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Between Colorado’s hard freeze last October, the coronavirus pandemic, massive wildfires in the western half of the state, and the cancellation of the Colorado Mountain Winefest, it’s been a rough year for the Centennial State’s wine industry. Even so, local winemakers and grape growers are forging ahead and crossing their fingers that nothing else disrupts their business as the 2020 harvest season progresses.
In early September, the wine grape harvest kicked off about three weeks earlier than normal, thanks to this summer’s high temperatures and dry conditions, according to Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. But an early harvest actually doesn’t have much of an impact on growers and winemakers, and, in fact, may be a good thing, since it gives grape vines more time to harden off and prepare for impending lower temperatures, says Caskey.
The damage caused by a hard freeze in late October 2019 has led Grand Valley grape growers to expect yields that are about 50 percent lower this year, depending on the location. But that’s not necessarily bad news either: Lower yields often produce higher-quality wines, since the soil’s nutrients are spread across fewer grapes. It’s also less worrisome than you might think because reduced sales during the pandemic and a strong 2019 harvest have likely left wineries statewide with a surplus of wine in stock. “The fact that this year’s harvest is going to be greatly reduced from normal is too bad, but nobody’s really worried about it because we’re sitting on a surplus from last year,” says Caskey.
Anther potential impact on the 2020 vintage: Smoke taint from the Pine Gulch Fire north of Grand Junction and Grizzly Creek Fire near Glenwood Springs, which are still burning. Caskey says it’s still too early to tell whether smoke will affect the grapes and ensuing vintages, but winemakers can make some adjustments during the production process, if needed.
As harvest continues in the fields, many wineries are still grappling with the effects of the pandemic. Colorado’s wineries tend to have diverse business models, which means that some were hit harder than others during the mandatory tasting room closures this spring. Caskey notes that wineries with large wine clubs—basically, wine subscription services—and strong direct-to-consumer sales have been able to weather the storm much better than those that rely more heavily on tasting room visits.
Like other hospitality industry businesses, many local wineries transitioned to curbside pickup, delivery, and online ordering to stay afloat—and they also got creative.
Snowy Peaks Winery in Estes Park, for instance, began live-streaming its regular live music shows on Facebook during the shutdown, then transitioned to socially-distanced patio seating for outdoor concerts later in the summer.
The team at Whitewater Hill Vineyards & Winery in Grand Junction hit the road, hand-delivering wine to customers across the state on several 1,000-plus-mile road trips. “Most wineries have been very successful at finding means to adapt to the pandemic and connect with consumers,” says Caskey. “So, yeah, many wineries are reporting that they’re down from previous years, but it’s not as bad they expected. And some wineries have actually told me they’re up.”
Carboy Winery, which has locations in Capitol Hill, Littleton, and Breckenridge, offered deep discounts on bottles and cases and hosted virtual wine tastings for groups who would’ve otherwise booked in-person events. “They’ll all tune in for a private Zoom webinar, and we’ll get on there and talk about the wine,” says Kevin Webber, who leads the sales and market strategy for Carboy. “They have a great time because it’s very personalized. They’re sitting in their home drinking wine and talking to us.”
Wineries in Mesa County benefitted from a variance which allowed them to reopen their tasting rooms at 50 percent capacity without needing to offer food, as was required in the rest of the state. But those same wineries also saw tasting room visits disappear almost completely in August during the two-week closure of I-70 caused by the Grizzly Creek Fire.
When the tasting room at Palisade’s Sauvage Spectrum reopened in mid-July, it began hosting self-contained RVers through Harvest Hosts, a Vail-based membership program for recreational vehicle owners. The 10-month-old winery hosted dozens of campers at its three scenic spots before the I-70 closure made it more challenging for travelers to get to the Western Slope. The interstate reopened in late August, bringing Sauvage Spectrum hope that RV travel will pick up again.
“People have all been so great and supportive—they’re buying cases of wine and taking it back all over the United States,” says Sauvage Spectrum owner Kaibab Sauvage, who also farms and sells grapes through his trade business, Colorado Vineyard Specialists. “A lot of months, those were our only sales, those people coming through and camping.”
After a two-month closure, Cañon City’s Winery at Holy Cross Abbey partnered with neighboring Abbey Events Complex in early June to offer a food menu at its tasting room. It set up 12 socially distanced tables outside for in-person tastings and began operating more like a restaurant. To accommodate the additional seats, owner Larry Oddo hired more staff members, even though the business was suffering—and he’s making it work. “They’re covering a lot more real estate, going through a lot more pairs of shoes than they were standing behind the bar, but we’re persevering, we’re rising to the challenge,” Oddo says. “We pivoted the way we needed to pivot and that’s what wineries need to do.”
He’s already in talks with contractors about enclosing some of the winery’s outdoor space with plexiglass shielding and adding heaters to make it both safe and comfortable as the temperatures drop. Even so, he says something needs to change or his and other wineries may not survive. Much of their business comes from live events and festivals, many of which have been canceled for the foreseeable future. “What we’re doing now is not sustainable in the long-term,” he says. “ It’s not business as usual and there’s nothing fun about what we’re doing right now, unfortunately.”
Even though the industry’s largest festival—September’s Colorado Mountain Winefest—was canceled this year, there are still plenty of ways you can safely celebrate the 2020 harvest and support the state’s wine industry. Go for a tasting at a local winery with an open-air patio; take a tour of multiple wineries—self-guided biking tours of Grand Valley wineries are great for fall; or order Colorado wines at local restaurants and for delivery or curbside pick up. You’ll sip on something delicious and bring revenue to local wineries and grape growers at this crucial time for small businesses.