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Colorado Wine: The Secret Ingredient

The northward drive to Colorado, from our Santa Fe home, was mostly spent on rolling Route 84. Just over the border, we got our first glimpse of craggy peaks and pine forests, broken up by alpine meadows, which were studded with purple and white flowers.

Unusual rock formations loomed above us, one of the most bizarre being Chimney Rock, which is located within the San Juan National Forest and Southern Ute Indian Reservation. Roughly a thousand years ago, the Pueblo Indians created permanent structures (totaling 200 individual rooms) and a couple of dozen work camps around the twin spires. It is believed that the Chacoan-style Great House, atop the Chimney Rock’s high mesa, was constructed to take full advantage of the lunar cycles. Every 18.6 years (the last was 2007) the moon rises between the dual rock formations.

We stocked up on supplies in Bayfield. The strip mall on E. Colorado Drive contains a grocery, bakery and gourmet store. A meat market and wine/liquor store is across the street. The latter was our last stop before we headed towards Vallecito Lake. I was curious about Colorado’s wines and asked the clerk for a recommendation. Unimpressed, she replied, “Colorado has a growing wine industry. Any is as good as the other.” I grabbed a few bottles, to test her theory.

We checked in and received keys to our rental cabin. What a splendid view from the deck: we could look right down at the rippling waters of Vallecito Lake, and to pine-covered mountains beyond. Then we discovered the usual “dog friendly” cabin cycle. It goes something like this: the newly constructed cabins are initially billed as “luxury,” when that becomes a blatant lie the cabins are rented as “rustic.” Finally, for the next forty years (or until a land developer comes along) the cabin is leased to dog lovers.

Inside I discovered the flooring, faux-paneling and kitchen cabinets from Grandma’s 1974 mobile home. We were surprised by the lack of fireplace, because when you think of a mountain cabin, that’s the first amenity that comes into mind. More startling was the nearly-obsolete stove and gurgling toilet. But we’d make do. They did allow dogs and, given that there was only one small plug-in heater that you had to sit on to sense warmth, this was a blessing. The dogs were employed as foot warmers once we went to bed.

Bambi in Muumuu

 Bambi lounging in her muumuu on the deck

That night, for dinner, we managed to make a pasta feast without blowing up the two-burner stove. To accompany it, we opened the “table red” from Plum Creek–I had to agree with the clerk’s statement about Colorado wines.

We awoke to drizzle, which quickly turned into rain, so we opted to take a drive around Vallecito Lake. Within a mile or two we discovered that the pine beetles had infested this area. To add to the problems, the lake had been reduced by a third. Large stretches of muck took up miles of shoreline and the marina was now stranded inland.  (Read about another disappearing lake in the Southwest).

Inland Marina, Vallecito Lake

 Vallecito Lake’s inland marina

Apparently, low water levels have plagued the lake for several years. In early 2008, three agencies partnered up with the aim of “seeding” the clouds. Basically a minute amount of silver iodide is sprayed across a propane flame, which helps the particles to rise into the clouds, where it causes moisture to freeze, forming ice crystals. With any luck these crystals fall over the southwestern part of Colorado as snow.

Silver Iodide is also used in photography for processing, and in antiseptic medicines. Approximately 50,000 kilograms a year are commandeered for rainmaking in the U.S. Under the guidelines of the EPA’s Clean Water Act, silver iodide is considered a hazardous substance, a priority pollutant, as well as a toxic pollutant. After some research it appears that cloud seeding may — or may not — work, and may — or may not — be harmful to the environment.

We set out to explore Durango, a town much larger than anticipated (population 15,501). Originally, we thought the city a wash, as we ran into quite the construction mess and took a detour seemingly to nowhere. Finally, after several circles and backtracking we found the visitors’ center, where an elderly gentleman directed us to the shops and restaurants of the “historic area.” (This is roughly Main to 3rd and College to 9th). Be sure to check out Jean Pierre’s, a French bakery, complete with a café and wine bar.

Once back to the cabin we opened a “King Arthur” honey wine (or mead) made by the Meadery of the Rockies. The wine was supposed to have an aroma of wildflowers and taste of orange blossoms and honeysuckle, with a dry finish. But we never could decide what food to serve it with, or if we even liked it. Instead, we toasted a spectacular sunset over the lake from our porch.

Leaf in Water, Colorado Lake
The next day, I opened a bottle of white Colorado wine, a Gewurztraminer from Cottonwood Cellars. “I wonder if they use local water on the grape vines,” Juliet mused. I was halfway through my nearly too-sweet glass and pondered the amount of silver iodide I might have drunk. Maybe that’s the source of the flinty, sweet flavor in Colorado wine?

Paw Print


Four paws!  Colorado offers many great dog-friendly cabins.



What state offers the best wine in the US?

Lane & Juliet

The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.


Cathy Sweeney

I guess I’ll wait for Colorado wines to evolve further. Interesting account of your trip. Funny about the “dog-friendly cabin cycle”. :) My cousin lives in Durango and loves it. Glad to hear that you found the historic district.


We’ve since returned to Colorado, and will be writing another post up shortly. We stumbled across — literally — several more wineries. We found one we really enjoyed and have a couple of bottles in our wine cooler as I write this. Thanks for stopping by!

Mindie Burgoyne

Loved this post. So much in it. My favorite part … great quote.

Then we discovered the usual “dog friendly” cabin cycle. It goes something like this: the newly constructed cabins are initially billed as “luxury,” when that becomes a blatant lie the cabins are rented as “rustic.”

Nicely put together. I love Colorado wines, by the way. I spent a little time in Palisades on last year and interviewed a few winery and vinyard owners. I was amazed by how far they’d come.

I love Colorado. And I love your style. I look forward to learning more about the southwest from you two.


We have a follow up scheduled. Colorado wines are presented a bit differently. Thanks for stopping by!

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