REDLANDS MESA – The mid-March sun streams into the south-facing windows, spreading warmth and light into the spacious interior of Anna and Lance Hanson’s hardwood-floored home.
A fireplace is sunk into a wall of hand-dug rock and just outside the wall of glass, among the rows of grape vines awaiting the return of spring, wanders a small flock of sheep, carefully monitored by Stella and Luna, the Hanson’s twin Great Pyrenees guard dogs.
This multi-story house, perched like a sentinel overlooking the Hanson’s 72-acre farm on a south-sloping shoulder of Grand Mesa, not only is their home but also, as Lance points, “the world headquarters” for their Jack Rabbit Hill Winery and Peak Spirits distillery.
Although the Hanson’s Demeter-approve biodynamic farm and vineyards on Redlands Mesa initially may seem a bit isolated, the discriminating world of food and drink has found its way to their doorstep.
Last year, their CapRock Organic Gin was a semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard Award in the Outstanding Wine & Spirits – Professional category.
Also, both CapRock gin and vodka were the 2012 Good Food Awards winners in their respective categories. The awards recognize outstanding artisan food products and producers in different categories, including cheese, cured meats, beer and spirits.
“That was a complete surprise to us,” said Lance in a rare quiet moment not devoted to managing a biodynamic winery, distillery, and hops farm.
“Awards like that are great, and we’re immensely proud and appreciative,” he said. “But what awards like that really tell us is we’re on the right path.”
The right path includes using local, organically grown Jonathon and Braeburn apples for their gin and their estate-grown biodynamic Chambourcin grapes for their vodka.
There’s also the water used to reduce the 170-proof base spirit to around 40 percent (80-proof) in the final product. Peak Spirits uses unfiltered spring water issuing from beneath the volcanic cap of Grand Mesa.
“We can’t take you there,” said Lance when asked about the source. “I mean, we really can’t because the road is snowed in.”
“Besides, it isn’t very glamorous,” offers Anna.
Glamorous or not, that naturally filtered spring water is key to the gin’s pure flavor, Lance said.
“We would argue water has lot to do with it,” said Lance, watching sunbeams dance in a small glass of his gin. “You have to sell what you have and the bottom line is we think this water definitely is contributing to the quality of our product.”
Using that pure mountain water allows the pure expression of fruit, herbs and other botanicals used in their gin, vodkas and brandies.
“Things get more complicated when you put it in the bottle,” Lance said, suggesting the hardest thing to get right (as if there were only one) is retaining the desirable mouth feel, a dimensional roundness giving a pleasing depth to the drink.
“I think the water has something to do with it plus we’re using distilled fruit rather than grain,” Lance said.
Also worth trying are the Peak Spirits brandies – an organic pear eau de vie and biodynamic grappa, both made in limited quantities.
“Our European visitors love eau de vie, they say it’s like capturing summer in a bottle,” Lance said.
Maybe it’s because Americans are traveling more and being exposed to European ways, but in recent years there has been a small uptick in domestic appreciation of these European-style brandies.
“There’s a definite upward trend,” said Anna, ruefully recalling how soon they’ll sell out of the current limited bottling of eau de vie (French for “water of life”) and grappa. “We should have made more.”
The Hanson’s Jack Rabbit Hill Winery offers organic and biodynamic estate-grown and single vineyard wines. We’ll get to those on our next visit.
Let’s see. You’ve visited most of the wineries in the valley, bent your elbow at a nearby distillery and quaffed a brew or two (I love that) at one of the local brewpubs.
What to do, what to do?
There is the entire North Fork Valley to visit, with wineries and brewpubs and yes, even a distillery or two, although most of the wineries are in winter mode, which means call first, while the distilleries and brewpub(s) always are happy to see a new face.
Here’s a hint for something more seasonal: Know farmers, know food.
It’s almost calendrically spring, if there is such a word, and that means fruit blossoms, rambunctious baby animals and the universal green emergence that nearly overwhelms the winter-dulled senses.
Because the green-fuse energy is so concentrated in a small valley, few places in Colorado can rival the explosion of spring that overwhelms the North Fork Valley.
Toss in a happy farmer or two, especially one willing to share the secrets to the bounty from his land – and with a sense of humor to boot – and you find yourself face-to-face with Steve Ela of the Ela Family Farms on Rogers Mesa.
Just so you won’t think his is strictly a one-man farm, Steve and Becky Ela and their family and co-workers will be hosting their annual Farm Tour this year on April 14, a whole day before your taxes are due and time enough to forget that next-day date with the foot-tapping accountant.
The tour starts at 10 a.m. and takes the better part of two hours, maybe more, if you ask a lot of questions and can talk Steve into grafting a new fruit tree or two, starting up the wind machine (hold on to your hat) and explaining why he grows peaches, cherries and apples and not, say, apricots.
