Colorado Is the New Sonoma
When I moved from the Bay Area to Colorado five years ago, a road trip through the state's wine country wasn't on my to-do list. Spoiled from having Napa and Sonoma in my backyard, I turned my nose up at the idea of Colorado wines and focused on what the state was best known for: skiing, hiking, biking, and beer. But last year, with travel limited due to the pandemic, I finally explored my new home state with an open mind.
Grand Valley, on Colorado's Western Slope, about four hours west of Denver, is an agricultural mecca. And it turns out that the sunny days and cool nights responsible for the region's famous peaches are also ideal conditions for growing grapes, particularly quicker-to-ripen, high-elevation varietals like Viognier, Riesling, and Mourvèdre. Dotted with unpretentious tasting rooms, mom-and-pop fruit stands, and family-run farms, it transported me to Sonoma's Russian River Valley, but with rocky mesas rather than redwoods.
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In recent years, a handful of ambitious chefs and winemakers have helped turn the Grand Valley region, which includes the towns of Palisade, Grand Junction, and Fruita, into a legitimate culinary destination. Colorado native and 2020 James Beard Award semifinalist Josh Niernberg was one of the first chefs to spotlight the area's bounty when he opened Bin 707 Foodbar in Grand Junction a decade ago. "This is Colorado's breadbasket," he says. "It's an area rich with agricultural history."
Niernberg's New West cuisine is infused with high desert flavors like guajillo peppers, sagebrush, and juniper berries, and dishes such as Colorado mayocoba bean cassoulet with cornmeal fried rabbit are a nod to the area's Mexican and European immigrants. Wanting to support the local wine scene, Niernberg recently began collaborating with one of Colorado's oldest wineries, Carlson Vineyards, located in nearby Palisade, to create house whites and reds under the High Desert Wine Lab label.
Over a long weekend, I quickly caught on that the best way to experience Grand Valley's vineyards and orchards is by bike. Jody Corey and Jeff Snook, owners of Palisade's hip new Spoke and Vine Motel, are the ultimate hosts, directing guests to their favorite single-track rides, tasting rooms, and restaurants. The hotel rents out cruiser bikes kitted out with baskets to hold the treats you're certain to purchase on a tasting tour of the East Orchard Mesa Loop. On this 25-mile path, riders pass a dozen wineries (including Carlson), plus farm stands like Anita's Pantry and Produce and Aloha Organic Fruit, all while taking in stunning views of the towering Grand Mesa, the world's largest flat-top mountain.
You'll be glad you pedaled up an appetite if you've been lucky enough to score a table at Pêche. One of Colorado's most exciting restaurants, Pêche combines five-star service with a welcoming, easygoing atmosphere. Chef Matt Chasseur and his wife, Ashley Fees Chasseur, both alumni of Chicago's modernist restaurant Alinea, like to say that they discovered Palisade by accident. Matt was working at a ranch 30 minutes away and realized he was doing all of his personal grocery shopping at farm stands in Palisade. "I was blown away not just by the quality of the products but by the drive and dedication of the people making them," he says. When a restaurant space became available in town, the couple scooped it up with the goal of creating a space where locals could be spoiled with hospitality and delicious food.
A celebration of Grand Valley artisans, the menu lets local ingredients shine; in peak growing season, Matt can source most everything—even wines and spirits—from within a two-mile radius. That local devotion has resonated with the community, many of whom keep weekly standing reservations.
Unable to restrain myself from the chewy sourdough served with creamy cultured butter from Ghost Rock Farm, I found myself asking to take dessert home. On learning I was staying at the Spoke and Vine, Matt happily presented my lemon meringue with lady fingers in a glass dish with a metal spoon, and asked me to have Jody and Jeff return the dishes when they dined there later that week. Now that's community hospitality.
Where to Stay
Spoke and Vine Hotel
The food- and cycling-obsessed owners of this 1950s motor lodge–turned– 18-room boutique stay in Palisade are happy to stock your mini fridge in advance with locavore snack boards curated by Taste of Palisade.
(Rooms from $159, spokeandvinemotel.com)
This year-old property is Grand Junction's first boutique stay and has 60 mountain-modern rooms. The rooftop restaurant pairs comforting fare like elk burgers and fried chicken sammies with some of the best views of the Grand Mesa and Colorado National Monument.
(Rooms from $209, thehotelmaverick.com)
Where to Eat
Opened in August 2019 by two Alinea alumni, Pêche has put Palisade on the destination dining map with its hyperseasonal fine-dining menu and laid-back vibe.
The casual sister to Bin 707 Foodbar focuses on inventive tacos (hot fried chicken with huitlacoche aioli), riffs on Southwestern staples (duck liver mousse tostadas), and seasonal soft serve in flavors like white chocolate and corn.
Bin 707 Foodbar
The pioneer of Colorado's farm-to-table scene features dishes designed around high-desert flavors paired with Grand Valley wines and cocktails crafted with regional spirits.
Handlebar Tap House
A location near popular bike trails and a menu of craft beers and creative burgers make this Grand Junction spot a favorite haunt of local cyclists.
Where to Drink
Serves locally roasted coffee infused with CBD from the owner's hemp farm by day and craft cocktails at night.
Known for its Rieslings and Gewürztraminers, Carlson also produces wines like the juicy, vibrant Exodus Blaufränkisch under its High Desert Wine Lab label, a collaboration with the chef at Bin 707 Foodbar.
The Storm Cellar
At 5,880 feet, this is one of the highest-elevation vineyards in the Northern Hemisphere, located in nearby Hotchkiss. It's earned accolades for producing crisp, acidic whites like its dry Riesling. A tasting room debuted this summer.
This Palisade newcomer already has a following for its fruit-forward, easy-drinking reds and pétnats.
Ramblebine Brewing Company
This new downtown taproom in Grand Junction features more than a dozen beers, including seasonal sours and farmhouse ales.
Colorado Mountain Winefest
Held every September in Palisade, this festival is the place to get schooled on the state's wine scene.