At a bar on the north side of Denver, two Englishmen are talking football – Premier League, not the Broncos. For all their arguing over Arsenal and Man U, William Davis and Ben Parsons probably ought to be drinking frothy pints of ale. Instead, the stemless glasses on the table are filled with a gorgeous deep-ruby liquid. "Sometimes wine geeks forget why we drink the stuff in the first place," says Davis, originally from North London and now a sommelier and host of a local wine podcast called Terroir Radio. He breathes deeply and approvingly of the malbec's aromas.
Ben Parsons at his urban winery Infinite Monkey Theorem.
Parsons knows the wine is good. He made it. Even more impressive: He made it from Colorado grapes, grown nearly 400 kilometres west of Denver at 1,400 metres above sea level. The craziest part? He did it in this sprawling warehouse in the city's industrial RiNo (River North) district. Today it's the home of Infinite Monkey Theorem, an urban winery named for a philosophical hypothesis about simians hammering out Shakespeare on typewriters. The attached bar called the Wine Lab, where I've come to meet Davis and Parsons, has skateboards artfully mounted on its walls next to cheekily empty wooden picture frames and a Wes Anderson movie playing on a projection screen.
Parsons offers his Infinite Monkey Theorem wine in bottles
"Colorado's always had this frontier spirit, even in our wines," says Parsons, a dark-haired bloke in neon-flecked running shoes, who first studied animal science before completing a graduate degree in oenology at the University of Adelaide in Australia. It's hardly the image you might expect of a winemaker – neither glamorous Bordelais gentleman nor dirt-encrusted Sonoma farmer. But then, the burgeoning Colorado wine scene doesn't take its cues from elsewhere. It's all charge-forth mountain spirit up in these here hills. And you can taste the evidence in these here bottles, and kegs and even… well, I'll let him tell you. "What's the least pretentious thing you can do with wine?" asks Parsons, standing next to a glowing vending machine tricked out with the image of a monkey head. "Put it in a can."
Infinite Monkey Theorem wine from vending machines
Denver is a beer town, and a scan of Parsons' neighbours shows it. Within 10 blocks of the winery sit six of America's hottest microbreweries, among them Crooked Stave and Great Divide. The ballpark, a short stroll away, is named Coors Field. But to borrow a sports metaphor: Wine in Denver is gaining ground on the front-runner. Such in-state producers as Guy Drew and Jack Rabbit Hill are popping up on wine lists at of-the-moment restaurants like Root Down and Table Six, the latter expertly pairing local wine with such hard-to-marry dishes as chicken-skin tacos and tater tots with pulled pork. "People here are finally starting to think of wine as an everyday beverage," says Parsons. "I've already got them drinking Infinite Monkey wines in the private boxes at the hockey arena where the Avalanche play. My next mission is to get it on tap at every concession stand."
to truly understand the wine that Ben Parsons is fermenting in a warehouse in downtown Denver, I drive to western Colorado's Grand Valley. It's fruit country, and home to some of America's finest peaches and cherries. The four-hour road trip takes me through breathtaking canyons, up and over ear-popping 3,400-metre mountain passes. When Parsons founded Infinite Monkey in 2008, he would drive Grand Valley grapes back to Denver in a used Dodge pickup and trailer stacked tall with strapped-down picking bins. Only the snowplow lights worked.
The poster child for Colorado wines is Tyrel Lawson, who grew up on a local farm. The former rugby champ is a winemaker for three labels.
My first stop is Canyon Wind, a 35-acre estate winery planted in the town of Palisade by the Christianson family in 1991. "Our growing season is short and intense," says the current winemaker, Jay Christianson, wearing a Patagonia soft-shell hoodie as we wander through rows of petit verdot. Formerly a ski coach at an East Coast boarding school, Christianson took over the winery full time in 2010 with his wife, Jen. At its founding it was only the sixth active winery in the state (today there are more than 100, a few of which have recently scored high marks in Wine Spectator and Wine & Spirits). My visit to the vineyard tells the story of this landscape: A lush green swath of vines hugs the Colorado River, but venture too far from the water and the terrain turns rocky and desert-like, rising up steep hills to form tabletop mesas. Surrounding the vineyard is an electrified fence, to keep out fruit-hungry bears. "Summer doesn't last long but it's always sunny, and the light at this altitude is very intense. The UV rays drive our great skin development, producing lots of pigment and phenolic compounds," Christianson tells me. I can see and smell the results in a glass of petit verdot, traditionally a workhorse blending grape from Bordeaux that here delivers an opaque, inky red wine with powerful aromas of plums and rawhide.
