Jayme Henderson and Steve Steese know it’s nearly impossible to change consumer perception about wine. Before packing up their Denver home and moving four hours southwest to Paonia, they were working as restaurant sommeliers, and they wouldn’t have been able to point you to a Colorado bottle on their curated wine lists.
But in 2016, more or less on a whim, the couple traveled to the West Elks American Viticultural Area. Situated on Colorado’s Western Slope, it comprises less than a dozen wineries and sits about 1,500 feet higher in elevation than the Grand Valley, Colorado’s larger and more marketed growing region, located an hour to the west.
Traveling between the less touristed towns of Paonia and Hotchkiss, Henderson and Steese visited some vineyards for fun, and by the time they were headed back to Denver, they carried with them one case of Stone Cottage Cellars‘ 2015 dry gewurtztraminer, grown from some of the state’s oldest vines. They knew that if their diners at the restaurant would try it, they, too, could be convinced.
“It was obviously a hand-sell,” Henderson said. “Sometimes we’d just crack open a bottle and give people a taste.”
It was that first taste of the North Fork Valley and its potential for producing varieties like dry gewurtztraminer that drew Henderson and Steese to purchase a white grape vineyard just down the road from Stone Cottage.
Theirs, too, boasts some 30-year-old aromatic vines, and for the last three seasons, Henderson and Steese have been harvesting riesling, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and more white wine grapes, producing single varietals as well as white and rosé blends and, most notably, “crushing the Colorado riesling game,” according to Clara Klein, a Denver-based sommelier with Sunday Vinyl wine bar.
In 2019, Klein judged a blind tasting of more than 250 wines for the Colorado Governor’s Cup, at which The Storm Cellar‘s riesling and Reserve riesling both received the highest, double-gold award.
“It grows well out here, but it’s also a nail-biter,” Henderson said of her winery’s most lauded variety to date.
By mid-October, she and Steese and their small crew were counting down to their last harvest of the season. They had waited as the days in Delta County cooled and their riesling vines reached the perfect balance of sugar and acid. Any longer in this cold-hardy fruit’s long season and it might become too sweet for many Americans’ tastes.
“Part of the reason wine geeks love riesling … is that riesling tastes different all over the world,” Steese said. While other regions’ riesling might recall peaches and limes, for example, The Storm Cellar’s conjures oranges and tangerines.
Henderson describes the winery’s 2019 Reserve as “lively, dry and overflowing with aromas of honeysuckle, ripe apricot, chamomile tea and tangerine.”
This time last year — in sharp contrast to the streak of dry weeks during 2020’s summer and fall — the North Fork Valley saw an early October snow. And immediately afterward, Steese, Henderson and their crew went into the vineyards wearing headlamps to harvest the frozen grapes.
As temperatures dropped below 20 degrees, they took a shot of whiskey, turned on some classic rock and gathered up the fruit, which was “extremely fragile at this point,” Henderson said, “almost falling off the vines.” They picked it by night before the weather warmed and there could be any spoilage. And the result was an electric “mango”-colored juice that carried over to the bottle, which they’re releasing this month.
“How’s that for terroir?!” Henderson asked followers after describing the process and upcoming wine release in an Instagram post.
As she and Steese get ready to close their outdoor tasting room for the season, they’ll once again rely on social media, virtual events, website sales and word of mouth. For now, they can celebrate the 2020 harvest, their second vintage and plans for expansion as soon as the finances make sense.
Sitting in their open-air “tasting room” ahead of the final harvest, with an uninterrupted view to the east of Landsend and Lamborn peaks, Mount Gunnison beyond them, Steese poured a taste from the 2019 Reserve.
“Damn, that wine is crazy,” he said, taking a sip. “What a mouthful.” And he lit up describing that night harvest, the frost and the journey from vine to glass, explaining, “We had to give it the best chance.”
You can find The Storm Cellar’s wine in shops and at restaurants around Colorado, or buy directly from them online (stormcellarwine.com).
Did you know?
Some of Denver’s top restaurants source their house wines from a biodynamic farm and winemaker, Jack Rabbit Hill, located outside of Hotchkiss. Watch for their first sparkling pétillant naturel coming this holiday season. jackrabbithill.com
New winemakers are cropping up in unlikely places around Colorado, with some seriously good wines. To see what’s next on the horizon, take a look at Buckel Family Wine in Gunnison (buckelfamilywine.com) and Monkshood Cellars in Minturn (monkshoodcellars.com).
And Denver has some highly rated wines and wineries right on its doorstep (see below for recent 90-point varieties). For the newest of them, try Carboy Winery (carboywinery.com) by Governor’s Park.
More Colorado wine recommendations from a local sommelier
Clara Klein is the lead sommelier for Sunday Vinyl in Denver. Last year, Klein judged over 250 Colorado wines in a blind tasting at the annual Governor’s Cup. In addition to Storm Cellar, here are her favorites.
Bookcliff Vineyards (Boulder). Klein says Bookcliff is “the most adventurous (Colorado) estate when it comes to experimenting with grape varieties.” She recommends graciano, cabernet franc and the Ensemble, a cabernet blend.
Qutori Wines (Paonia). Klein says this producer “nails” the syrah varietal in a style “reminiscent of Cornas” (the French wine region). “Julie and Kyle Bennet have a quaint tasting room and often fly under the radar,” she adds.
“What I also realized last year is that Colorado is undergoing a major shift that will probably be more visible in the years to come,” Klein said. “From farmers making wine as an agricultural product or passion-driven side gig to a more intentional critical eye, (there is) pretty cool stuff happening in our backyard.”
The top Colorado wines this fall, according to Wine Enthusiast
These wines earned a score of 90 points or higher in the magazine’s most recent ratings.
Aspen Peak 2019 Viognier (Grand Valley), 90 pts, $19
Aspen Peak 2019 Dry Rosé (Colorado), 90 pts, $19
Balistreri 2018 Talbott Vineyard Petite Sirah (Grand Valley), 91 pts, $48
Mesa Park NV Barn Owl Red (Grand Valley), 90 pts, $28
Snowy Peaks 2017 Malbec (Grand Valley), 90 pts, $29
Sutcliffe 2016 Cabernet Franc (Colorado), 90 pts, $32
The Infinite Monkey Theorem 2018 Syrah (Colorado), 90 pts, $25
The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey 2017 Reserve Merlot (Palisade), 91 pts, $34
The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey 2017 Merlot (Palisade), 90 pts, $28
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