The year has been challenging for wineries on the Western Slope.
COVID-19 stymied tourism, capacity restrictions hindered the industry’s most profitable months, smoke from historic wildfires could have tainted crops and a recent cold front may have further hurt yields.
But some area businesses have been able to get through the year and at least soften the financial loss.
“We had six months that were devastating, but summer was actually good. We were really busy in October,” said Scott Hamilton, co-owner of Red Fox Cellars, 695 36 Road. “I didn’t know if we would make it, but it’s looking like we will.”
A strong finish to the season is vital for a tourism industry that sees essentially no business in the winter months.
Hamilton’s outlook was much different in August. While hopeful that the business would make it through 2020, Red Fox and its fellow wineries had been dealt blow after blow since October 2019.
That was when a cold front killed some grape crops in the valley. Then, in April, unexpected cold weather froze grape and peach crops. To top it off, COVID-19 safety measures stifled tourism and forced the cancellation of events such as Colorado Mountain Winefest.
What else? Smoke from the Pine Gulch Fire seeped into some grape crops around harvest times.
The murderers’ row of setbacks caused Hamilton to consider the reality that Red Fox, a relatively small business with six acres of grapes, wouldn’t survive.
Instead of rolling over, Red Fox got creative and added some financial cushion. The winery hosted a car show, ramped up its online presence by advertising discounts and ran specials all year, Hamilton said.
“Our October was way busier than usual. Most of our customers were people from Denver and Salt Lake City itching to get out,” Hamilton said. “We were also given six months of free rent. That was the single biggest plus for Red Fox.”
Red Fox isn’t alone in its roller coaster year.
Two Rivers Winery and Chateau, 2087 Broadway, faced a triple whammy of having to refund deposits from canceled reservations, losing event revenue and restaurants it distributed to being closed, said owner Bob Witham.
Two Rivers also wasn’t finding guests for its Chateau, which further hurt business.
The past few months have been a bit kinder to Two Rivers, which was able to duck any smoke taint from the Pine Gulch Fire and soften the impact of the recent cold front.
“We harvested our grapes early in the season, around Aug. 17,” Witham said. “The October cold front was similar to last year’s, and it’s fair to say it damaged chardonnay and cabernet. But we also have hybrid grapes that have thicker skins, which makes them more winter hardy.”
The biggest obstacle for Two Rivers has been striking a balance to cater to tourists of all mindsets. Witham said the business has had to ensure all customers follow the rules necessary to stay open.
Though some wineries have been able to survive what appears to be the worst of 2020, there are more difficult obstacles on the road to financial recovery.
The first obstacle is yet another cold front.
It remains to be seen how the cold front in late October will impact area vineyards.
Researchers with the Colorado State University extension campus and Western Colorado Research Center evaluated bud damage from Mesa County and Delta County vineyards stemming from the cold front on Oct. 26 and 27.
The data was released in a Nov. 10 edition of the CSU Viticulture Extension newsletter and found that some crops, such as the common grapevine, didn’t survive.
“We are seeing severe damage to Vitis vinifera (European) varieties,” Miranda Ulmer, viticulture specialist at the CSU extension office, wrote in the newsletter. “(C)old hardy varieties have experienced little to no bud damage.”
Ulmer wrote that the data gathered by Horst Caspari, a professor at the Western Colorado Research Center, and Adam Wright, a viticulture research assistant, will continue to be updated.
The other obstacle, Witham said, is that there’s no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two Rivers regularly books holiday parties and indoor concerts. But those have canceled because COVID-19 has struck Mesa County hard, which is now experiencing a positive case rate of 12% and more than 1,700 new cases in the past two weeks.
In the meantime, Witham wants to encourage other wineries to follow health guidelines so the industry does its part to slow the spread and prevent another lockdown.
“In my opinion, we don’t get out of this until a vaccine is distributed,” Witham said. “Until then, onward into the fog.”