When it comes to craft beer, lift a glass to Colorado, whose 348 craft breweries put it in third place among states, according to the Brewers Assn. And toast to its craft distilleries, which are at the fore of farm-to-bar trends, according to Colorado.com.
But don’t stop there. Time to say “cheers” to a new and seemingly unlikely kid on the block — wine making, which is taking much of its inspiration from its craft beer forefathers.
It’s still a small industry, making up “just 2% of all wine sales in Colorado,” the Denver Post reported. But the Colorado Wine Industry group said the growth of wine in the Mile High State has increased 15% every year since 1992.
Denver, the leader of the pack, has almost 40 urban wineries. Most of the grapes are sourced from the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, where low humidity, warm days and cool nights are an ideal combination for producing wines.
“Lots of growers are exploring new cultivars, including Malbec, Graciano, Lemberger and newer cold-hardy varieties like Aromella and Chambourcin, said Kyle Schlachter, outreach coordinator for the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.
“We are always looking at ways to show the consumer that Colorado has world-class wines, but they might taste different than regions they’re used to — because Colorado’s terroir is unique, with two of the world’s highest-elevation growing regions.”
Colorado’s growing regions range from 4,000 to 7,000 feet and are the highest in North America — second highest in the world behind Argentina.
Here’s what visitors can expect as they tour Colorado’s biggest urban winery scene in the heart of Denver.
Infinite Monkey Theorem
When you think of a winery, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t graffiti-covered walls, a hodgepodge of furniture, food trucks and varietals on tap.
That’s what makes Infinite Monkey Theorem, which opened a decade ago in Denver’s artsy RiNo (River North Art District) neighborhood, so special. “No vineyard, no pretense” is its motto, so sophisticated oenophiles should leave their inhibitions at the door.
IMT’s concoctions are served in bottles and, since 2011, aluminum cans — making it the first Colorado winery with this nontraditional approach.
“IMT’s goal has always been to make wine fun, accessible and relevant to everyone all the time,” said Ben Parsons, owner and winemaker.
IMT is shaking up the wine scene, in part by adding hops to some of its varietals such as the Dry Hopped Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a collision of effervescent beer and wine notes that’s ideal for summer.
The grapes for its bottled wines are grown on the western slope of the Rockies at 4,500 feet. The most popular varietals are Cabernet Franc, Malbec and the sparkling Riesling, the aptly named Bubble Universe.
Besides its Denver and Austin, Texas, locations, IMT is sold at bars and restaurants across Colorado and is available in many liquor stores. Its canned wines are distributed in 44 states.
Info: Infinite Monkey Theorem, 3200 Larimer St., Denver; (303) 736-8376. Open daily. Public tours Fridays-Sundays, $25 per person. Private tours also available.
It’s impossible to talk about Denver’s wine scene without mentioning Balistreri Vineyards, where it all started.
The family-owned and -operated winery is 10 minutes north of downtown Denver and was the first urban winery to open in the city.
Assistant winemaker Ray Domenico’s grandparents, John and Birdie Balistreri, and his mother, Julie Balistreri, started the winery after leaving the flower business. Their tasting room, opened in 2000, is on the same block where John once sold carnations.
Balistreri is a single vineyard, single barrel, old-school institution and proud of it.
“Our brand truly is special in the sense that we are a small family-owned and -operated winery focused on making natural wines,” Domenico said. “Indigenous yeast, no sulfites, unfiltered and unfined. Our production is around 90,000 bottles a year.”
Balistreri has 15 varietals and is best known for its Syrah, Petite Sirah and Sangiovese as well as its orange-hued white wines caused by fermenting white grapes “on their skins,” like a red wine.
“We have created a following of people that enjoy juicy wines of character with zero manipulation, made in a traditional style,” Domenico said.
Info: Balistreri Vineyards, 1946 E. 66th Ave., Denver; (303) 287-5156. Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily for tastings, tours (free) and lunch.
Carboy Winery, a 20-minute drive south of Denver, is housed in an industrial building with a wooden back bar and row of craft wines on tap. Restaurateurs Eric Hyatt and Craig Jones and sommelier Kevin Webber opened Carboy in 2016.
