Eat & Drink

West of Eden

Turning out tasty, small-batch wines in the West Elks region.

July 2012

Palisade gets all the love: It’s soaked in sun, and the land produces the majority of the state’s wine grapes. But it would be an oversight to ignore the West Elks, located in the fertile North Fork Valley (roughly 45 miles from Palisade). Paonia is the epicenter of the West Elks, and it’s a food lover’s heaven: Farm stands bookend the small town. Restaurants and inns serve almost exclusively local cuisine. Vineyards offer a stunning backdrop.

A handful of winemakers there are hand-crafting cold-weather, Alsatian-style wines ideally suited to the local produce and beef. “The West Elks is an AVA [American Viticultural Area], and it has a unique terroir, no question,” says Eames Petersen, winemaker and owner of Paonia’s Alfred Eames Cellars. “Very generally speaking, we have a different philosophy of wine making—an attitude that is less concerned with volume and more concerned with quality.” 

Paonia’s dedication to the locavore movement is reason enough to visit, but it’s the wines that should catapult the town to the top of your must-go list. The easiest way to track down wines from the West Elks is to make the drive—or have bottles shipped. Most of these wineries produce fewer than 1,000 cases a year and sell directly from the tasting room. There are two notable exceptions: Alfred Eames selections can be found throughout Denver at upscale shops such as Divino Wine & Spirits and restaurants like Duo and Crú a Wine Bar. And though not technically in the West Elks AVA, Jack Rabbit Hill in nearby Hotchkiss produces interesting biodynamic wines by blending earthy Malbecs with American hybrids such as NY 70 (yes, that’s a grape name). Find them locally at Mercury Cafe and Watercourse Foods.

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6,417: The elevation, in feet, of Terror Creek Winery, making it one of the highest vineyard and winery operations in the world.

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Cold-Weather Grapes

Riesling 

Riesling can be either sweet or dry, based on the acidic structure of the wine. In the case of Colorado’s high-elevation Rieslings, the acids are bold and a trace of sugar is often left to balance the wine, but they still drink crisp and dry.
Try: 2010 Marcellina Riesling from Black Bridge Winery ($16).

Gewürztraminer 

One of the most aromatic (and difficult to pronounce; it’s ge·vürt·stra·mee·ner) whites on the planet, this grape is rising in popularity throughout the state. When grown in the West Elks, the crisp, fruity acids are prominent.
Try: Stone Cottage Cellars 2009 Gewürztraminer ($22). Dessert lovers should pick up a bottle of the late-harvest version, the 2010 Alpine ($20, 0.375 ml). 

Pinot Noir

There’s good Pinot Noir in Colorado—it just takes higher elevations to cool the summertime heat to make it so. Colorado Pinots tend to take a slightly bigger, fruitier persona than delicate Willamette Valley, Oregon, standouts. When a good vintage comes along, like 2006 and 2009, it’s worth stocking up.
Try: Alfred Eames Cellars 2009 Pinot Noir ($20).