To most people in the U.S., Colorado is a skiing state. The conditions at snowy hot spots like Aspen and Vail are as good as the most popular slopes in the Swiss Alps. Even novice skiers who prefer the bunny hill know the names of these iconic places. Of course, the cosmopolitan centers of Denver and Boulder also occupy the state's list of headlining attractions. But fewer people are familiar with the joys of Colorado's wine country. A collection of high-altitude wineries in the state's Western Slope region, adjacent to Utah, have been making quality vino for decades.
On one hand, the wineries of the Western Slope are great places for true wine aficionados because fad-seekers who want to emulate the characters in the movie “Sideways” or simply want to have something to sound sophisticated about around the water cooler don't know about the grapes grown in the vineyard-heavy areas around Grand Junction and Palisade. On the other hand, these wineries are perfect for casual wine drinkers because of their lack of pretentiousness and laid-back attitude. Many wineries even welcome families and have additional features, such as self-service orchards, for younger visitors.
It is a major plus that Colorado's wine country is extremely scenic. Mountains and unusual rock formations often frame lush vineyards. Fall colors are a bonus for people attending autumn festivals and tastings. The Western Slope is also a good destination for green-minded wine sippers because wineries in the area have to use 100 percent local grapes in order to receive a “Colorado grown” label. This makes it easy to differentiate local brands from those who ship fruit in from California and elsewhere.
Western Colorado is a rather rural place, so transportation options are limited and a car is the most convenient way to get around. For travelers who don't mind sticking to a schedule or traveling with a group, a bus or shuttle tour could be a viable option. Several companies offer wine themed tours, which visit multiple vineyards and winemakers in the area, with American Spirit Shuttle providing one of the highest-profile services.
Somewhat surprisingly, a bike wine tour is possible in Colorado wine country. Though some people won't like the marriage of bottle and pedal (because they are seeking to avoid a sweaty tasting session or a tipsy two-wheel trip), well-organized maps, daily free tastings at wineries, and a relatively compact set of vineyards make biking a viable option. The popular vineyards of Palisade are only about 10 miles from the hub of Grand Junction, meaning that pedaling from hotel to tasting rooms and back again in one day is possible.
The locally grown scene in the Grand Junction area goes well beyond wine grapes. Evidence of this is found in the glut of fruit and vegetable stands that are open in season. Some growers, like organic Kokopelli Farms, have their own market where hand-picked produce is sold. Another local grower, Z's Orchard, sells a variety of fruits through local farmers markets in Grand Junction and Palisade. The downtown Grand Junction farmers market, which runs annually during the warmer months, hosts a variety of local farmers, while some of the area's orchards allow visitors to pick their own edibles straight from the tree.
Sit-down spots like Palisade's Inari's Bistro and Grand Junction's 626 on Rood offer food and drink that has a strong local focus. Inari's boasts a seasonally changing menu and a full list of local wines and beverages, while 626 offers a high-end dining experience with dishes that rely on fresh ingredients as well as an extensive wine list that features the best local labels.
Though recognizable names like Ramada can be found on Grand Junction's hotel menu, a majority of the sleeping spots in wine country are small, family-run inns, bed-and-breakfasts, and vineyard-side guesthouses. One standout, the Willow Pond Bed and Breakfast, which sits in the heart of Grand Junction, is a converted 1916 farmhouse. Features include well-planted grounds surrounding the namesake tree and pond, and extra services for cyclists (since the B&B sits only a few miles from the wine circuit near Palisade and from other pedaling areas). Other inns in the area also fall into the historic hotel category. The Bross Hotel Bed and Breakfast is housed in a 1906 building, while the Canyon Creek B&B in the small town of Montrose offers a Victorian-era ambiance.
Visitors aren't confined to small-scale sleeping, however. For people who are interested in the wine and vineyards of Grand Junction and its environs, but don't want to undertake the tasting circuit, the Wine Country Inn is an excellent choice. The inn includes a working vineyard, with two additional vineyards adjacent to the property. Plenty of amenities (including a spa, lounge and exercise room) create a decidedly upscale vibe. This venue is an ideal choice for people who want to experience the region without having to get behind the wheel or book a shuttle-bus tour.
The main event in the Grand Junction/Palisade area is fruit, specifically, wine grapes. Many wineries on the Western Slope are small, independent, family-run places that have sustainable growing practices and sell most of their product to local vendors and consumers.
Canyon Wind, a winery in Palisade, grows herbicide-free grapes and utilizes a computerized drip watering system that minimizes water waste. Wine is aged underground without any need for artificially cooled cellars. As an estate winery, everything in the winemaking process is made or sourced on-site, so carbon is not an issue at all. A tasting room is open daily at Canyon Wind and site tours take place during the summertime. No reservations are required, making this a great itinerary addition for people who don't want to plan ahead.
Another organic vineyard is run by the winemakers at Mountain View Winery. Mountain View's wines are bottled on-site. A tasting room is open daily except Sundays, and no reservations are required. Fruit orchards are also on-site and visitors can pick fruit when it is in season if they don't want to simply taste and run. The estate's crops include asparagus, cherries, peaches, pears and apples. Another environmentally friendly standout, the Plum Creek Winery, was one of the original Western Slope winemakers to rely completely on local Colorado grapes to fill its bottles.
Vineyards and fruit trees are undeniably the main event in this section of Colorado, but they aren't the only attractions. Natural areas run by both the state and the federal government are found near Palisade and Grand Junction. The Western Slope is home to Grand Mesa National Forest, which is one of three contiguous protected areas that together stretch for more than 3 million acres. This almost endless natural landscape includes 3,000 miles of trails, several ski resorts, and a half-dozen 14,000-foot peaks. A more accessible area for wine country visitors is the Colorado National Monument. The 32-square-mile stretch of land features classic “Old West” landscapes, with canyons, rock formations and streams dominating the geography. Trails for hiking and cycling run throughout the monument, and it also has backcountry camping and hiking options. Highline Lake State Park, meanwhile, features plenty of shorter trails (of the one- to three-mile variety). Mountain bikes are allowed on most of the park's trails. The namesake lake draws boaters from around western Colorado. Unfortunately, for those seeking a truly natural experience, motorized watercraft are allowed on the water.
Colorado's wine country is a great destination for wine lovers who don't want to limit themselves to California's vineyards. The small-scale, family run vineyards and winemaking operations that rely on local grapes are definitely the headliners of this region. However, great scenery, a laid-back, locally focused vibe and plenty of small-scale businesses make this an ideal spot for anyone, wine drinker or not, who wants to enjoy a green vacation that supports local, Earth-minded businesses
Want more vacation ideas? Check out more eco-friendly destinations.
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