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Corked

A charismatic, talented Brit is putting Colorado wine on the map. So why does almost every other vintner in the state hate him?

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Within minutes of our arrival at Table 6 on a warm summer evening, Aaron Forman, the restaurant’s general manager, is fawning over our table. A bottle of delightful sparkling wine is delivered, followed by plates of cheese, shaved meats, and chicken liver mousse. All of it is gratis. Forman is known for charming diners, but this kind of service is reserved for two of the stars of Denver’s food scene: Ben Parsons, owner of the Infinite Monkey Theorem winery, and Justin Brunson, owner of Masterpiece Delicatessen. But while Brunson is well-liked in the restaurant scene, Parsons—the magnetic British winemaker behind Denver’s hippest winery—is a red-hot commodity, the kind of guy who must be treated well just for the sake of business..

In the midst of the meal, Parsons chats with the sous chef, then heads off to tour Table 6’s new wine keg system (which operates like a draft beer system, but serves wine instead), the newest rage in chic restaurants. Parsons’ rosé, naturally, will go on tap at Table 6 in a few weeks. The table quickly downs the $80-plus in gifted wine and the food, so Parsons picks up the reserve wine list and rifles through the pages of rare, expensive bottles. The 34-year-old Englishman gives a spoken tour of fine wine in his singsongy Cockney accent, finally settling on a superb bottle of the 2005 Domini de la Cartoixa Clos Galena, a Spanish red that goes for $75. Forman glows. Quid pro quo.

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“He spends money on people’s food, and he appreciates their food,” Forman tells me, despite the fact that Parsons was comped loads of goodies. “That stuff goes a long way in the business and in the industry.”

Table 6 is only the second course on our Thursday romp through Denver. An hour earlier, at Solera, a swanky eatery on East Colfax, Parsons’ crew tossed back a bottle of wine, a beer, a shot, and a cocktail. The tab was tiny. Later, a half-dozen drinks deep, Parsons gleefully dances into the Squeaky Bean, a haute, hip Highland restaurant, where a round of beers, a round of shots, and yet another round of beers seem to appear magically. The tab: $12. The staff just seems happy he doesn’t dance on the bar or shotgun any canned brews.

Drinking and glad-handing—er, marketing—are mainstays in Parsons’ life and key to his wild success. He started the Infinite Monkey Theorem in 2008, in the middle of the recession; after one year, he doubled his operation from 2,000 to 4,000 cases. Thanks to his unending onslaught on the city’s bars and restaurants, Parsons’ wine now appears on more than 125 Denver wine lists—a higher market penetration than any other Colorado wine, and even more appearances than many Californian or European selections. “I don’t necessarily think I have the best wine in the state,” Parsons says. “I think I have the best idea.”

His idea was simple, if unusual: an urban winery. With the help of silent partners, he bought an old Quonset hut and dropped it in the Santa Fe art district, a gritty area full of warehouses and galleries. It’s not exactly the idyllic setting that comes to mind when one thinks of a vineyard or château, but that’s the point: It’s a winery in the middle of the city, more in tune with posh restaurants than the Western Slope vintners.

Then, there’s the funky name; the “infinite monkey theorem” is the concept that a monkey, given an infinite amount of time, would eventually—and entirely randomly—type the complete works of Shakespeare. Parsons picked it, in part, to stand out from the rest of the Colorado wine industry, which is heavy on geological names such as Two Rivers Winery and BookCliff Vineyards. “[Colorado] is not a traditional wine-growing region,” Parsons says. “It’s a fledgling frontier region. So do I necessarily think the same shit that worked in Napa or France is going to work here? Of course not.”

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Savvy marketing isn’t unheard of in the wine biz (see: Yellow Tail), but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that IMT wine is actually good: Take the 2008 Malbec, a bold red featuring dense blackberries and spices, or the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, an earthy and herbal Bordeaux-style white with respectable body. It’s some of the very best wine to come from the dry, temperate climate of Colorado, good enough that it doesn’t even warrant the traditional Colorado wine asterisk. (As in: “This wine is good—for Colorado.”) In IMT’s short tenure, the winery’s been featured in Sunset, Cooking Light, the Wall Street Journal, Wine Enthusiast, and this magazine. The 2008 vintage—Parsons’ very first batch—was reviewed favorably by the wine-drinker’s bible, Wine Spectator; IMT’s Syrah earned an 87, a tie for the highest mark ever bestowed on a local wine. (Any score over 85 is considered a very good wine.) “They are clean, varietally correct, polished,” James Molesworth, a senior editor of Wine Spectator, says of Parsons’ wines. “He’s obviously a very competent winemaker.”

