Rooms with vineyard views

Rising from the vineyards of Palisade is something as important to the Western Slope wine industry as grapes — a new $8 million hotel designed for guests who want to savor wine country around the clock.

The Wine Country Inn is an 80-room Victorian-style hotel that marks an important step in the Grand Valley wine industry’s growth as a tourist attraction. Until this summer, most people who came to the valley to tour wineries and vineyards stayed overnight in Grand Junction, about 10 miles from the heart of wine country. Aside from a handful of bed-and-breakfasts and a small, aging motel, Palisade had no overnight accommodations for visitors. The Wine Country Inn’s opening makes first-class lodging available literally in a vineyard.

“I think it’s going to be huge for Palisade,” said Leif Johnson, executive director of the Palisade Chamber of Commerce. “The concept is so unique, it’s going to help put Palisade on the map. It’s very unique to Colorado. It has a Napa Valley feel to it; it’s a hotel in the middle of the vineyards.”

Wine tourism is a significant and growing industry in western Colorado. Studies by Colorado State University researchers determined that wine tourism throughout Colorado generated $20.6 million in economic activity in 2005. Mesa County, where wine tourism consists mainly of people visiting wineries and attending wine-related special events such as the annual Colorado Mountain Winefest, was responsible for about $12 million of that amount.

Wineries have become the top destination of Grand Valley visitors, ranking above the spectacular sandstone canyons of Colorado National Monument, the trout-filled lakes of Grand Mesa and other traditional attractions. A survey of more than 1,000 online visitors to the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau’s website in early 2008 revealed that approximately 61 percent of tourists said they had visited a winery during their trip to the Grand Junction area. That’s triple the percentage that cited wineries as a destination in the last online survey, conducted in 2005. Similarly, the percentage of respondents who visited the winefest also tripled from 2005 to 2008.

Johnson said wineries are one of several attractions that boost visitor interest in Palisade. Many wineries and peach growers offer public tours of their operations through an “agritours” program that began in 2007. Tours of the Palisade Brewery, one of three microbreweries in the valley, and Peach Street Distillers, which specializes in making brandy and other hard liquor from Western Slope agricultural products, also are available.

In addition, Palisade has a growing arts community and offers nearby river and bicycle recreation.

“All these things are selling points for the hotel and the bed-and-breakfasts,” Johnson said.

Richard and Jean Tally, co-owners of the Wine Country Inn with their children, Greg and Anne, envisioned a hotel among the grapevines a decade ago. The Tallys have considerable hotel experience; they’ve been in the lodging business since 1994, when they bought the Friendship Inn in Grand Junction, which they later converted to a 107-room Quality Inn. They also have owned and sold two other Grand Junction hotels, and they are partners with Greg and his wife, Meredith, in ownership of the 117-room Best Western Denver Southwest in Lakewood.

Jean Tally said the original concept for a hotel amid the vines came from Steve Smith, owner of Grande River Vineyards. Smith’s winery is located just off Interstate 70 exit 42 at Palisade, which makes it a popular stop for travelers. Smith suggested that the Tallys open a hotel near his winery, so Richard and Jean went to California’s wine country to gather ideas. At the time, however, Palisade’s business climate was not as robust as it is now, and the only land available for a sizeable hotel was too remote from I-70 and other activity centers in the Palisade area, Jean said. Thus, the idea never went beyond a business plan.

Still, the Tallys thought often about opening a wine-themed hotel in Palisade.

“We were really worried in that 10-year time that somebody else would come in here and build something (inferior),” Jean said.

Nobody did, and in October 2006, Smith sold his winery and vineyards at auction. The Tallys bought 7.5 acres of vineyards next to the winery for their hotel.

“Steve’s auction was the catalyst. That action took this from a shelved business plan to an actuality,” Greg Tally said.

Since then, the Tallys have purchased another 13 acres of vineyards around the hotel, and Smith and his wife ended up keeping the winery. Naomi Smith, who is Steve Smith’s wife and co-owner of Grande River Vineyards, expects the opening of the Wine Country Inn to generate more business for the winery.