For someone whose “farm” consists of a 10×15 garden in the backyard, what happens on a real farm, particularly an assiduously organic farm, can be something of a mystery.
When do you prune and how much, do you use pesticide/insecticide, where do all these apples go, and how many types of apples do you have, anyway, are good questions to pose, since Steve and Becky know the answers.
The tour is popular among the members of the Ela CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) and you’ll meet people from all around Colorado. Last year’s tour drew around 80 people while the farm dinner attracted about 100.
This year’s Saturday night dinner, due to the spring-fresh mid-April date, will be at Dava Parr’s delightful Fresh & Wyld Farmhouse Inn in Paonia. Dinner costs are $45 adults, $16 children under 4 feet, $8 children under 2 feet.
Many of the visiting Front Rangers spend Saturday night camping in the Elas’ orchard (or one of the Elas’ orchards, anyway), where this year the sliver of moon won’t hide the countless stars peppered across the sky.
The tour and education is free, the accompanying box lunch (from The Living Farm in Paonia) are $16 adults, $9 children.
The friendship and peach blossoms also are free.
A dust-up on the Great Northwest Wine website recently caught my eye. It seems a national travel writer unintentionally gave the impression that among Oregon’s 400 or so wineries, only six had women as their head winemakers.
It didn’t take long for people more involved with the state’s wine industry to note there are around 35 women head winemakers among Oregon’s 400 or so wineries. That’s a bit less than 10 percent, a number similar to California, where 9.8 percent of the approximately 3,400 wineries reported having a women as their lead winemaker. Washington State has 20 female head winemakers (about 6 percent) in its 350-plus wineries. Whether the percentage is high or low in what many people have long thought to be a male-dominated world isn’t clear or important, but I found myself curious how many wineries in Colorado’s fast-growing wine industry have women as head winemakers.
According to my roughhewn survey, which included calling and visiting wineries and asking other writers covering the industry, I came up with a tentative 12 women head winemakers, meaning they oversee the production from grape to glass.
That’s close to 10 percent and may not be accurate, as some wineries have closed for the winter and weren’t available while others didn’t return phone messages.
As was ably pointed out by Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, “We have approximately 105 wineries and many of the women who own wineries with their husbands spend as much time in sticky juice as the men.”
That sharing of the workload is not unusual for an industry where most of the wineries worldwide are small production facilities in which everyone has a hand in the day-to-day chores, including the winemaking.
Many of Colorado’s wineries are true family affairs, many times starting with home winemaking. This list does not include the home winemaking years.
Whether you visit wineries in California, Italy or Colorado, it’s not uncommon to find husband and wife toiling side by side.
Maybe we’re spoiled, because Coloradans have long accepted that many of the state’s best wines are made by women and when we see a woman doing the heavy lifting — literally — it’s the normal (Colorado) state of affairs.
“I’m definitely not the assistant,” affirmed Anna Hanson, winemaker for Jack Rabbit Hill Winery on Redlands Mesa.
She and husband Lance own and operate the winery plus the James Beard award-nominated Peak Spirits Distillery, both of which rely on locally grown organic and biodynamic fruit.
There is another group of women who might be considered assistant winemakers, such as Brooke Webb of Mesa Park Vineyards, who said she shares the duties with her father Chuck Webb, listed on the winery’s website as head winemaker.
The longest-tenured among women head winemakers apparently is Padte Turley of Colorado Cellars, who said she started making wines in 1989.
“It’s cool,” said Padte of her decidedly hands-on style. “You get to know all the little vines and you know what you’ll have to work with.”
Alsatian-stylist Joan Mathewson of Terror Creek Winery, at 6,400 feet in the North Fork Valley still considered the world’s highest vineyards and winery together, was the first, and for years the only, Colorado winemaker with a degree in enology.
Jackie Thompson of Boulder Creek Winery might the state’s most-awarded woman winemaker (that’s open to debate, of course) and certainly was the first among all Colorado winemakers to win a prestigious Jefferson Cup award (2009).
I’m out of room, so here’s the list in no particular order. Share other names (and stories) if you can.
Jenne Baldwin-Eaton, Plum Creek Cellars; Diane Brown, Avant Winery; Michelle Cleveland, Creekside Cellars; Jackie Thompson, Boulder Creek Winery; Anna Hanson, Jack Rabbit Hill Winery; Joan Mathewson, Terror Creek; Padte Turley, Colorado Cellars; Linda Gubbini, Gubbini Winery; Deb Ray, Desert Moon Vineyards; Marianne “Gussie” Walter, Augustina’s Winery; Nancy Janes, Whitewater Hill Vineyards; Barb Mauer, Graystone Winery.