It all started so simply in 2006 when Paul Bonacquisti lost his job as a radio DJ due to his station flipping formats. The logical step, of course, was to open a winery smack dab in the middle of Denver in the Sunnyside neighborhood.
Well, it wasn’t that logical in most people’s minds. See, at the time, urban wineries weren’t trendy nor popular, and consumers still thought a trip to a picturesque vineyard was in order for the full wine-drinking experience.
If five years in business tells you anything, Bonacquisti Wine Co. has changed that perception and hordes of consumers from downtown to the far reaches of Colorado continue to find out that good local wine can be made right here in the city.
As it celebrates its fifth anniversary on Oct. 13, it’s time to take a look back at Denver’s Urban Winery throughout the years.
2006: Falling Right In
The tasting room doors opened on Friday, Oct. 13, 2006. Yes, Friday the 13th. The public enjoyed six wines, most of which are still in the tasting lineup today — including Bella Risa white, Vinny No Neck red, Delagua Red (now [d] Red), Colorado Syrah and a Colorado Cabernet.
While the winery opened in the fall, Paul was busy throughout the summer preparing the wines, setting up the business, and seeking out label art in the most random of places, the Highlands Street Fair. Fans of local artist Daniel Luna for years, he and wife Judi found themselves right next to Luna's booth where he had a painting that featured, of course, wine grapes. Serendipitously the relationship was made and the label series was created.
The year also included several other highlights, not the least of which was winemaker Paul falling into a stainless steel fermentation tank. While mashing down the cap of grape skins into the rest of the juice from a plank, he lost his balance and was dunked to his waist. That wine, an old vine Zin, later won a gold medal at the 2007 Colorado Mountain WineFest, the winery’s first ever gold.
In its first year, Bonacquisti produced about 1,000 cases of wine. Paul also begin a relentless effort to work with community nonprofits — with educational causes front and center — by hosting the winery’s first event, a fundraiser for Edison Elementary in November.
2007: World Expansion
Beyond coming home with a gold at the year’s annual WineFest for the Zin that Paul fell in, Denver’s wine brand was introduced to the world, literally. With inclusion on the wine list at Timberline Steaks & Grill in the Denver International Airport, thousands of passengers from all over the world were exposed to Bonacquisti while waiting for their next flight.
The year also saw the first bins of Colorado Cabernet Franc delivered; the winery won its first medal (a bronze for the 2005 Syrah) at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in the spring; and it grew exponentially, leading to the hiring of two staff members to help with everything from winemaking to garbage duties and working the tasting rooms. "We hired some warm bodies," Paul recalls fondly. Jokes aside, Alex Perry and Deanna Tillion were two sommeliers who did way more than ever asked to help usher the winery's growth.
Lest we forget, the relationship with Daniel Luna, the label artist, paid off with the Bonacquisti Wine Co. taking a silver medal for its label series at the Denver International Wine Competition.
2008: The Great Zin Splatter
While the big news at the winery was the overall production level — it topped 2,000 cases for the first time — one particular moment stands out. In fact, its date is emblazoned on the wall behind the tasting bar. “Zinfandel 10-9-08” is marked high on the wall, noting the day the Zinfandel splattered. The wine was in a bladder as part of the pressing process and a mistake by the assistant winemaker Alex (he left a mesh screen out) turned into an epic explosion that sent wine all over the place. To compound matters, the annual Grape Jam anniversary party was just two days away.
“(Alex) was covered; he took it point blank,” Paul says. “There was so much on the counter and the floor; I didn’t think we were going to be able to clean in up in time.”
It was a hectic week all around, aided in large part by the single biggest day of grape deliveries in the winery’s history. Eleven tons of fruit from California came on Oct. 7 from several different growers (the winery augments its production with grapes from out of state when Colorado growers can’t meet demands).
2009: The Stomp That Wasn’t
When the annual Sunnyside Music Festival rolled into the neighborhood in September, Paul had the grand plan to hold a community grape stomp. The idea being the neighborhood could help with the winemaking process for a Sunnyside wine blend. Well, the weather didn’t cooperate, and buckets of rain washed out the attempt — after Paul had dragged everything to the park and set up. “It’s never been attempted again,” Paul says.
Bonacquisti also brought home another gold medal at Colorado Mountain WineFest, for its 2007 Cabernet Franc, the first release of that variatel.
2010: Drinking with Friends
If there was ever a reason to raise a glass, it came when Judi was named to the Denver Business Journal’s 40 under 40 list of power players in the community. It was a nod to her career in education and community involvement. Half owner of the winery (“She’s the not-so-silent partner,” Paul says.), Judi has been an integral part in every success the winery has achieved over the years.
Plus, 2010 brought Paul some friends when he convinced three other Colorado wineries — Garfield Estates Vineyard, Verso Cellars and Cottonwood Cellars — to open up satellite tasting rooms, forming Colorado Winery Row, officially anointed in March. This meant tons of parties hosted by all four brands, and the kick-off to the Uncorked series (a party the third Friday of every month). Hosea Rosenburg, the Top Chef season 5 winner, even brought his food truck by.
2011: Off the Tap
With an effort to be more green, Paul had been researching keg systems throughout 2010, learning that restaurants setups used to pour fresh beer for decades also worked well for wine. Smaller, 11-liter tanks could keep 15 bottles of wine fresh for up to 60 days. So with tap in hand, Paul began selling his wine out of a keg in early 2011 at several leading Denver restaurants, including Linger and The Garlic Knot.
The winery also opened a satellite tasting room in the Highlands at, of all places, a restaurant. Spuntino, a hot Italian eatery at the corner of 32nd and Clay, uses a Bonacquisti tasting room permit to serve [d] Red, Bella Risa and several other wines alongside the tasty creations of chef Raul Salazar. Spuntino is also home to the monthly Colorado wine and food tasting club, Club Wino, co-founded by the Bonacquisti Wine Co. and Colorado Wino.
In terms of kudos, the accolades rolled in — two more golds at WineFest for the 2008 Cabernet Franc and 2010 Riesling, plus said Franc was named one of five wines to drink right now by the Denver Post.
2012 and Beyond
Bonacquisti plans to keep growing in the foodie haven of northwest Denver, making award-winning wines and keeping the Sunnyside neighborhood properly libated. He’s also trying to make jug wine cool again.
Celebrate 5 Years with Bonacquisti
Open House to celebrate five years in business, 1–5 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 15 at the winery, 4640 Pecos St., Denver. Live music, free snacks and tasting room specials.