“We’re hoping the Wine Country Inn will bring us more year-round patrons, as well as allowing more people to come to Palisade as a destination,” Naomi Smith said. “We’re really proud of how rapidly the hotel has gone in, and we can’t help but think it’s going to be huge benefit to tourism in this area.”

Grande River Vineyards will operate a tasting room and retail sales counter in the hotel’s gift shop, Jean Tally said. In addition, Grande River will custom-label its Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Meritage White, and Ten-Acre Red wines for Wine Country Inn.

The inn is developing partnerships with state and local tourism authorities and other businesses, such as the Redlands Mesa Golf Course, to create guest packages. Jean Tally characterizes the inn as a “wine retreat” that offers guests the opportunity to participate in a variety of agritourism activities. Such activities can range from wine tastings and winery tours to the opportunity to work on a farm — a “City Slickers” type of experience in an orchard or vineyard.

The Tallys and architect Jim Johnson of JG Johnson Architects in Denver designed the inn with a Victorian theme in order to tie into the history of the Palisade area, where Victorian homes were the order of the day a century ago.

“We are very aware of the history of Palisade and respectful of it,” Greg Tally said.

The hotel is designed to appeal to a variety of potential users. One building on the grounds features a full kitchen with adjacent rooms that can be arranged to create a large or small suite. The building is fully secure and is suitable for use by corporate officials who need a quiet, secure location for meetings and retreats. The suite arrangement also can appeal to wedding parties; the building even features a bride’s dressing room with a sink designed for shampooing hair.

“The shampoo sink has been a big selling point with our brides,” Greg Tally said.

A catering kitchen lets the hotel cater events in-house, and the lobby has a breakfast area that converts to a wine-reception room in the afternoon. Guests can relax in a pavilion surrounded by grapevines or on a large outdoor porch overlooking a swimming pool.

Glenn Foster, a long-time Grand Valley winemaker and owner of the Colorado Wine Room, Meadery of the Rockies, Confre Cellars, and St. Kathryn Cellars, said Wine Country Inn is well-positioned to benefit from a combination of factors.

“Agritourism is still on the way up. It’s a big trend,” said Foster, who bought the meadery, Confre Cellars, and St. Kathryn Cellars in January 2008. Winery-seeking Colorado residents, particularly those on the Front Range, increasingly are finding the Palisade area a good alternative to California wine country, which bodes well for the hotel.

“Wine Country Inn is not a driver, but it’s a sign of that trend,” he said.

The hotel’s rooftops soar above the vineyards beside I-70 and can’t help but attract tourists to Palisade, he said.

“I think it’s going to be great for the wine industry here,” Foster said.

Naomi Smith said Palisade’s development as an agritourism center could lead to the creation of more food, wine and farm attractions.

“We see a lot of visitors here that don’t drink, but they are curious about the process (of making wine),” she said.

Many also are interested in food — where it comes from, how it is prepared, and how more foods can be produced locally. That interest could support development of a wine and food center in Palisade that teaches people how to prepare foods with locally grown crops and locally made ingredients, she said. Smith envisions a facility similar to the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua, N.Y., which promotes New York wines and agricultural products by teaching people how to prepare and serve them.

Tourism boosters in the Grand Valley plan to continue promoting Colorado’s wine country as a destination for visitors from throughout the state and the rest of the country. Last spring, Palisade voters approved a lodging occupation tax of $2 per occupied room per night to raise money for advertising and marketing Palisade, said Town Administrator Tim Sarmo. The tax takes effect in January 2009, and proceeds will help the town promote its image as an agritourism center.

“Palisade’s future really rests in its past, in its reputation as a high-quality farming center,” Sarmo said.

To improve Palisade’s appeal to residents and visitors alike, the town plans to build a $650,000 pedestrian plaza to replace a parking lot in the center of the downtown area. Sarmo said the plaza will include seating areas, an outdoor stage and other amenities. The plaza will complement the art galleries, restaurants, recreational businesses, farms and wineries that combine to make Palisade a destination for agritourists.

“I look for wine tourism to continue to grow,” said Johnson, of the Palisade Chamber of Commerce. “More than likely, there’s going to be more wineries, more than likely it’s going to get more competitive, and more than likely, the quality will continue to improve.”