Riesling Vineyard at Stone Cottage Cellars.

Traveling the West Elks Wine Trail

There aren’t many American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) with wine events providing the level of approachability, intimacy, information, and scenery as the West Elks Wine Trail. Sponsored by the West Elks AVA, the opportunity to visit up to 10 wineries providing a wide breadth of offerings over a three-day weekend couldn’t be passed up. Janine and I engaged two friends of ours, Mitch and Judy, and we set out a plan to fully immerse ourselves in what the valley had to offer. We weren’t disappointed.

Approachability, intimacy, and information—begin with the winemakers but shines with the wines. There is no better wine and valley evangelists than Karen Helleckson of Stone Cottage Cellars where we began our weekend journey Friday afternoon, and Jayme Henderson of The Storm Cellar, where we ended it Sunday. Both wax eloquently about a wine’s providence with each pour. More than learning about the grapes and vintage, we learned about the vineyards, attributes of the season, and harvest. 

Karen Helleckson
Jayme Henderson

Karen and Jayme represent two generations of wine production in the valley. 

Karen with winemaker husband Brent, began their adventure in 1994 searching for a lifestyle better suited for raising a growing family. They found their dream in buying an untended vineyard on Garvin Mesa outside of Paonia. Their estate-grown wines include Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. 

Jayme and co-winemaker Steve Steese’s adventure began in 2017 having fallen in love with the country during their life travels, engaging in their passion for wine working in Denver’s culinary scene as sommeliers. They found their dream on Sunshine Mesa, attaining a large older vineyard in need of rehabilitation containing large blocks of Riesling.

Jayme Henderson and Janine Vanderburg

The wines of both wineries take advantage of the strengths a high altitude cool grape growing climate supports. For whites, an acute freshness, with floral and fruit exciting the nose and mouthfeel, nicely balanced with crisp but not overbearing acidity. Reds tend towards restraint and elegance, nicely balanced in body and clean finish. White or red, the wines were genuinely approachable, staying true to a varietal’s ultimate expression. We found Stone Cottage’s Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Merlot as standouts, as well as Storm Cellar’s Double Switch Back (a stunning blend of Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Gris), All the Flowers (another great blend of Gewurztraminer, Orange and Blanc Muscats, and Sauvignon Blanc), and Albariño. 

Jayme and Steve have a knack for crafting white blends. Both wine blends share prominent floral bouquets, are delicate and lean in body, and finish dry and crisp—perfect warm-weather inspired wines. As a seasoned mixologist, Jayme is undoubtedly the driver of the blends. She shares her knowledge and experience via her website Holly and Flora, “a sommelier’s journey through seasonally inspired drinks”.

One special stop of the Wine Trail not only provided the opportunity to converse with the winemaker but also a personal and heartfelt set of music performed by Alfred Eames of Alfred Eames Cellars, and his wife Pam Petersen. Eames is a first-generation West Elks grape grower, planting his vineyard Puesta del Sol in the 1990s. Long recognized for his artfully crafted reds, Eames received a Winemaker of the Year award this year from the Colorado Wine Journal. The estate Pinot Noir was the best Pinot of the tour. 

Eames red blends are also renowned. Many of the red grapes Eames uses for winemaking come from the Grand Valley AVAwith its lower elevation, and longer warmer growing season more suited to bringing red grapes supporting hardier wines to maturity. Our favorite blends were the Collage (traditional French Bourdeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot), and Sangra del Sol (Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot). When asking Eames, he’ll tell you his sentimental favorite is the Tempranillo, the first wine he made, which fondly takes him back to his formative “young man” grape harvesting years in Spain.

Janine and I actually began our Wine Trail weekend one day early enjoying Thursday evening Tapas with owner Cindie Sorensen at ZenZen Gardens, who pours Eames wines exclusively. Located on the fertile valley floor, ZenZen’s lovely gardens receive high marks in the scenic category within the West Elks.

There aren’t many stops on a wine tour where the winemaker bakes you pizza and bread in a fiery hot wood-burning oven, as you sip and converse about the wines. Such a place and person is Rob Kimbell of 5680′ Vineyards. Rob has a story with every pour, forming connections between you and the wine. We thoroughly enjoyed his clean and refreshing Chardonnay, and his estate Syrah also made a positive impression. Trying our first fruit wine of the weekend, the Cherry wine is one of the best I’ve had—and I’ve made a few myself! There is no mistaking the wine is made of cherries, strong in the nose with a delicious round body, which finishes dry, maybe, with a slight undercurrent of sweetness.

