Great Escapes

02.01.14

Taste Off: Super Bowl State Wines From Colorado and Washington

Washington has the history and the tradition, but Colorado has lately been coming on strong. The competition in wines is just as fierce as the face off in the Super Bowl.

"The discovery of a wine is of greater moment than the discovery of a constellation. The universe is too full of stars." – Benjamin Franklin

Magnificent sporting events, like the Super Bowl, bring out fierce loyalties and unusual modes of self-identification.  Wine, in moments like this, can elicit the same effects.                                                                                                   

All 50 states vinify grapes. American viticulture is hitting its stride, and seemingly peculiar wines from seemingly even stranger places keep surfacing in respectable dining establishments throughout the United States.  Just last night, I tasted an Utahan Arneis at an innovative restaurant in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. We recently added a Virginian Cabernet Franc to the list at Momofuku Ma Peche. One of America’s most talked-about sparkling wines is produced in New Mexico. 

In honor of Super Bowl XLVIII, an impending battle between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, it seemed reasonable to explore Colorado and Washington State wines in this week’s column.

A Colorado native and fervent Broncos fan, I thought we’d begin with Colorado’s wine industry–something few people know much about and one that barely existed until 1990. That year, the state passed the Colorado Wine Industry Development Act, which created a pool of funding and allocates most of it to researching and promoting Colorado wines. In 1990, there were five licensed wineries. By 2000, there were 35 and today, there are more than 100. This leaves plenty of room for growth, of course, but momentum is building and quality is on the rise. 

Colorado’s viticultural history dates back to 1890, when then-governor George Crawford planted 60 acres of vineyards above Palisade, east of Grand Junction and west of the Rockies.  He cultivated what were at the time “the finest European grapes”–Black Hamburg, Flame Tokay, Zinfandel, Muscat and Malaga. If you’re curious about Colorado’s wine history, you can read about it here in an article published by the Colorado Business Journal in 2012. Coloradowine.com is also an excellent resource.   

Washington’s wine scene seems to hold the advantage here. But Colorado possesses a great deal of momentum.

In order to get a better pulse on the Colorado wine scene, I asked some friends who live there and spend their lives tasting wine. Master Sommelier Brett Zimmerman, who owns Boulder Wine Merchant and founded the Boulder Burgundy Festival, sees potential in Colorado’s burgeoning wine industry.    

“I am a big believer that Colorado is capable of producing wines of quality,” he says.  While he isn’t a strong advocate for Merlot in the state, Brett sees plenty of opportunity for everything from Blaufrankisch to Syrah and noted that Tempranillo has a great deal of potential given that the climate in most of Colorado’s AVAs are quite similar to Ribera del Duero.  Brett is a particular fan of Garfield Estates (especially their Syrah), Sutcliffe Vineyards, Canyon Wind, Bookcliff, Colterris, and the biodynamically-farmed Jack Rabbit Hill.

Brett’s neighbor, Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey, who owns Frasca Food & Wine and Pizzeria Locale, is also impressed with Riesling from Sutcliffe Vineyards. Aaron Forman, who has run a smart beverage program at his Denver restaurant, Table 6, for over a decade, is another fan of Sutcliffe Vineyards and Canyon Wind, as well as The Infinite Monkey Theorem and Ruby Trust Cellars (which gives their wines adventurous names like “The Gunslinger,” “The Smuggler,” and “Fortune Seeker”).

Over the hills in Aspen, Colorado, Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy (wine director at The Little Nell) had positive things to say about Sutcliffe Cinsault as well as The Infinite Monkey Theorem’s Rosé, Syrah, and Sparkling Black Moscato (sold in cans).

Infinite Monkey Theorem has also landed praise in national publications including  Wine Spectator as recently as last year. 

Washington’s wine scene, on the other hand, has deeper roots. Hudson’s Bay Company planted the first vines at Fort Vancouver in 1825. Viticultural interest spread naturally thanks to German, French, and Italian immigrants, and by 1910, the Columbia River Valley had enough interest to host its first “Grape Carnival.”  Since 1987, Washington has had its own Wine Commission, an excellent resource for all things Washington-wine related. During the past decade, the state’s Wine Institute created a wine production educational facility and research center.

For more texture on Washington’s wine pulse, I called Shayn Bjornholm. Shayn is examination director for the Court of Master Sommeliers in America and the former head of the Washington State Wine Commission. 

 Some of his favorite wineries include:

À Maurice Cellars (Anna Schafer, winemaker) in Walla Walla--especially “Sparrow” Estate Viognier.

Gramercy Cellars (Greg Harrington, winemaker) in Columbia Valley–-especially “Lagniappe” Syrah.

Andrew Will Winery (Chris Camarda, winemaker) in Yakima Valley--especially the “Two Blondes.”  (Shayn calls this winery “one of the best Bordeaux varieties producers outside of Bordeaux itself.”)

Maison Bleue (John Meuret, winemaker) in Snipes Mountain--especially “Uplands Vineyard” Grenache.

Woodward Canyon (Rick Small, winemaker) in Columbia Valley--especially the Dry Riesling (some of the fruit comes from DuBrul Vineyard in Yakima Valley, “which has a crazy dusting of calcare throughout the usual basalt and loess soils.”)

Washington’s wine scene seems to hold the advantage here. But Colorado possesses a great deal of momentum, and it isn’t bound by tradition or expectation. A few years ago, I attended a party hosted by The Infinite Monkey Theorem. It was held inside the abandoned Smuggler’s Gold Mine, where guests drank sparkling Black Moscato served in cans and ate freshly grilled steak once they emerged from the mine shaft. That was the most creative wine event I’ve ever attended. If the Broncos can harness this sort of creativity and drive in their play calling on Sunday, they’re sure to take home the trophy.