Harvest summer flavors in Colorado's Grand Valley
What's a sink peach? It's any peach that's so juicy, you have to stand over the sink to eat it. "We grow a lot of peaches like that here," says Jessie Jacobs, a longtime grower and owner of Valley Fruit Stand in Palisade, Colorado.
Gaze at the stark, arid countryside around Palisade, and you might find it hard to believe anything as delicate as a peach can grow here. This high, unforgiving land, called the Grand Valley, is bisected by the Colorado River and stretches from tiny Palisade ― where most of the orchards and vineyards are ― west through Grand Junction.
"It's a challenging place to farm," admits Jacobs, in a bit of an understatement. Altitude is about 5,000 feet, so killing frosts and harsh winter weather are a challenge. Rainfall levels are pitifully low (6 to 9 inches annually), forcing farms to rely on irrigation.
Yet despite the obstacles, a benevolent combination of abundant sunshine and Colorado River water produces a bounty of peaches, apples, apricots, cherries, pears, plums, and wine grapes. The harvest season peaks in August; stands brim with not only fresh fruits but also dried fruits, jams, pies, and tarts.
Thumb of the valley
The Grand Valley's first orchard was planted in the late 1800s. Some of today's major growers, like Harry Talbott, president of Talbott Farms, have pretty deep roots here. "I'm a fifth-generation fruit grower in the Palisade area," he notes with pride.
In his office above the peach-packing shed, he points to a relief map of the Grand Valley to help explain why fruits that won't survive elsewhere in Colorado thrive here. "We call this the thumb in the valley," he says, pointing to a spot where the Colorado River flows west out of a narrow gorge. "Almost all of the orchards and vineyards are within 10 miles of that spot." Here, sun radiates off the Book Cliffs, and warm breezes come down the canyon, creating a microclimate that keeps temperatures milder in winter.
Grand Valley farming has changed a great deal over the years. "Now, instead of 1 or 2 types of peaches, we have 20 or more varieties," Talbott explains. And he acknowledges that while the peach is still king of the valley, the wine grape is pretender to the throne.
Growing wine grapes is not exactly new here. But the early wine industry was done in by Prohibition, and those in the wine business soon forgot this valley's grape-growing history. When grapes were once again tried here in the 1970s, it was considered a huge gamble.
Parker Carlson, owner of Carlson Vineyards, is one of the second wave's pioneers. "Most industry insiders thought it was insane to even try wine grapes here," Carlson says. "They laughed at the idea."
Nobody is laughing now. Between 1994 and 2003, acreage planted with wine grapes almost tripled, making it the fastest-growing sector of Colorado's agriculture industry. And 70 percent of the state's wine production comes out of the Grand Valley.
Cabernet and fruit wines
For all the challenges posed by topography and weather, the Grand Valley does boast advantages. Horst Caspari, state viticulturist, explains, "Our isolation has helped keep pests and disease out." Still, production is relatively small: All of the region's 13 wineries could be called boutique. One of the largest, Grande River Vineyards, produces about 7,000 cases per year.
Tasting rooms range from Carlson Vineyards' small, rustic facility, patrolled by a housecat, to the almost Napa-esque grandeur of the French-style architecture at the new Two Rivers Winery & Chateau. You'll taste a lot of Chardonnay, smooth Merlot, and bold Cabernet Sauvignon. "Plantings of white varietals used to dominate," Caspari says. But as winemakers learn more about what does well in the region, red wines are gaining the upper hand.
And, in a move that combines the best of both worlds, fruit wines are coming on strong. Carlson makes one wine that's a blend of Colorado-grown pears and apples. Slightly sweet and tart, it's called Pearadactyl, in a nod to the region's wealth of dinosaur-fossil sites. While serious about their craft, Colorado winemakers apparently don't take themselves all that seriously.
The end of summer in the Grand Valley is a cornucopia of wine and fruit, and there's no better way to enjoy it than to roam the orchards, vineyards, and fruit stands. Make Grand Junction your base, then explore from there. Take a spin across Orchard Mesa; it's like driving down a leafy green alley, with the sun shining through the fruit trees and dappling the roadway. Rustic produce stands seem to crop up at every bend in the road, offering homemade jams, pies, and lugs of peaches and apples. Several wineries have great picnicking.
Back at Jessie Jacobs's Valley Fruit Stand, it's a typical August day. The fruit buyers are standing under spray misters, trying to stay cool. Rows of baskets brim with fat, fuzzy peaches, filling the air with a honeyed perfume. Jacobs closes her eyes, inhales, and sighs. "To me, that's the smell of summer in the Grand Valley."