Sharing space: Two Rivers hosts Kahil Winery

By Kimberly Dean
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

In mid-September, as we drove from the Colorado Mountain Winefest at Riverbend Park in Palisade to Grand Junction, we crossed a bridge where we saw two rivers on the left side of us converge. They are the Gunnison and Colorado Rivers that inspired the name of the winery we were about to visit. The Two Rivers Winery and Chateau has several matching buildings on a large property that also contains some grapevines. The setting was something out of a picture book and was very inviting.

Tyrel Lawson at his tasting table at Colorado Mountain Winefest.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman
Two Rivers owner Bob Witham discusses the auditing process and alternating premises labeling.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman
The color­-coded labeling system to show which barrels contain Two Rivers and Kahil wines.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman
The small vineyard at Two Rivers in Grand Junction.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman

After the trip, I spoke with state Representative Steve King, R-HD 54, of Mesa County, who said that the area has a wide variety of vineyards and wine makers. Two years ago, he explained, larger winemakers in the area wanted to allow smaller winemakers to produce wine using their facilities, but there were no liquor laws to allow it. Apparently, King and Bernie Buescher, a former state representative from Grand Junction, worked on a bill to change that.

King said the bill “allowed smaller winemakers to put out a product that wouldn’t have been out there.” He added, “It is good for business, good for the Grand Valley, and good for the economy.”

A first for Colorado, Two Rivers Winery in Grand Junction is now the first winery with an agreement to allow another licensed winery to use their equipment for its own use to make wine. A bill signed by Governor Bill Ritter in 2008, House Bill 1359, now permits Colorado wineries to operate in an alternating proprietorship.

Since June 2010 Two Rivers Winery has been legally sharing crush pads, fermentation tanks, barrels, bottling equipment and storage with Kahil Winery on their existing property. According to Bob Witham, owner of Two Rivers, it took two years to iron out all the rules and regulations before they could put the new law to use. “There were no negative implications with the bill. Having an additional winery on the premises can only bring the state more revenue. It doesn’t hurt anybody.”

King added that this kind of arrangement “makes perfect sense. This doesn’t take away from anything, rather it adds a choice.” King seemed pleased to have helped this bill pass, commenting, “That’s one piece of legislation I’m very proud of because it moves that industry forward.”

I spoke with Sen. Josh Penry, R-Fruita, who was the Senate sponsor of the bill that Buescher helped shepherd through the House. He said the wine industry in Colorado has “gone from a boutique industry to a real presence.” In fact Penry said the wine industry is a “central part of how the region markets itself.” Though he hasn’t attended the annual Winefest for several years, Penry acknowledged that the 15,000-20,000 attendees from across the country make for a great party.

The interesting thing about this “alternating proprietorship” arrangement is that the owner of Kahil Winery, Tyrel Lawson, is also the winemaker for Two Rivers. During my visit to the winery (rumored to be the largest in Colorado), I spoke with Bob Witham about the possibility of conflict of interest. “There obviously has to be a high degree of trust,” he said, of which there seems to be a great deal.

Witham said he considers his agreement with Lawson an employee benefit. Some time ago, other winemaking opportunities presented themselves to Tyrel, and that sparked a conversation between them. Since Kahil Winery had no start-up money, helping Lawson get off the ground could only be mutually beneficial. Witham felt that if he could help Lawson to get his own label off the ground while making a bit of extra money, he would be “helping him be all he can be. I’m not here to keep anyone back.” There’s enough success to go around.

Both wineries must be very careful about separation and labeling throughout the process. “Everything is audited,” Witham said. According to the agreement, “We procure the supplies and will eventually get one-third of the sales from Kahil winery.” Part of the arrangement is that Kahil cannot compete with Two Rivers in making the same wine. Right now, Kahil only produces a red Malbec, which is not currently being made by Two Rivers.

I tasted Kahil’s Malbec at the Colorado Mountain Winefest as well as every wine that Two Rivers makes (and bought three bottles) while at the winery.

My head was even turned toward the Two Rivers Chardonnay, which is oaked for eleven months. I never would’ve known. Bob said the malalactic acid causes it to be softer. In general, he said, “The more acids in the wine, the longer you have to age it, and the more expensive.”

The Merlot was smooth and dry. The Riesling was refreshing, the Vintner’s Blend very drinkable, and the Port perfect, which Bob had me try with a piece of chocolate. “Some people would have dessert first and then port, but for the tastes to compliment one another, they should be consumed at the same time.” So I obediently chewed the chocolate and sipped the port before swallowing, and it was a taste explosion. Of course that is what sold me the bottle. Some people have a problem drinking on the job. Mine is buying on the job — especially when I get a small discount.

While some winemakers strive to “keep it natural” by not adding or deleting anything and “letting it be what it is,” the philosophy of Two Rivers is more about getting the wine to where they want it. It all depends on what they have to work with. There is a chemist on staff at Two Rivers who knows how to make wines more or less acidic, sweeter or drier, etc. Witham feels that for most winemakers, it is both a science and an art. It certainly is in this unique “case of wine.”