As we climb the back steps of the wine-tasting room at Holy Cross Abbey, which overlooks a young vineyard and Highway 50 to the south and the former Benedictine Abbey to the west, Samantha and I discuss how to maintain our poker faces as we sample what is sure to be awful wine.
I practice polite responses, should the tasting attendants be fishing for feedback. "Ummm ... complex." "Uhhh ... subtle, yet pleasant." "Nice." "How delightfully serviceable."
After nearly 10 years working in restaurants and travels to international vineyards including a stint working on a farm in Italy's Tuscany region I'm snobbishly expecting to be disappointed with, if not outright embarrassed by, my visit to the Cañon City winery. After all, the words "Colorado" and "wine" are about as synonymous as "Antarctica" and "cactus."
I know. How dare I fall victim to biased predetermination. Not all of the country's fine wine hails from the West Coast. And Colorado's reputation is on the up-and-up in the wine world. Indeed, certain areas along the Western Slope enjoy the "million-dollar winds," which prevent frost damage in the winter and cool the vineyards in the summer, creating a climate as ideal as any to nurturing fragile grapes, according to Ellen Christianson, co-owner of Canyon Wind Cellars in Palisade.
Inside the winery, we saunter past elegant displays of wine-drinking accoutrements to a walk-up pouring counter, where a handful of friendly women, including Sally Cookson, winery partner and wife of winemaker Matt Cookson, dole out complimentary splashes of more than a dozen varietals spanning three vintages.
On the far end of the counter, gold, silver and bronze metals from the Grand Harvest Awards and Tasters Guild International hang above 10 different bottles. My apprehension begins to fade.
We start our regional wine flight with the 2005 Artist Series Sauvignon Blanc ($16 per bottle), which uses grapes from Grande River Vineyards in Palisade, site of perhaps the state's single best growing climate. At first sip, we raise our eyebrows and nod our heads. Not bad actually, quite good. With perfect hints of oak and citrus, it exceeds the grape's usual merits.
After a Monterey Chardonnay (the only wine we sample made from grapes grown elsewhere but crushed locally), we move to the 2003 Colorado Syrah and 2004 Colorado Merlot (both $20). Each not only is well-blended and well-aged, but all-around solid in its characteristics.
We happily sip through a 2004 Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon (both $22) to more delight, and land on the NV Colorado Nouveau ($14) at our sampling's midpoint. Respectable for its intended charm as a sweeter wine, the Nouveau is not entirely agreeable to my palate. Sugar-tooths may love it, and on a hot day, I can't say I'd resist an iced glass either.
We haven't tasted a bad wine yet. In fact, I'd be thrilled to open a bottle of most of them with friends. But perhaps the big stinker is just around the corner. I'm not convinced yet that all of the Abbey wines could be of a superior ilk. Yet I really become smitten in the home stretch, when the most original and memorable blends come forward.
A fruity and light 2005 Apple Blossom wine ($12) follows a Vineyard Sunset blush wine ($11), then the finest wine of the batch, the 2005 Wild Cañon Harvest ($11).
The harvest wine, a kitchen-sink blend of 18 Cañon City-grown grapes, is a local's favorite and celebrated annually with a harvest festival in September. The wine holds a dark blush color and is reminiscent of honey mead delicious and recommended as an aperitif.
The final two wines we sample are the NV Riesling ($14) and the 2003 Colorado Merlot Port ($20). The Riesling is a food-friendly blend of Oregon and Colorado grapes that stands its ground against any popular German Riesling, with a sweet front and crisp finish. The vintage port (95 percent of the grapes come from one vintage) is also grown in Palisade. It's unique in that most ports are made from Cabernet Sauvignon harvested across various years.
By tasting's end, I'm remarkably impressed and happily proven wrong by the consistent quality of wine being produced at the Holy Cross Abbey. In the four short years since the Cooksons left Sonoma, Calif., for Colorado, they have contributed greatly to the state's wine reputation, dashing my nave expectations and leaving me counting time until September's harvest celebration.
The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey Tasting Room
3011 E. U.S. Hwy. 50, Cañon City
Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Free tastings available on non-reserve wines; visit abbeywinery.com or call 719/276-5191 for more info.