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Colorado Wine Country

October 29, 2012

When most people think of Colorado, they picture snowy mountains.  What they might not know is that the Western part of the state is mostly high desert, with the interesting landscapes and dry sunny weather to match.  In the midst of this desert is Palisade, a fertile  valley known for its peaches, lavender and most importantly (in my opinion) – its wine.

I loved my last visit to Palisade, over the summer about three years ago, because it’s such a beautiful, relaxed place.  Because of the small town atmosphere, when you’re there you truly feel like there’s nothing to accomplish beyond finding your favorite Colorado Viognier or Cabernet Franc.

Since that trip three years ago, my boyfriend and I have been talking about returning.  So when I had a meeting scheduled for Thursday at Palisade’s Wine Country Inn, we jumped at the chance to stay an extra night and make a mini-getaway out of it.

There are some hotels you love because they are fabulous and luxurious, and others that you love because you have the memory of a truly great vacation there.  The Wine Country Inn is of the latter variety.  When the boyfriend and I visited last time, we had a perfect weekend of biking from winery to winery, drinking, eating and touring around this beautiful part of the state for the first time.

Do me a favor and just ignore the neon sign on the front of the hotel.  Please.  Thanks.  That neon sign is visible from the highway when you exit for Palisade, and upon approaching it for the first time, my inner snob groaned.  Luckily, that sign is the only tacky thing about this actually quite nice hotel.

The Wine Country Inn is the only hotel to speak of in Palisade, but there are hosts of cute B&Bs in town that I’d love to stay in at some point.  It is well located, has insanely comfortable beds and serves a killer complimentary breakfast.  (breakfast is better on the weekends and during high season, we discovered this trip)  It can get pricey during local festival times and the peak wine tasting season (June-August), but we were lucky enough to extend our $95 group rate for an additional night.

After a surprisingly fun work event on Thursday night (the Inn is a great place to host a business meeting, btw), we slept in on Friday, dragging ourselves out of bed just before they stopped serving breakfast.  After loading up on eggs and french toast, we relaxed around the hotel for a while before heading out to the wineries.  We learned our lesson last time that if you start too early, you’ll barely taste the wines by the end of the day.  And you might end up buying a 3-pack of mediocre Merlot, when you’re not even that into Merlot.

Wine making in Colorado goes back to the 1860s, but the quality has improved greatly over the last decade or so.  In my opinion, the region produces better whites than reds, but that could just be because I prefer big reds and am not as particular with my whites.  They make some good softer reds, like Cabernet Franc and Merlot, but something about the climate or the soil just doesn’t come together to make the big complex reds that come out of California.  A lot of sweet wines and fruit wines also come out of Palisade.  In terms of the wine tasting experience in the valley, I think it’s a lot of fun.  The tasting rooms are laid back and you can taste at least a few pours for free at most wineries.

Visiting in late October was notably different from our visit in June.  The summer crowds were gone and we had the tasting bars to ourselves for the most part.  It’s a wonder that more people don’t visit this time of year, because the weather was beautiful (low 50s and sunny) and the autumn scenery was gorgeous.

The entrance to Grande River Vineyards tasting room.

Around noon, we walked through the vines on the hotel property to two tasting rooms next door.  

Our first stop was Grande River Vineyards, one of the largest producers in the region at about 5,000 cases per year.  I had enjoyed a bottle of their cab franc the night before we left for this trip, so I was anxious to replace that bottle and try out the rest.  Many of the bottles on their tasting bar had medals hanging around them from local and regional wine competitions.  We were starting with one of the best.  We enjoyed several of the wines and left with a bottle of Viognier and a bottle of their Reserve Cabernet Franc – the priciest ($30 – big spender!) and one of my favorite wines of the day.

We then walked next door to a building housing St. Kathryn Cellars on one side and Talon Wines on the other.  We grew even more excited when we noticed the “Fresh Fudge” signs at their doors – wine + fudge? Say no more.

St. Kathryn Cellars makes mostly fruit wines – sweet wines made of fermented fruits other than grapes.  I’m not big into sweet wines but had to try some of the more unique sounding varieties.  Strawberry Rhubarb tasted exactly like a strawberry shortcake, and would probably taste delicious as a spritzer over ice on a hot summer day.  I was also impressed by Sweet Scarlet, a 50/50 blend of Merlot and blackberry wine.  The wines were definitely interesting, but neither of us could imagine drinking more than a glass of the sweet stuff, so we went down the hall to Talon.

Neither of us were impressed by Talon’s wines, but we loved the fudge that they generously allowed us to sample.  We left with a box of Pumpkin Pie and Sea Salt Caramel fudges and couldn’t have been happier.

At that point we were ready for lunch and grabbed the car to head to Palisade Brewing Company at the recommendation of the fudge maker (how could we not take that woman’s advice on food?).  It was definitely a brewery first, and consisted of an interior bar amongst the brewing equipment and a large outdoor patio.  We shared an enormous “Kitchen Sink” sandwich of pulled pork and brisket piled high with coleslaw and a bowl of soup, and sat outside in the sunshine plotting our next move.

After lunch we headed to Garfield Estates, a winery we both remembered loving on our last trip.  They have several excellent, crisp whites including their S2 (a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc) and a smooth, buttery Fume Blanc.  The only downside to visiting at the end of autumn is that I don’t tend to drink white wines over the winter, so it seemed silly to stock up.  We left Garfield empty handed and walked across the street to a winery that was new since our last visit.

Maison la Belle Vie has gorgeous grounds and a shaded patio that would be wonderful to sit on during warmer months.  Luckily for us, the indoor tasting room was charming as well.  It’s easy to see why they host a lot of weddings and events at this winery.  

Maison la Belle Vie is owned by a Frenchman whose family has been making wine in France for generations.  It must be in the genes because his wines were delicious.  Unlike most of the area wineries, they focus almost exclusively on reds.  Why? Apparently that’s what the winemaker likes.  They were among the best we tasted.  

We left with a bottle of Merlot and a reserve blend called The Musketeers that was a blend of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Syrah.  Strangely (for us) we also couldn’t resist a bottle of their port, which is aged with walnuts to give it a smooth, balanced taste that is less alcoholic and syrupy sweet than most ports I’ve tried.  I can’t wait to break it out after dinner one night – we’ll see if it makes it to Thanksgiving.

After lingering in the tasting room at Maison la Belle Vie, we realized we only had about an hour until most tasting rooms would close around 5 p.m.  We headed down the road to Plum Creek Winery.  I remember enjoying their Rose and a few of their whites on our last trip, but this time we were on the hunt for reds and theirs just didn’t stack up to the ones we’d enjoyed earlier.  The staff in their tasting room were very friendly and knowledgeable, so we felt a little bad leaving empty handed but promised to return in the spring.

Our last stop of the day was at Canyon Wind Cellars.  They had sold out of their whites over the summer and had several pricey reserve wines they didn’t pour in the tasting room, so we were a bit limited on tasting options.  However we enjoyed the 47-Ten Red (the elevation of their vineyards is 4,710 ft.) and their Iapyx, a late-harvest Pinot Grigio dessert wine.  If I thought I could actually get through a bottle of dessert wine before it goes bad, that Iapyx would be in my wine rack right now!

Content, relaxed and only a tiny bit tipsy, we headed back to the hotel to spend the rest of the evening relaxing.  It was a beautiful autumn day and I ended up wishing we’d booked one more night in Palisade.  I’ll just have to make sure three more years don’t go by before I return!

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