Canyon Wind’s 47-Ten Rosé
The next day, I meet the poster child for Colorado wine, a humble 28-year-old named Tyrel Lawson who is currently the winemaker for three labels: Two Rivers, Colterris and his own project, Kahil. Lawson grew up on an alfalfa farm in the hills above Grand Junction, a western Colorado hub for adventure-sports athletes drawn by the rocky mesas all around us. The rugby player got his start working in the vineyard at age 18. "I was just trying to stay in shape during the off-season," he says, his crooked nose showing signs of his favoured position: lock.
Walking around in gumboots and with skin tanned to match the colour of his grapes – "I wear sunscreen for the first few weeks of the season, but eventually I give up" – Lawson cuts a much more Old World figure with his winemaking style, striving for acidity and complexity. A meaty syrah that we taste together at Two Rivers reveals fabulous black-olive notes. "When it was fermenting in the tank, it smelled like someone had poured liquid smoke in there," says Lawson with obvious excitement. Like many of the best Colorado wine-makers, he's slowly shifting away from consumer-friendly varietals that struggle in the mountains – cabernet sauvignon ripens problematically late – to grapes that mesh better with this high-altitude terroir, like malbec.
Canyon Wind winemaker Jay Christianson (at right)
Eating dinner at Bin 707 (the little kitchen in downtown Grand Junction is run by a former pro snowboarder), where locals crowd around the long copper bar and the menu is written on chalkboards, I experience first-hand the way in which Lawson's wines work best with food. My dining companions, Theresa and Scott High – you couldn't invent a better surname for a Colorado-based wine-making family – open a bottle of their Colterris 2010 cabernet franc, which has winemaker Lawson's fingerprints all over it. The bright acidity of this cool-weather grape works in tandem with an earthy housemade liver and truffle pâté, the wine clearing up any organ flavours lingering after every bite and sending me back for more of each.
Looking out over the Colorado River at the Colterris winery
The Highs' nearby farm spans 126 acres, but only 35 acres are planted with grapes – so far. Scott mentions that they've recently pulled up a block of cherries and replanted it with more cab franc. "There's a saying in Tuscany that wherever great peaches grow, so will grapes," says Scott. "I believe it."
Back in Denver at Infinite Monkey, I bid Parsons and Davis a good evening. Then I make my way across the street and into the Populist, a cramped, lively American bistro that opened on the same November night in 2012 as the Wine Lab. The crowd here is heavy on flannel and fleece, and there's a patio with ivy and strung lights for Denverites who just can't get enough of the great outdoors.
Grapes on the vine at Grande River Vineyards
A bartender pulls glasses from three taps – all pour wines made by Parsons. Turns out I've tried two of them already. "Give the rosé a shot," the sommelier, Liz Batkin, says. "It's dry, with a sort of Old World authentique to it." I wonder aloud – it's clearly the wine talking at this point – whether this sporty hipster crowd is loving these wines as much as I am. "It used to be harder to get people to drink wine from Colorado," she answers. "But I can sell any kind of wine if it tastes good. And now, our wines really are good."
Colorado Travel Essentials
01 Bob and Billie Witham, owners of Two Rivers Winery and Chateau, named the 10 rooms of their château-style inn – set in the shadow of the Colorado National Monument – after such French locales as Champagne, Montrachet and Alsace. Wander into the adjoining winery and tasting room and you might run into winemaker Tyrel Lawson.
2087 Broadway, Grand Junction, tworiverswinery.com
02 Set alongside downtown Denver's Museum District, Capitol Hill Mansion is an eight-room guesthouse in a 123-year-old ruby-sandstone residence offering suites that include amenities such as fireplaces and whirlpool tubs. The hospitality of owner Carl Schmidt and his daughter Bailey extends to a gourmet breakfast in the antique-furnished dining room.
1207 Pennsylvania St., Denver, capitolhillmansion.com
5 Wines to Drink in Colorado
Infinite Monkey Theorem - 100th Monkey
A dense and long-finishing blend of cabernet franc, syrah, petite syrah and malbec from Grand Valley fruit. theinfinitemonkey-theorem.com
Colterris - Cabernet Franc
From the domaine’s Katie’s Vineyard site near Palisade,here’s a red full of energy and complex aromas that pairs well with duck breast.
Canyon Wind - Petit Verdot
This traditional blending grape from Bordeaux shines solo under the Western sun with rich notes of leather and cassis.
Jack Rabbit Hill - M&N
A blend of meunier and pinot noir grapes – hence the name – shows off the bright fruit and freshness of the Hotchkiss hills.
Guy Drew, Russell Vineyard - Dry Riesling
Grown above 2,000 metres in the southwestern hills of Montezuma Valley, this wine pairs perfectly with Asian cuisines.