Vine arts & entertainment: West Elks, the ‘other’ Colorado wine region

One of the prettiest drives in Colorado is on the West Elk Scenic Byway, a gawker’s paradise that loops through mountains and valleys south of Carbondale. On the western loop of the byway, just off 8,755-foot McClure Pass on Colorado 133, is an agricultural area known for its cherries and apples but also increasingly known for its wine.

More than 60 wineries spread across Colorado now, but the state has only two areas the federal government has designated as a grape-growing region called an American Viticultural Area (AVA). The designation conveys distinction, pride and often quality. Colorado’s two AVAs are the Grand Valley between Palisade and Grand Junction and the West Elks in the North Fork of the Gunnison River valley.

The West Elks AVA, created in 2001, includes 10 wineries in a 75-acre area just east of Paonia to the west of Hotchkiss. The two Colorado AVAs produce different wine styles because of their differing climates and soils.


Bill Musgnung, owner and winemaker for Bethlehem Cellars. Photo by JT Thomas

Although the West Elks AVA is eight years old, the winemakers and grape-growers in the area are getting more serious about getting the message out about its distinctiveness. Master Sommelier Wayne Belding of the Boulder Wine Merchant says the area has some of the state’s best wines, although the quality varies. Among Belding’s favorite wines are those from the new Bethlehem Wine Cellars in Paonia, Terror Creek Winery on Garvin Mesa just north of Paonia and S. Rhodes Vineyards near Hotchkiss.

“People don’t really know us,” says Barb Heck, a wine grape grower near Paonia who with winemaker Joan Mathewson at Terror Creek Winery spearheaded the formation of the AVA. Heck, who owns Slate Point Vineyards, says the West Elks is to the Grand Valley what Sonoma is to Napa in California’s wine industry.

More specifically, the wines of the West Elks have been compared to those from the Alsatian region on the French-German border, an area known for dry white wines like Riesling and Gewürztraminer. The West Elks also is trying to make a name for its Pinot Noir, a more delicate red grape that likes cooler temperatures.

Horst Caspari, the state viticulturist with Colorado State University, thinks Riesling is the best white wine now in the West Elks, with Gewürztraminer a close second, while Pinot Noir is the top red grape. He describes a West Elk Riesling as “steely” with more acid than the Grand Valley wines.

 “I think the West Elks can do some of the best wines in the state, but not the Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc) because it is too cool,” says Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Board. “Their Riesling is quite good but is more of a (dry) slate style like that from Mosel (Germany) while Grand Valley’s are floral and fruity.”

Bill Musgnung, owner and winemaker for Bethlehem Cellars, started consulting for Colorado wineries in 2003 and moved to the state in 2006 after two decades of making wine in Oregon, Washington and Switzerland. Some of his Oregon Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines earned 90-point ratings, principally at Tualatin Vineyards before it was sold, and the newer Gypsy Dancer label. His first Bethlehem wine was a 2006 Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Grand Valley grapes, followed by his just-bottled 2007 vintage, a Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend.

Musgnung, who is seeking investors to expand, says he fell in love with the Paonia area while consulting. “I moved to Paonia because I think Pinot Noir does well there, and because of the people,” says Musngung, who describes his winemaking philosophy as “simplicity. The best way to be a winemaker is get a microscope. You can see what’s happening. Too many people in Colorado are using additives – enzymes, tannins, different flavor compounds. The only flavor compound I use are oak barrels, and I add a little SO2 (sulfur dioxide) upfront.”

Musgnung is confident that Colorado wine will eventually earn a 90-point rating, and he thinks his wines will reach that level, adding he thinks “Syrah is Colorado’s best (red) grape now. That, and Pinot Noir.” Musgnung says one of the best wines he has tasted from any state was a Grande River Winery Viognier from Palisade, adding that he and other winemakers in the West Elks aren’t trying to compete with the Grand Valley, just trying to get the word out about the West Elks AVA wines.

Getting the word out is what Joan Mathewson has been doing since she and her husband, John, opened the first modern winery in the area in 1993. She thinks the AVA designation has helped wine buyers recognize the West Elks, especially travelers who see “Welcome to the West Elks AVA” highway signs along Route 133. At 6,400 feet, Terror Creek is the highest winery in the northern hemisphere, but its vineyard produces cool-climate grapes when some growers are frozen out. Mathewson says Pinot Noir does well in her vineyard while Belding says she has had “some truly fine Gewürztraminers that really capture the essence of the variety.”

Having an AVA designation also legally enables winemakers who also grow their own grapes to call their wines “estate bottled,” a distinction winemaker-owner Brent Helleckson at Stone Cottage Cellars takes advantage of. Helleckson, whose winery also is on Garvin Mesa, thinks the West Elks has the best white wines in the state, especially Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Grigio.

Helleckson hopes the area’s winemakers and growers become more focused and organized so Colorado residents and vacationers learn of the West Elks distinctions. One of the ways of doing that, he thinks, is promoting the high quality of food available in the valley and how it pairs with the wines. There are several well-regarded restaurants in the valley, including Kelly Steinmetz’s Flying Fork Café & Bakery in Paonia.

The area plans its first wine festival this summer, the West Elks Premier Vintage Wine Festival on Aug. 1 at the Orchard Valley Farms at Paonia. The festival, under the aegis of the Paonia Chamber of Commerce, will feature new wine releases and will include winemaker dinners, food and wine pairing sessions, music and other activities. The winemakers hope the event will get the area more recognition.

“We have never had people come here and not enjoy themselves,” Helleckson says. “Most just don’t know we exist.”

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