The Making of a Denver Urban Winery

September 15, 2011

Forty-sixth and Pecos. Cherry Creek North, it is not. Traffic is heavy with Interstate 70 just a few hundred feet away. There’s a gas station, a few fields and a national chain of a sandwich shop anchoring an industrial complex. That’s about it.

[caption id="attachment_419" align="alignright" width="300" caption="It just takes a little outdoor music to get this Urban Winery rocking."]Denver urban winery[/caption]

Napa, it is not, either.

Yet it is home to Denver’s first urban winery, Bonacquisti Wine Co., some 300 miles from the vineyards it orders its grapes from. The location always begs a simple question: Why a winery, right here?

“Take a sigh of relief we don’t grow grapes at I-70 and Pecos,” winemaker Paul Bonacquisti is fond of saying.

It’s simple reason. Urban wineries such as this are strategic — and convenient. Since winemaker Paul Bonacquisti couldn’t convince his wife, Judi, to uproot the family from their quaint, historic Sunnyside neighborhood home, Paul had to open a winery in the city.

Five years ago, it was the first urban winery in Colorado, located just a heartbeat away from the skyline of downtown Denver. He can walk to work in 10 minutes or get his scooter there in one.

But the convenience is more than about how easy it is to get out the door and to the “office” in a few minutes. Making wine where the people are is sound business.

Before That Stupid Law

Pre Prohibition, urban wineries in the United States were commonplace. Juice was made in warehouses in New York, San Fran and Los Angeles. It was simple and effective to get the job done in population centers. Napa and it’s Disney Land-like castles changed the mindset during the American wine revival of the 1960s and 1970s, however, as we fell in love with the romanticism of vineyards.

But the economy — both the stock market and of scale kinds — have ushered in a resurgence of these city-based wineries across the country. Warehouse properties are cheaper to buy or lease and keep up than a vineyard site. There are now more than 200, a number growing every vintage.

“Perhaps it's going a little bit too far to call cities like New York, San Francisco, and Portland America's newest winemaking regions, but there is new ground being broken and potential cultural payoff in the country's remodel of the urban winery trend,” wrote Talia Baiocchi on eater.com.

Other than a small group of traditionalists, few will argue that the quality suffers from being so far off-site. The fact of the matter is many wineries in actual growing regions — Palisade and Paonia included — still rely on grapes to be trucked in from another vineyard down the road or in the next county.

So it wasn't that big of a hurdle for Paul to open Denver's first urban winery. When he left his career in radio to start his winery project, he researched to several examples in the Northwest that proved there was both a market for urban wineries and percent for their success.

“I looked to Seattle and Portland as part of my research,” Paul says. “It’s such a growing trend in the U.S.”

How It’s Done

In many cases, it’s actually easier to make wine in the city. Winemakers such as Paul need not worry about tending to vines on a daily basis. A hailstorm simple means its time to move the car in the garage, and does not equal an excuse to perform a weird anti-weather dance to save the grape clusters.

Come harvest time, it’s simply a matter of finding the best grapes available from Palisade and area growers, giving directions in terms of when to pick the grapes and time a delivery. If one grower falls short, another one down the road might have a surplus.

Grapes can be picked in the morning in Palisade and delivered, via refrigerated truck, to Denver by nighttime.

Then, it’s business as usual. The crushing and winemaking process stays exactly the same from that point on. Just sans the messy part of vineyard upkeep.

The Bonacquisti Wine Co. facility makes an average of 2,000 cases of wine a year, on site. Wines are aged in oak and stainless steel just like a traditional winery located on an idyllic vineyard property. The only drawback being there’s no room to dig below the facility, so the sweet European-style cellar had to be sacrificed in this winery for an air-conditioned storage room.

It’s Always Happy Hour in Denver

There’s another key advantage to making and selling wine in the city: style. In Palisade, vintners often have to offer sweetened versions of their wines to placate the palates of tourists, a segment of wine drinkers that generally has trouble sipping on structured, classic and food-friendly wines.

In Denver, the wine consumers are extremely savvy, having learned from the hordes of wine experts that dot wine shops and restaurants throughout the city. These drinkers want wines sans sugar. These drinkers want wines with age-able tannins and acids. These wine drinkers are often more concerned with a food pairing wine than a porch pounder.

And being able to drink a wine and tour the winery down the street makes for an even better experience.

“More and more people are drinking wine and being exposed to it, so it’s only natural they want to be exposed to the winemaking process — without driving hours or flying out of state,” Paul says.



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