Colorado’s Grand Valley on the Western Slope is one of the state’s two federally designated grape growing regions, where wine grapes thrive at high elevation for many of the state’s 150-plus wineries.
Boulder’s four wineries and tasting rooms — BookCliff Vineyards, Settembre Cellars, Silver Vines Winery and Vinnie Fera Wine — all source grapes from this region. But only BookCliff has its own vineyard there.
John Garlich and Ulla Merz, who met at CU Boulder, bought BookCliff in the eastern Grand Valley in 1995, after taking springtime trips to Moab, Utah that passed through Colorado’s wine country.
BookCliff today sprawls across 40 acres in the town of Palisade at the southern mouth of De Beque Canyon, where the Colorado River runs through. Grapes grow best near rivers, which regulate temperature, and when cool air (in this case, from the canyon) drains down into lower land, reducing the risk of frost.
“It’s the million-dollar wind right in there,” Merz said of the canyon’s breeze that falls directly on their vineyard.
There, BookCliff grows 14 grape varietals and produces more than 5,000 cases yearly — or roughly 12,000 gallons of wine. For any major wine-growing state, that would be a minuscule fraction of production.
But Colorado’s wine industry is small — stunted in part by climate-fueled drought, extreme weather and a shrinking Colorado River. The state now produces about 550,000 gallons each year (compared to California’s 780 million gallons). Despite rough growing years, BookCliff has persisted by doubling down on its consumer focus and introducing new grapes to Colorado, it says.
The vineyard endured a severe freeze in October 2020, which killed most of its grapevine buds.
“We didn’t have a crop in ‘21,” Garlich said. “We were just training the vines back up from the ground.”
Growing BookCliff: Basement wine-making
Before buying BookCliff Vineyard, wine lovers Garlich and Merz attempted to grow grapes in their Boulder backyard — and struggled.
There’s a reason there are no vineyards on the Front Range: It’s typically 10 degrees colder on the east side of the Rocky Mountains than the Western Slope, where most of Colorado’s wine grapes are grown. Still, there have been native grapevines around Boulder for centuries.
“No doubt people did make wine out of the native grapes,” said Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. Grapes harvested on the Front Range were likely made into small-batch wine for friends and family, before Colorado’s liquor licensing was codified in 1935.
By 1996, Garlich and Merz were commuting to their vineyard from Boulder on weekends to plant grapevines, first on six acres, while working respectively as a structural engineer and in software development during the week. They cultivated an additional two acres every year after that.
In the basement of their Boulder home, the couple crushed grapes and bottled their first batch of wine in 1998. They sold about 2,000 cases, or 4,500 gallons of wine, that year and for a few years after.
As BookCliff Vineyards grew, Garlich and Merz purchased a neighboring parcel of land in Palisade and expanded sales from local farmers markets to liquor stores and restaurants. The couple opened their current winery on Boulder’s Lee Hill Drive in 2008 and moved on from basement wine-making. They added a tasting room to the Boulder winery the following year.
But without tours or a tasting room in Palisade, Garlich and Merz still didn’t have visitors at the vineyard. So in 2019, Garlich built the new tasting room bar inside a garage on the vineyard’s property. Last year, they added a covered deck that seats around 50 people with a view of the Western Slope. BookCliff will start vineyard tours this summer.
‘I see it as an advantage that the really large wineries can’t turn on a dime.’
Colorado’s growing conditions are similar to those in large wine-producing states, including California, Oregon and Washington. But Caskey described Colorado wine as “a tiny, tiny industry,” in part, he said, because of Colorado’s relatively limited access to water.
“Our statewide production is tiny, compared to even one big winery in California,” Caskey said. “They have the Central Valley and other places where there’s, I used to say, ‘unlimited water.’ But it’s no longer unlimited.”
California has long received the largest allotment of the shrinking Colorado River’s water, mostly used for irrigation, out of seven states. Its Central Valley consistently produces about 10 tons of grapes to the acre, according to Caskey.
“If we get more than four [tons], we’re excited,” Caskey said of Colorado’s wine grape production. The state’s average falls closer to two or three tons per acre. It would be far less if canal irrigation in 1882 hadn’t diverted Colorado River water to Palisade, enabling an influx of vineyards, apple and peach farms there.
With less production than other wine regions, Colorado wineries like BookCliff have had to develop new approaches to stay in business.
Napa Valley does most of its business from shipping wine to restaurants, liquor stores and individuals around the country, according to Garlich and Merz. BookCliff focuses on the latter.
“Almost three-quarters of our business is direct-to-consumer, and it’s going more that way,” Garlich said.
“I see it as an advantage that the really large wineries can’t turn on a dime,” Garlich added. “In Colorado, we don’t have that problem.”
BookCliff Vineyards consistently develops new wines, like Touch of Red, a sweet rosé, and Folly Red, a blend with flavors of raspberries, cherries and soft tannins. They were both released in 2007.
“We were the first to plant [Graciano grapes] in Colorado that I’m aware of,” Garlich said of the red wine grape from Spain. BookCliff bottled its first batch of Graciano wine in 2015.
Since 2014, the Governor’s Cup Selection has annually awarded the top dozen Colorado wines from more than 200 submissions. BookCliff’s 2016 and 2018 Graciano wines placed. Its 2020 Graciano received a gold medal in the San Francisco International Wine Competition.
BookCliff introduced Souzão, a Portuguese grape typically used for port, in a 2015 dry red wine. Garlich and Merz make a port-style wine with Souzão, picking the grapes later in the season so they have more sugar.
The couple serves it during the monthly wine-pairing dinners they put on with Eric Skokan, owner of Black Cat restaurant. Garlich and Merz have hosted the 36-seat dinners, set among BookCliff winery’s barrels, since 2009.
“In October, January was sold out,” Merz said. By December, there were no more tickets for February’s dinner. The dinners, the couple says, are a way for them to get to know Boulderites. They also appreciate their regular customers.
“Instead of going to a liquor store, they come here,” Merz said of customers who stop into the winery. “We create this community, and they support us.”