Colorado Amateurs Making Great Wine on a Smaller Scale (The Daily Sentinel)

Dan West
March 9, 2024
Winemaker Portioning Wine for Blending

There is no shortage of wine competitions across the country, but the Colorado Association of Viticulture and Enology’s annual Amateur Winemakers Competition isn’t just about the awards for home winemakers. It’s about learning to make better wine.

Amateur winemakers and the contest judges all gathered in a conference room at the Grand Junction Convention Center during this year’s VinCO conference in January to hear the winners announced, but also to get feedback from the panel of judges.

Jenne Baldwin-Eaton, a wine consultant and member of the CAVE board of directors, has judged the amateur competition for several years. She said the judges have worked to provide increased feedback to contestants in recent years.

“We really are trying to do better about giving written feedback,” Baldwin-Eaton said. “So if there is something, a flaw in the wine or something they aren’t noticing, letting them know how to make changes to improve their wine.”

The process of making wine isn’t much different whether it’s a home hobbyist or a larger commercial operations, but the equipment and scale are certainly much different.

“A lot of things are very similar — fermentation, how you’re going to process the grapes from start to finish — but some bigger challenges would certainly be oxidation on the smaller scale because they don’t have the nitrogen and the inert gas to use that we do on the commercial side,” Baldwin-Eaton said.

CAVE Director Cassidee Shull said the amateur competition has been a part of the annual VinCO conference for years. It’s an event that can help Colorado’s hobbyist winemakers get better and even go from amateur to professional.

“It is the future of our industry,” Shull said. “We’ve seen a lot of folks enter the competition and then take that step from amateur and hobbyist winemaking, entering year-after-year and receive that feedback and medals, and then … take that step and become a commercial licensed winemaker.

Getting to It

If you visit a commercial winery, the idea of doing what they do might seem overwhelming. There are large tanks, machines to crush and process grapes and acres of vines to take care of, but starting a small batch at home is easier than it seems.

Len Kusovac won this year’s Best of Show at the CAVE Amateur Winemaker Competition. He’s been entering the contest for around five years and said his first attempt didn’t go exactly as planned. It didn’t even become wine.

As a teenager, Kusovac visited some family that made wine and decided when he got home from that trip to give winemaking a try with a friend.

“Because we weren’t paying attention to the fact that you have to use water in the valve, we made vinegar,” Kusovac said. “So that was the end of that.”

It was the end for a while. However, when Kusovac bought a home in Littleton about 20 years ago, he faced a problem that got him back into the winemaking world.

His new home had a steep slope where little would grow, except weeds. After seeing a television program about grapes planted in France on the side of a mountain, he decided to try planting some vines on his property.

“I thought my (slope) isn’t that steep, so maybe I can grow some grapes,” Kusovac said. “So, in 2008 I planted Baco noir grapes. In two years, I had a harvest. Then I bought a kit and that’s how I kind of got started.”

Using a kit, which includes everything you will need to make a small batch of homemade wine, is something both amateur winemakers and the professionals recommend.

Kathy Ondrus, an amateur winemaker from Palisade, said a kit will help you learn the necessary steps to fermenting your own wine without breaking the bank.

“Start a kit. Buy a kit,” Ondrus said. “That is honestly the best way to learn because the kits are step by step. If you screw up, you’re not spending a ton of money.”

Ondrus wasn’t into wine at first, she said. But a trip to California with her husband while they were still dating got her interested in winemaking.

“I didn’t like wine, but when we took the trip we happened to stop at a bunch of wineries because my husband is a big wine drinker,” Ondrus said. “At one of the wineries, the gal that worked in the tasting room taught me about wine.”

“When we got home I thought it would be fun just to try a gallon of wine. Then it just kind of multiplied from there. My husband bought me a whole winemaking system — corker, bottler, everything.”

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