The fusion of wine and food comes to life at their wine club dinners, which feature locally sourced dishes such as roasted beet and heirloom tomato salad with goat cheese and braised leg of lamb.
Carboy’s grapes are grown on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains where the climate is dry, allowing grapes to mature faster. Some of its most popular wines are Viognier, Albariño, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Gris.
“We are working with varietals people aren’t as familiar with but do well in Colorado’s unique climate and best showcase that terroir, like Tempranillo and Albariño from Grand Valley, and cold-hearty grapes like Viognier,” said Webber, director of operation and sales.
“We are kegging our wine in addition to bottling, which cuts down on waste, is more sustainable, carbon footprint-reducing and more economical. Plus, in a beer-driven state, pouring wine off a tap looks cool.
“We also created a tap and fill system where people can purchase a 1-liter refillable Carboy growler.”
Info: Carboy Winery, 6885 S. Santa Fe Drive, Littleton, Colo.; (720) 531-5252. Open daily. Tasting flights, $11-$15; tours from $25 by reservation.
Bigsby’s Folly Craft Winery
“We believe that it’s healthy to put down your phone and take a break from technology and pick up a glass of wine and enjoy it with friends. That it’s possible to enjoy the best wines in the world in an urban setting.”
That’s the philosophy at Bigsby’s Folly, a winery and restaurant that offers visitors a hands-on experience at its RiNo location.
“Our most popular experience is our Winemaker for a Day Blending Sessions, where guests can create their own Bordeaux blend, bottle, cork and custom label their own creation that they take home the same day,” said Bigsby’s co-founder Marla Yetka.
“It’s like a mad science experiment with beakers, pipes, measuring instruments and wine glasses.”
She said Denverites value small-batch experiences and are willing to pay for them. Bigsby’s targets this audience with diverse winery experiences such as blind tastings, where participants match red and white blends, and a VIP date-night tasting and tour, which includes a custom-labeled bottle of wine with your photo.
Brian Graham, Bigsby’s head winemaker, lives in Napa, Calif., and sources the winery’s fruit from some of the most prestigious vineyards in Northern California.
“They [the grapes] come by refrigerated truck and arrive approximately 24 hours after being picked from the vines,” Yetka said.
Bigsbys’ most popular varietals are the Rosé of Grenache from Lodi, Calif., a Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from Napa Valley; and a Pinot Noir from the Sonoma coast.
“A great winery doesn’t have to be tethered to just one piece of land,” Yetka said.
“We can source grapes from anywhere in the world and still process … right here in Denver. In fact, our Wine Club members get to participate in crushing grapes each fall during the fall harvest.”
Info: Bigsby’s Folly, 3563 Wazee St., Denver; (720) 485-3158. Tasting room open daily.
Infinite Monkey Theorem, located in Denver’s RiNo neighborhood, has a bus for when it wants to serve its wine elsewhere.(Kate Zimmerman)
The Balistreri family is behind Denver’s first urban winery.(Balistreri Vineyards)
A look at Infinite Monkey Theorem’s canned wine.(Infinite Monkey Theorem )
Bigsby’s Folly Craft Winery offers “Winemaker for a Day” custom blending sessions.(Bigsby’s Folly Craft Winery)
A look at the Carboy Winery tap room.(Carboy Winery)
Infinite Monkey Theorem has graffiti-covered walls.(Infinite Monkey Theorem)
Balistreri Vineyards takes an old-fashioned approach.(Balistreri Vineyards )
Bigsby’s Folly Craft Winery club members can help crush grapes during the fall harvest.(Bigsbys Folly Craft Winery)
Heirloom tomato salad with goat cheese at Carboy Winery, a 20-minute drive from Denver.(Carboy Winery )
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO DENVER
From LAX, From LAX, United, American, Frontier, Delta and Southwest offer nonstop service to Denver, and American, Delta, United and Southwest offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip service from $132, including taxes and fees,
More information on Denver’s wine scene
Mile High Wine Tours offers public and private visits to a number of Denver’s most popular wineries.