PALISADE, Colo. - It's the breeze, they say, that creates plump grapes and a wine destination in the heart of hops country.
Dubbed the "Million Dollar Breeze" by locals, winds waft in over the Grand Mesa, one of the largest flat-topped mountains in the world and a keystone geographical feature here. Air flows between canyon walls, warming and then flowing out over wineries nestled near the Grand Mesa's base.
The 4,700-foot-high climate, with sunny days, dry air, and cool nights, finesses what local winemakers say are globally unique elements for their craft. In a state known for breweries, Palisade wants to make sure it is squarely on the map when people plan travel toward wine tastings.
A town of about 2,700, four hours west of Denver along Interstate Highway 70, Palisade alone boasts two-thirds of Colorado's vineyard acreage and more than a quarter of the overall wineries. "It's a really well-kept secret," said Jay Christianson, owner of Canyon Wind Cellars.
The town also is known for peaches, lavender, and alpacas - yes, alpacas - but its slogan, "Life tastes good here all year round," reflects the 25 area wineries. Unlike rambling go-to vino destinations such as Napa, Calif., 22 wineries are within a seven-mile radius.
Grapes for reds and whites grow well here, from Syrahs and Grenaches to Rieslings, said Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. "It's hard to say Colorado has one signature wine," he said, "because we have such a diversity of climates." In national wine tastings and competitions, "the wine is received remarkably well. People are just dumbfounded that we can make wine as good as we do here."
Tasting rooms have seen an uptick in tourists from outside Colorado, said Juliann Adams, executive director of the Palisade Chamber of Commerce. Surveying visitors to last year's Palisade Peach Festival, about 23 states were represented. Instead of leaving after buying a box of peaches, visitors increasingly stick around for the wine.
So many busloads of international tourists have arrived - they often fly into Denver and drive through the mountains - that some wineries have started charging for tastings. But at most places, tastings still are free. Bottles range from a $13 Riesling at DeBeque Canyon Winery, to a $100 blended red, the 2012 IV, at Canyon Wind Cellars. Most tasting rooms are open year-round, excluding holidays.
Some proudly tout awards (Grande River Vineyards boasts a winning cabernet franc in the World Value Wine Challenge); others prize a casual image. At Carlson Vineyards, winemakers pose the question, "Why make drinking wine complicated?" Playful names include Tyrannosaurus Red and Laughing Cat Sweet Baby White.
Canyon Wind is getting maxed out on the weekends: As many as 500 people can come through on a summer weekend on their way to Vegas or traveling from Sweden, New Zealand, or China. Now, the tasting room feels full with 10 people. Christianson's father planted the first vines in 1991 with the help of Napa winemaker Robert Pepi. "My father was a firm believer that nobody would ever come to western Colorado to be a tourist," Christianson said. Now, he said, they're planning a larger tasting space.
The 50 acres, which Christianson took over in 2009 with his wife, Jennifer, include nine kinds of grapes. When they met, she had tried wine about six times.
Winemakers range from relatively new experimenters to family-owned generations. At Maison la Belle Vie, winemaker and chef John Barbier incorporates elements from France, where his family has tended grapevines for more than a century.
Recent French traces included a "Bienvenue" welcome sign and the barista, a student from France, who arrived a month earlier. Bike racks were fashioned from wine barrels, and labels for rich reds inspired by playing cards.
Many who come for a tasting opt to buy a glass or bottle and enjoy the view in the courtyard, where mountains frame the bloom-accented vineyards.
At Red Fox Cellars, named after animals seen scurrying around the vineyard, owner Sherrie Hamilton said that, when they opened in September, they needed to stand out. So they use bourbon barrels, adding a smoky, rich taste to, for example, the best-selling Bourbon Barrel Merlot, aged in barrels from Colorado distilleries.
Also unique, Red Fox offers hard ciders and mixed drinks, such as an old-fashioned that pairs the merlot with cherries, simple syrup, and club soda.
Rachel Romero, who pours at Red Fox and another tasting room in town, grew up nearby. She noted how the region "just took off" in recent years, tourists arriving with winery-packed itineraries.
"I get surprised," she said, "by how many people are coming to town just for that."
Prime wine time in Palisade, Colo., is Sept. 17-20, when the town hosts the Colorado Mountain Winefest, featuring tours, tastings at dozens of wineries - and a grape stomp.