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Rocky Mountain High

August 19, 1993|DAN BERGER

Some areas of the country seem primed for a breakthrough as wine-growing regions but haven't made it yet.

Colorado is one. The state's first winery--the now-defunct Ivancie Cellars--was founded in 1968. By 1984, the state still had only 23 acres of grapes and crushed just 11 tons of fruit--less than a half-ton per acre and equivalent to fewer than 1,000 cases of wine. (A typical California vineyard, for example, would yield four to five tons per acre.)

Today there are eight wineries in Colorado and 300 acres of wine grapes, but the yield is still less than one ton per acre--a total of 260 tons of fruit were crushed last year.

Doug Phillips, chairman of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, says the early success of the industry was in fruit wines and white Zinfandel made from California grapes.

"Vineyard site selection is very important," he says. "If you do it properly, not much inhibits the use of vinifera grapes." He says one of the better areas was at Palisade near Grand Junction, 100 miles west of Aspen. In the valley areas, peaches, apricots and plums dominate, but the area got a big boost last year when Erik Bruner's Plum Creek Cellars won a gold medal for its 1990 Cabernet at the San Francisco Fair wine competition.

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Phillips' annual budget of more than $300,000 is derived from a variety of state taxes. Colorado has a one-cent-per-liter tax on every bottle of wine sold in the state (seven cents-per-liter on wine made by Colorado wineries). There is also an $8-per-ton tax on grapes.

"The first thing we did was enhance the research at Colorado State University's experimental orchard station in Grand Junction," says Phillips. "Half of the money goes into viticultural research for such issues as cold-hardiness."

He says he has spoken to about 80 orchardists who are thinking of planting grapevines. "Some people think of us as a bunch of wackos," says Phillips. "Wine consumption isn't increasing and we're thinking of planting grapes. But when they see the quality of wines we can make, they get really excited."

In Phillips' opinion, all Colorado needs to be regarded as a wine-making state is "two or three more wineries with winemakers committed to the task of making fine wines."

But even without that, he says, tourism is up significantly in the last few years; 85,000 people driving Interstate 70 stopped at Colorado wine-tasting rooms in 1992, and the wine board is putting up signs this summer to make finding the wineries easier.

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