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