 by the General Assembly. In 2005, the Assembly amended the earlier limited winery statute, changing the requirement to 75 percent Colorado-grown grapes.

From 1992 to 2008 there was a 1,085 percent growth in Colorado wines; 110,000 cases of wine were counted for 2008.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman

As for the current legislation surrounding wine and where it is sold, while some people are in favor of grocery stores selling wine, Caskey said that the board has not taken a position this year. “But we keep an eye on it. The laws are currently working for the industry,” he said, but stressed that the board does not lobby at all. It is what he called Type 1, which gives them a certain amount of autonomy, but is generally supervised by the Department of Agriculture.

There are nine members of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board who are appointed by the Governor. Five are from wineries (divided by region: Grand Valley, Front Range, Western Slope outside Grand Valley — Delta and Montrose counties, Rocky Mountains, and the Four Corners). One member is a grape grower representing growers as a whole, two are wholesalers, one retailer, one ex-officio member (who can’t vote, but sits in on meetings), and one member of the general public. The members only get paid for their expenses, and one third of the board’s money goes to Colorado State University for research.

Caskey feels that if the sale of wine were to change from the current system, small wine and liquor stores wouldn’t necessarily disappear overnight, but they might need to become more specialized. Stores worked hard to cultivate their business, Caskey said, and it could become harder to find boutique wine shops and consumer access to quality Colorado wines could be limited. “In either case, it would just be difficult for any small store to compete with a big chain.”

Caskey also told me that of the five regions, two are American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), which are designated by the federal government. They are the Grand Valley (Palisade) and West Elks (along the North Fork of the Gunnison River between Paonia and Hotchkiss.) These two regions are responsible for 90 percent of Colorado wine grapes. Unfortunately, this past year, he said, was the worst harvest in 20 years. Palisade was hurt by weather worse than other areas in the state. Delta County was not hit as hard as Mesa, yet the USDA declared it a disaster for grapes. “On the other hand, this opens up extra loan money from USDA to the growers,” Caskey said. “Losses are probably at 50 percent of capacity, give or take 10 percent.”

The board doesn’t support specific candidates for office, but Caskey feels that the more they know who the players are, the easier it is to bend their ear. I asked Caskey if he knew of any legislators who are really interested in wine, or serve wine at political functions. He said, “No, but they can’t really spend money on that.” Caskey said that no governor has served wine at state functions, but surely they do for private events. The tourism board isn’t even permitted to buy wine.

That’s when he invited me to the wine tasting at the Governor’s Mansion, an event also covered in this edition of Politics Uncorked.

If you have any comments, questions or know of any wine events, especially political ones, please contact me at politicsuncorked@coloradostatesman.com, and please, enjoy in moderation.