One of the more inviting and scenic outdoor patios overlooking the West Elks mountains, with an adjoining open aired tasting bar is provided at Qutori Wines. Talking to owners and vintners Julie Bennett and her son Kyle, we were able to discover information about their vineyards and learn of Julie’s artistic flair in designing the wine labels and art for Qutori’s website. Their wines also stood on their own, with the Pinot Rosé and estate Pinot Noir as standouts.

Julie and Kyle Bennett
Qutori Patio curtesy John Fielder

And to push things up a bit more on the approachable scale, our visit to Black Bridge Winery, had owner Lee Bradley touring us through his Riesling and Pinot Noir vineyards (adjacent to a large grove of Cherry trees), via a tractor pulling us seated on a large red wooden wagon. Providing each a charcuterie plate and sample of Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Cherry wine accompanied the tour with Lee’s good humor. He proudly informed us of the recent dedication of his 55-acre agricultural property (orchards, gardens, and vineyard as well as a market) as a land conversation trust in partnership with the Colorado West Land Trust. Another notch in the belt for preserving agriculture and open space for future generations in the West Elks AVA!

As you may have already sensed from the pictures and discussion, the West Elks AVA sits in a beautiful location where a vista of river, valley, and mountains lay before you no matter where you be. As the highest elevation AVA in the northern hemisphere, grapes are grown between 5,500 and 6,700′. Stone Cottage is the highest-elevation estate winery in the AVA. The West Elk Mountains rise to the east of the valley, with Mounts Gunnison (11,402′), Lamborn (11,402′), and Landsend (10,806) peaks dominating the views. Understandably, many of the wineries capitalize on the views as part of the visiting experience.

View across the valley to the West Elks Mountains from Azura Cellars
View from Black Bridge Winery along the North Fork Gunnison River

One of the more favored stops for the valley’s scenery Wine Trail notwithstanding is Azura Cellars and Gallery. The views across the valley towards the West Elks are sublime. The art gallery is finely curated. Due to Azura’s popularity, our visit was cut short, unfortunately. Right before our arrival a wedding party with their own intentions different than the Wine Trail had arrived. We found the circumstances challenging to navigate. That’s okay, we’ve visited many times over the years and we’ll certainly be back.

Jay Kenney
Jay Kenney with Customers

We can’t leave the Wine Trail without a mention of our visit with Jay Kenney, owner, and cider maker at Clear Fork Cider. Yes, hard cider made of apples or other produce is considered wine. The tasting room is connected to the newly opened Paonia Books, owned and operated by Jay’s wife Emily Sinclair. Jay is an affable guy, willing to patiently walk you through his ciders. He even provided free branded t-shirts, which we gladly accepted. Our favorites were the Paonia Pear (made of Pears from the local Ela Family Farms), Gravenstein, and a personal favorite—Fire in the Hole, a fortified bittersweet and smooth blend, honoring the valley’s long mining history.

Overall, our journey was fun and enriching. Times with friends…coming across friends…discussing…comparing…and contrasting. Being able to discuss the wines with winemakers and growers over three days, provided additional knowledge with perspective. 

The Storm Cellar Artist Valley View
View from The Storm Cellar, curtesy Judy Holland, fellow Wine Trail traveler

There was a time Colorado wine, for good or bad, was not given its due in attaining the quality found in other well-known wine-producing regions. Like a rising phoenix, the Grand Valley AVA with other Colorado winemakers has made strides in recent years shrugging off the past—a topic for another blog. From our travels with the Wine Trail, we believe winemakers and growers in the West Elks have also raised their game. Our friendly tasting team spotted a theme.

The best wines exhibited a winemaking approach staying true to the valley’s terroir (climate, soil, terrain, tradition), from the grapes to the wine. Some of the best wines in the world come from cool grape-growing climates as experienced by the West Elks. Warm days and cool nights promote a balance of sugar and acid in maturing grapes. Too much heat push sugar levels high above retreating acid and too little heat, keep sugar levels low limiting winemakers. Winemaking in the valley is increasingly embracing what the terroir provides. Combining this with the approachable context of the growers and winemakers within the valley’s scenic backdrop makes the West Elks AVA a winning combination on all fronts! 

Let this positive trend continue. 

With the possibility of another winery or two coming online within the next year, we’re sure 2024’s edition of the West Elks Wine Trail will also be memorable. Look forward to seeing you traveling on the trail.

2 thoughts on “Traveling the West Elks Wine Trail”

  1. What a nice write up of the Tour! Thanks so much for the thoughtful descriptions of the wines (and cider!) and the people behind them. We’re looking forward to meeting next year’s tour even better!

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