Colorado hopes to be next big wine region

NEW YORK Tue Apr 15, 2008 9:36am EDT

Glasses and bottles of Chateau Belcier red wine are seen in a testing room in Saint Emilion, southwestern France, November 6, 2007. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

Glasses and bottles of Chateau Belcier red wine are seen in a testing room in Saint Emilion, southwestern France, November 6, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Regis Duvignau

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Say Colorado and cowboys, mountains, snow, film festivals and movie stars may come to mind. But about 60 wineries and the Colorado tourist board hope wine will also be on the list.

Wine lovers like to find undiscovered areas and Colorado wants to be that new region.

"We've been growing grapes out here for 100 years or more," said Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.

"The common wisdom is that grapes have to suffer to make good wine and this is a good place for that. The climate sometimes forces you to replace vines every 10 or 20 years. Even 30-year-old vines are exceptional."

The independent spirit associated with the American West combined with mid-life job frustration seems to be powering the state's wine industry. The Colorado wineries are what Caskey called "mom and pop" operations. Annual production is under 10,000 cases.

"We wanted to get out of the rat race," said Guy Drew, explaining why he and his wife, Ruth, started their winery in 1997.

Raised in upstate New York with a passion for the outdoors and fly-fishing, the 50-year-old entrepreneur had his own materials handling business. Denver-native Ruth Drew, 60, worked in interior design before becoming a paralegal. After hunting for just the right spot, they fell in love with a 194-acre (78.5-hectare) property that was half-planted in hay and had a creek running through it.

"I always seemed to miss that memo that said 'You can't do that'. For better or worse I was committed to learning how to make wine. With the help of some consultants, the people who went to (University of California at) Davis, I managed to stay out of trouble and now, I think I got the hang of it," he said.

They produce about 2,500 cases annually and have plans to increase production to 15,000 cases. They make Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Rose, Riesling and Chardonnay. Most of the wine is consumed in Colorado, but they ship directly to consumers.

When Ulla Merz arrived from Europe to get her Ph.D. in computer sciences in the 1970s, she never imagined that she would be involved in the wine business.

She and her husband, John Garlich, shared a love of wine and their passion grew as he built a 200-bottle wine cellar.

"We had these grapes shipped in from California and started making wine," Merz chuckled.

By 1994, the pair decided they wanted to do something together. So Merz, a software project manager consultant, and Garlich, a civil engineer, bought a vineyard.

"His passion was in growing, planting the vineyard. He would plant until midnight. It was therapeutic really. He really enjoys growing things," she said.

BookCliff Vineyards started operations in 1999. The couple

live in Boulder and work in the vineyard during weekends. The winery is in the basement of their Boulder home.

"Once you get into the winemaking part, the selling the wine part becomes an all-absorbing endeavor," said Merz. "Either you sell, you bottle, or you crush. There's always something to do."

They produce about 2,500 cases a year.

"This is the first year we've produced Riesling and it seems to be going over very well," Merz said, adding that all the wine is produced from Colorado-grown grapes and most of it is consumed in Colorado.