From all across the United States they come to stomp grapes, tour cellars and swirl and sip wines.
It’s all part of the wine-tourism trade, a small but steadily growing segment of the hospitality business that has gained increased traction over the past decade in Colorado.
Although relatively new to the wine scene, Colorado wineries are putting themselves on the map, vying for out-of-state visitors with the likes of Oregon, Washington state and even California.
Colorado wineries are winning regional, national and international competitions — the Colorado Mountain Winefest, Southwest Wine Competition and the Tasters Guild International Wine Competition, to name a few.
These awards have a domino effect.
Travel writers descend on the mountains, canyons and deserts where Colorado’s vineyards flourish. In turn, each article published in USA Today, The New York Times or Sunset magazine garners more attention for the industry, more website hits, and more visits to local wineries, said Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.
“Wine is the poster child for agri-tourism,” he said. “We’re the sexy part of agri-tourism.”
Although commercial wine production began in 1899, with grape production doubling to more than 1 million pounds in 10 years, Prohibition killed the industry, which took decades to recover. Wine production resurfaced commercially in 1968, but didn’t take off again until the 1990s.
Since 1992, production has increased tenfold to 110,000 cases. In 1990, the state had five licensed wineries. That number has since skyrocketed to 96.
Today, it’s estimated that wine-based tourism results in more than $40 million in wine and related sales each year.
It doesn’t hurt matters that the “terroir,” or taste of place, on the western slopes is ideal for wine production, with soils rich in minerals, hot afternoons and rapidly cooling nights, all conducive to grape growing.
Key to boosting business even further, industry leaders say, is greater collaboration between wineries and tourism agencies so that more cross-promotion can happen.
To an extent, that’s already taking place.
For example, when people visit Grand Junction to go mountain biking, event planners offer a wine dinner or tour of a winery as part of hotel and travel packages, said Jennifer Grossheim Harris, marketing coordinator for the Grand Junction Visitor’s and Convention Bureau.
Although some visitors come specifically for the wine, more often than not their visits include other recreation, such as white-water rafting, hiking or attending art and music festivals.
And sometimes, it’s the wine that brings in the crowds.
In Palisade last year, nearly 8,000 people from 33 states attended the Colorado Mountain Winefest, said Sarah Catlin, director of Colorado Mountain Wine Fest. Visitors came from as far away as England and Washington, D.C.
Catlin attributes the out-of-state crowds to greater collaboration with the chamber and visitor’s bureau and to social media, including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
Events that are “multi-purpose,” featuring more than wine, attract much larger crowds. For example, the Festival Italiano in Lakewood, which features Italian foods and Colorado wines, saw nearly 100,000 visitors last year.
The wineries themselves do all they can to lure more visitors.
At J.A. Balistreri Vineyards in Denver, the quaint charm of a log-cabin winery and handcrafted wines are juxtaposed with modern marketing, Facebook fans and a state-of-the-art Web site.
Visitors to the winery can relax on a patio, surrounded by lattice work, hanging plants and clusters of tables where asiago cheese, salami, crackers and, of course, wine are served. Inside the small, brightly lit winery, locals and tourists — up to 200 a day on the weekends — swirl syrah, viognier or port before buying a bottle or two.
At Balistreri, the wine doesn’t age in dust-covered barrels in a cellar full of cobwebs. The barrels are neatly stacked in a clean, tidy room, and co-owners John, Birdie and Julie Balistreri know — without reading labels — which barrel holds a spicy late-harvest merlot or a chardonnay with hints of pear and citrus. The cellar opens up to yet another patio, where guests, surrounded by overflowing purple flowers, nosh on dinners prepared by local chefs and sample wine from the barrels each spring.
In Canon City, The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey tackles marketing the old-fashioned way. It relies on billboards at each end of town to draw visitors, and it mails out 15,000 catalogs each year to visitors from all over the nation. In-state and out-of-state visitors are divided almost equally at Holy Cross.
In marketing, quirky often helps.
Although the winery’s Riesling and merlots are top sellers, the “Wild Canon Harvest” has a waiting list of 3,000 people each season. It’s made only from fruit grown near the winery. Local farmers bring in their grapes, of all different varieties, which are crushed together and released the week of Thanksgiving.
“It’s insanely popular,” said Sally Davidson, partner and sales manager for the Holy Cross winery.
While wine tourism is on the rise, most of the state’s wine is still bought by Coloradans.
State enologist Stephen Menke is helping farmers improve the quality of their wines and yield of their vineyards.
Consistency, in growing grapes and making wine, is key to producing better wine over time.
The variability of Colorado’s climate means that certain grapes thrive in specific regions. Pinot noir grapes, for instance, need mountain slopes. They don’t flourish in the Grand Valley because it’s too warm, but petit verdot grapes need some heat.
Menke is testing Portuguese and Spanish grapes on the western slopes, and in Delta County, where the elevation is nearly 5,000 feet above sea level and the climate is dry.
To increase production, Menke said that more grapes need to be grown on the Front Range.
Blended wine made from Front Range grapes will appeal to younger consumers, he said, because the grapes grown there have more acid and are more “fruit-forward,” making it easier to match the wine with food.
Younger consumers tend to drink lighter wines, and to broaden the wine-industry base, the state’s growers need to appeal to that niche, he said.
“If it tastes good to people, we may even convert some beer drinkers to wine drinkers,” Menke said.
And if they’re from out of the state, so much the better.