Green wine: Paving the way for the organic wine movement in Colorado

By Kimberly Dean
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

There are actually five regions in Colorado where grapes are grown, so we thought it might be interesting to taste wine made from the different areas and give our take on them. Each region has its own climate and landscape and therefore, different grapes that grow well in each area. I have tasted wines from Palisade in the Grand Valley, which were gorgeous, but I had yet to try anything from the West Elks region, which is located along the North Fork of the Gunnison River between Paonia and Hotchkiss.


Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, was kind enough to drop by after our initial conversation and leave us some wines from other Colorado regions. We decided to try them one at a time, beginning with a Riesling from Jack Rabbit Hill winery. I called simply to get some information on the wine itself, and soon became engrossed in learning about a whole new topic. Organic farming.

The Jack Rabbit Hill vineyard in Hotchkiss just before the harvest. The West Elk vineyard practices green growing.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman
Lance Hanson talks about the copper distiller in the spirit distillery across from the winery. It was made in Germany.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman
Lance Hanson sampling on the vine.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman
Anna and Lance Hanson, the winemakers
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman

Mitzi’s 2008 Single Block Riesling was grown on Jack Rabbit Hill in Hotchkiss, Colorado, which is part of the West Elks region, one of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Colorado. It is a single block Riesling, which means all the grapes were from one area, or block, of the vineyard. Jack Rabbit has three ‘blocks’ and a total of 22 acres of vineyard on a 71-acre farm, which is certified organic and biodynamic.

Ten acres of the farm are now being used to grow hops, which they plan to sell instead of make their own beer since the market for Colorado craft brews is so big here. The fact that the hops are organic will no doubt bring a specific buyer. There are also about 10 acres in protected wildlife habitat, which is separate from the other 25 acres in pasture used for five sheep, seven cows and one steer, all needed to sustain the farm in order to grow everything organically. It’s a bit different than just buying grape juice and adding yeast, isn’t it?

The Riesling bottle is labeled as a ‘Demeter Certified Biodynamic Wine,’ which indicates a certain standard of organic farming and winemaking. A biodynamic certification is a more rigorous organic standard than the USDA has, according to winemaker Lance Hanson. This gives them an edge over other organic wines.

According to Hanson, “Biodynamic refers to the sense that they help to reduce the need to bring anything in from off the farm to add to our products. Jack Rabbit is completely self-sufficient, a more closed-loop way of producing our products.” They do not use any additives like commercial yeast or enzymes, but do use compost from their own cows.

I reached state Rep. Steve King of House District 54 in Grand Junction for a conversation about the wine industry and asked for his take on organic versus traditional farming for grapes, and he said that it could be very cost-effective, and as long as it is, that is what will matter to consumers, especially in this economy. King said it would be great for peaches, grapes or any other fruit produced in the Grand Valley or Palisade. “I’m all for working towards more organic ways of raising crops,” he said.

King believes that having organic products will give consumers more choices in terms of quality and health. He says the fact that something is organic may not always be a huge factor in what people buy, but “There are those that will consume only organic products, including wine.”

I asked if King had been to the Jack Rabbit Hill farm and he said he had. “I’ve been to their distillery. You can try their bourbon and vodka also,” he said, adding that Jack Rabbit and Peak Spirits, their other venture, have the ability to offer a wide variety to the discerning customer.

Mitzi’s 2008 is named for Lance’s mother, who passed away that year and, according to her son, led a good life. “She would’ve loved this wine,” said Hanson, who describes it as a good food wine. “It’s not overly sweet. There’s a nice balance of flavors.” He cites aromas of apricots, alpine flowers, grapefruit, and citrus rind and peel. He says it is very full-bodied for a white wine, or even a Riesling. Since they sell out of their wine, you may be hard-pressed to find any, but not to worry, all of their wines are amazing, as I have recently tasted most of them while on the farm visiting.

Since I received the bottle of Riesling on a Friday morning, I put it in the refrigerator first thing after the weekend. We opened the bottle of Mitzi’s one late Monday afternoon at the office, something I’m sure many people wish they could do at the end of a typical weekday. Jody, Sara and I sampled the wine at Sara’s desk, and we all caught a smile on our faces right away!

Lance reminded me to focus on the texture and finish of the wine, suggesting that if I took my time, the experience would result in a more complex texture and aroma. “Okay, sure…” said the novice wine drinker.

None of us being experts on wine, we tried to describe it in our own ways, since our basic wine preferences tend toward either ‘like’ or ‘don’t like.’ Jody: “It goes down really smooth. I taste apples.” Sara: “It’s very soft and not dry at all.” She picked up peach flavors. I just said, “It goes down easy, that’s for sure,” but I also picked up apples, as I usually do with Rieslings. It’s one of my favorite white wines to drink at summertime with almost any light dish. Nevertheless, Jody and I polished it off. After all, it goes bad if you leave it open too long, doesn’t it? That’s a good enough reason for me! I love my job…

Lance says that 80 percent of Jack Rabbit Hill wine is sold in high-end restaurants in major Colorado markets as well as Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia. “We are featured in some of the best restaurants in D.C.,” said Hanson, which means the popularity of Colorado wine is growing. Last year, the winery sold everything they made, which was about 1,500 cases of wine.

Read the Oct. 15 Politics Uncorked to find out about new legislation that originated from the Jack Rabbit Hill farm.