Ten years ago, Bill Conkling worked in quality assurance at Anheuser Busch where he tested batches of beer for a living. Now, he crushes Colorado-grown grapes into more than 12,000 bottles of wine each year.
In 2007 he saw an opportunity to produce wine in Northern Colorado, so he started Ten Bears Winery in Laporte during his spare time. After 8 years of promoting his wine at farmers markets and festivals, he grew the business into his full-time job.
“It’s a real different wine industry than, say, California where you have people educated in fermentation science and enology and in the industry itself,” he said. “[In Colorado], you’ve got former DJs, former engineers and people like me who are kind of trying to bring [wine] around and make it something worthwhile.”
Conkling is a part of a growing group of Colorado winemakers that are making their living by pushing against the grain of the state’s thriving craft brew scene.
More than 140 Colorado winemakers produced 350,000 gallons of wine last year. That’s up from 1995, when the state’s winemakers produced just under 30,000 gallons, according to Colorado’s Wine Industry Development Board, which collects data on the industry and helps market local blends.
The production generated nearly $300 million and 2,000 jobs within the state, according to the board.
Doug Caskey, the board’s director, said marketing campaigns have bolstered the small-but-mighty industry. The group has plastered billboards along I-70 advertising Colorado wine and produced promotional videos online. It has also helped enter local wines into statewide, national and international competitions.
“It’s a growing industry,” he said. “More and more people are interested. They love the lifestyle, they love the romance.”
Other legal factors have triggered the industry’s growth.
State law passed in 1977 opened the door for smaller “farm wineries” to operate. In 1990, legislators passed the Colorado Wine Industry Development Act, which created the Wine Industry Development Board.
The improving taste of the state’s wine also helped, Caskey said.
In 2004, A Colorado Riesling won the World Riesling Championship at the International Eastern Competition in California. The board also created the annual statewide Governor’s Cup, which brings 250 wines from 35 local wineries together for a public tasting competition. Last year, 8 wines including a cabernet franc, syrah, riesling and raspberry were given top ratings.
But the board’s not done heightening the public profile of Colorado wines, Caskey said, though he acknowledges the journey will be a long haul - if possible at all.
“We want to see production continue to increase, but we have to walk a fine line,” he said. “We can’t make wine in a vacuum and we can’t just plant grapes anywhere in the state.”
One factor holding back the industry is Colorado’s unpredictable climate. While the dry air and sunshine make for an ideal environment to grow, cold snaps can wipe out entire crops if farmers select the wrong types of grapes.
Because of this, grape growing in Colorado is limited to about 1,000 acres. Most of which is located in Mesa County on the Western Slope.
Horst Caspari, the state viticulturist and professor at Colorado State University, works with farmers to help them select the types of grapes they’ll grow in the future.
Right now, he’s leading variety trials at the Western Colorado Research Center with 50 different types of grapes. The aim of the trials is to determine which grapes grow best in Colorado’s climate.
“Beyond that, they [also] have to make good wine,” he said. “Because if you grow a variety that is really good in the field but doesn’t resonate with the consumer, it has no value.”
He believes that, by selecting cold, heartier grapes, more farmers could begin expanding out of Mesa County.
The industry’s largest conference and trade show, VinCO, takes place in Grand Junction in January. There, industry leaders will gather to discuss future marketing and growing strategies for Colorado wine. The state’s largest wine festival, Colorado Mountain Winefest, takes place in the fall.