Don't go to Zion in July. Avoid all the national parks in Utah and, for that matter, the whole state, unless you like being slowly baked into your car's upholstery or your hiking boots. Samantha and I learned this lesson on the long way back from a wedding in Salt Lake City. In retrospect, we should've headed straight for Palisade, Colo., right after the bride tossed the bouquet.
After a pleasantly surprising visit to Cañon City's Winery at Holy Cross Abbey in June (csindy.com/csindy/2006-06-29/appetite.html), I became determined to explore more of Colorado's wine country. We opted to start in the Grand Valley, one of two regions in Colorado that has been designated as an American viticultural area by the federal government indicating that it holds a unique geography and climate ideal for grape growing.
The small town of Palisade a stone's throw from Grand Junction hosts nearly as many wineries as the entire Front Range. (See the Colorado Wine Trails map, put out by the Wine Industry Development Board, at coloradowine.com.)
Like many other spots along the Western Slope, Palisade uprooted its vines during Prohibition and turned to orchards for its livelihood. Today, alongside the still-thriving orchards, wineries have sprung back up in the ample sun, dry air and cool nights.
Palisade is situated between the Colorado River to the south and high, rocky bluffs to the north, creating its unique viticultural ecosystem. From Interstate 70, a five-minute drive will direct you either to the quaint town or out to one of seven wineries. Along the road, orchards and fruit stands offer peaches, plums, cherries, corn, jams and other farm goods.
Sam and I began our tour at Canyon Wind Cellars. Maybe our palates simply weren't oversaturated at that point, but we both felt that this was the best stop along our tour. We moved traditionally, from whites to reds to dessert wines, sampling a Ros, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, red blend, reserve port and late-harvest Chardonnay. Each wine pinned its varietal's ideal qualities, and the dessert Chardonnay screamed to be taken home.
Less than a mile from Canyon Wind, we stopped into DeBeque Canyon Winery, where, in addition to the usual suspects, we sampled an excellent Malbec and respectable Tempranillo to make up for an oak-aged Pinot Noir experiment gone wrong. Our wine attendant described DeBeque's winemaker, Bennett Price, as a local pioneer who has introduced new varietals to the valley.
Up the road from DeBeque, we pulled into Carlson Vineyards or Candyland, as I called it after our tasting. Carlson seemed to be having the most fun of any winery, with artistic wine labels such as Tyrannosaurus Red and Pearadactyle. A large, fluffy housecat lay stretched in the sun across the register counter, surveying our reactions to a series of fruit-based wines, from pear to apple, plum, apricot and a chocolate-rimmed sample of cherry wine. Each of these was too sweet for my taste, but I left glad to have sampled them.
After a light lunch at the Tucan Coffee House, we headed to Grande River Vineyards and Plum Creek Cellars, where we again ran the white-red gamut happily and also fell for samplings of wine-infused chocolates and mustards.
To complete our four-hour tour, we sauntered to the Meadery of the Rockies to sample nearly a dozen honey wines, or meads, famous from literary and Old-World history. Many of the honey wines were blended with fruit, creating sweet hybrids of the base drink, and a few were fortified with chocolate, for the perfect dessert drink.
The highlight of this tasting came when the sweet, elderly woman behind the pouring station turned to Sam and whispered, "Now doesn't that just warm your cockles?" We both giggled shyly, having no clue what a "cockle" was until getting home to a dictionary. Either she was referring to a bivalve mollusk with a heart-shaped shell, a wrinkle or one's innermost feelings.
"Oohhh ... a cockle."
With purple teeth, wide smiles and, indeed, warmer cockles, we left Palisade with a few bottles in hand, a brown bag of fruit and a resolve to return for the Colorado Mountain Winefest in mid-September an annual weekend event complete with winery bike touring, a grape stomp, seminars, food and music.
Destination: The Grand Valley wineries in Palisade
Route: Take Interstate 25 north to I-470 west to I-70 west, to exit 44.
Distance: 299 miles
Time: 5 hours