Parsons paid his dues by working the vines in New Zealand and earning an oenology degree from the esteemed University of Adelaide in Australia. When he returned to London, he saw an ad for an open winemaking job at Canyon Wind Cellars in Palisade, Colorado. He packed up and arrived in the small agricultural town in 2001, a 25-year-old Brit with panache and a palate. His winemaking skills were unparalleled, and he soon was working as a full-time winemaker and consultant.

After Canyon Wind, he worked at Sut-cliffe Vineyards in Cortez, where he started producing bold Syrahs and crisp Chardonnays. He gave owner John Sutcliffe—himself a feisty Englishman—assistance breaking into the Denver market. But in 2008, Parsons abruptly quit—or was fired, depending on who tells the story. Both sides accuse the other of dishonesty and unscrupulous business practices, and neither man has spoken to the other since the split. “Ben was so awful to everybody in the Colorado wine industry,” Sutcliffe says. “Being charismatic, a great winemaker, creative—all of which Ben is in spades—he then throws that in your face.”

It’s a well-worn story on the Western Slope. At various times, Parsons consulted for countless wineries, including Mesa Grande Vineyards, Jack Rabbit Hill, Black Bridge Winery, and Augustina’s Winery. Few ended well. His day-to-day job at Canyon Wind ended on a sour note. He was also permanently 86’d from Le Rouge, a Grand Junction brasserie owned by John Barbier of Maison la Belle Vie Vineyards. Parsons, for his part, admits nothing more than a little immaturity. “I was 25 when I moved from London to Grand Junction,” he says. “There is a big difference between the two places, and I probably abused my position at Canyon Wind to a certain extent, like showing up hungover and stuff.”

Today, Parsons’ isolation from the industry continues. He refuses to have Infinite Monkey Theorem listed on the Colorado Wine Board’s website on the premise that it does him little good to be lumped in with the rest of the state’s wine. “Why did I start my winery?” he asks. “Because I don’t think there’s any competition.” He adds: “It’s tough to be a champ of the [Colorado] wine industry. The wine is pretty innocuous, the story is boring, it is poorly marketed. It’s so old. It’s stale and stagnant.”

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“He has promoted his wine at the expense of other [winemakers],” says Doug Caskey, the executive director of the Colorado Wine Board. “He’s not afraid to express his attitude.” Yet Parsons’ skills as a winemaker are unquestioned by virtually all who have worked with him. Winemaking is both science and art, and Parsons is the rare vintner who knows what to do in the lab and with the canvas. “My vineyard is better for having Ben Parsons,” Sutcliffe says. “Canyon Wind is better for having Ben Parsons.” Sutcliffe’s putting on a good face, but his words are genuine.

On a chilly spring day, Parsons leads a Quonset hut tour for three attractive couples in their 30s. They’ve spent the last few hours watching Parsons scale the racks of barrels, stacked a half-dozen high, to pull samples for this private tour and barrel tasting. There’s no fancy tasting room, just cement floors with drainage holes that pull double duty as spit buckets.

The girls flirt with the winemaker as their boyfriends stand by, admiring him. Parsons has charmed them all during the $50 per person tour; they will all tote a case or two home. “I think people pick up on my enthusiasm,” Parsons says. “They know that it’s a passion, and they see that I am genuine in my love of what I am doing. It’s contagious.”

Parsons is hoping his passion will continue to spread. He just released his 100th Monkey—a red blend of Petit Verdot, Syrah, Malbec, and Petite Sirah. At $50, it will be his most expensive offering, out of reach for just about everyone except hard-core wine-lovers or folks splurging for a special occasion. He’s planning to open a restaurant called Lechón—which means suckling pig in Spanish—next year with Brunson, his good friend. It’ll be just up the street from Masterpiece; Brunson will handle the pork- and seafood-heavy menu, while Parsons will tackle the beverages. Parsons is also starting to turn his gritty winery space into an East London–style, chic wine bar; the renovation of the patio started this past spring, and by early 2011, the roof of the office building could be popped to make room for a restaurant and indoor bar.

Unraveling his blueprints, Parsons is nothing short of giddy. He’s left the Western Slope in his wake, turning a Quonset hut into a brand known outside of the state; soon, he will have two of his own restaurants. He can already hear the music in the background, the cackle of neighborhood regulars stopping in for a small plate and a bottle, and the corks being popped during Denver’s best wine party.

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Jacob Harkins is a Denver writer, executive sommelier, and the founder of www.coloradowino.com.

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