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Colorado Wine Country

A few decades ago, if you said “Colorado wine country,” you drew a blank stare, a puzzled look, maybe even a laugh. The industry, once with strong roots in the Centennial State, died during Prohibition.
Then, in the late 1970s, Colorado Mountain Vineyards (now Colorado Cellars) opened for business in Palisade. Others saw its success and followed suit, cautiously at first. By around the year 2000, there were 30 labels in Colorado. Today there are more than 100 wineries in the state. Most vineyards are on Colorado’s Western Slope, but there are tasting rooms everywhere. The Grand Junction area -- where the stark, stony Book Cliffs contrast with the verdant valley floor -- is where most of the state’s guided wine tours take place.

American Spirit Shuttle

Bonnie Richards, co-owner of American Spirit Shuttle, has been giving tours for 16 years, longer than anyone in the region, she says. Saturday afternoon tours, are customized according to the clients onboard the 10-passenger shuttle or six-passenger luxury SUV.

“If they like sweet wines, I know where to go. If they like deep reds, I take them there. If it’s a mixed bag, I mix it up,” she says. “But, really, almost every winery has something for just about anyone.”

If guests are looking for something different, she might take them to Carlson Vineyards, the largest producer of real non-grape fruit wines (not necessarily sweet).

The four-hour, four-winery group tours may start out with folks who are strangers, she says, “but after an afternoon of drinking wine, they’re all best friends!”

She also books tours on demand and arranges site tours at any of the wineries, or you can skip the tours and go straight to tasting.

Colorado Wine Country Tours

Rudi Hellvig put his sommelier training to good use when he and wife Christine started Colorado Wine Country Tours eight years ago. He knows everything from the minerals in the soil to the varieties of grapes that grow well in Colorado. Having owned several restaurants, he can also offer advice on food and wine pairings.

“Years ago, I tasted Colorado wines and thought, ‘This is not very good,” says Hellvig. “Then I tasted them again in 2003 or 2004 and thought, ‘Wow! Someone has to tell people about this.’” Most of Colorado Wine Country tours are day trips in the Denver metro area, including Boulder and sometimes Fort Collins. There aren’t many actual vineyards on the Front Range, but there are lots of wineries and tasting rooms.

In the Denver area, he frequents the Boulder Creek Winery, Bonacquisti Winery, Spero and Balistreri Winery for their variety – and the latter, for wines without any preservatives. When he takes groups to the Grand Valley, he favors the Two Rivers, Garfield, Carlson and Canyon Wind wineries, all of which boast a number of award-winning vintages.

Groups can range from 10 to 32 people, and often his passengers are celebrating something – a special birthday, or a wedding. Bachelorette parties are particularly popular.

Absolute Prestige Tours

Limousines or buses suit many wine tourists, but for a different approach, consider the horse-drawn vehicles also offered by Absolute Prestige Tours. Choose from a cozy carriage for two or a surrey that seats 8-10 people (fringed top included), drawn by a smart pair of Belgians or Percherons. Yes, they also have motorized vehicles.

By limo, Absolute Prestige visits any of the Grand Valley’s 20-plus wineries. By horse, they usually cover a 10-mile route that often includes Plum Creek, Canyon Wind, Carlson and Colorado Cellars, which has won literally hundreds of awards. Wine selections include Chardonnays, Pinot Grigios, Cabernet Ffrancs and Merlots.

JR’s Carriage Service

Clydesdales and Percherons are the only horsepower used by JR’s Carriage Service. As draft horses clip-clop along the local roads in the Grand Valley, drivers enlighten passengers about local wine history and geography, then let the winery owners do the on-site tours, if requested.

JR’s uses various-sized wagons, but the minimum size group they take is eight people, so a couple may be paired with a family of six.

“Anyone who wants to learn to drive a team can take a shot at it,” says owner Joseph Burtard. His favorite stop is Plum Creek Winery, known for its gold medal Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling, but for variety, Burtard often throws in stops at Peach Street Distillers and at the Meadery of the Rockies for honey wine on the 10-mile route.

Tours typically start at 11 a.m. and run till late afternoon; in six hours you cover four wineries. So pace yourself.

If You Tour

American Spirit Shuttle: Minimum fee is $200 for up to six passengers, then $30 per person after that. http://americanspiritshuttle.net.

Colorado wine Country Tours: Typical cost $59 to $85 per person for Front Range day trips that last from 10 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. Cost of the overnight trips to the Western Slope (Grand Junction and Palisade) ranges from about $325 to $450 and includes transportation, meals and overnight accommodations plus often a winemaker’s dinner at one of the wineries. www.coloradowinecountrytours.com

Absolute Prestige Tours: Costs vary from $80 per hour for a 6-7 passenger SUV to $175 per hour for a 14-passenger Hummer. Surrey rides are $65 per person. www.aplimo.com.

JR’s Carriage Service: From $65 per person, more with lunch. Complimentary souvenir wineglass included,