Utah versus wine

As early as 1875, over 500 acres of vineyards were planted in Utah producing 1700 tons of grapes. I’m not sure exactly what happened to these vines, but I’m guessing that they were ripped up at some point in Utah’s religious history.

I recently visited Moab, Utah where the first vines were planted in the 1970’s. The wineries are relatively new because commercial wine making in Utah was illegal until 1986! The vineyards were forced to sell their fruit to their more wine tolerant neighbor Colorado.

Seeing the success of the Colorado wine trail, Utah finally became more wine friendly in 2004, reducing the 50% tax on wines and allowing it to be sold on Sundays. A few brave winemakers started to succeed and now there are approximately five wineries in the state.

With hot days, cool nights and sandy soil, Southern Utah appears well suited for grape growing. The dry climate discourages powdery mildew and other problems.  The state still has some strange laws for wineries. They sell their wines to the state liquor stores, which in turn sell to restaurants.

The wineries may have no idea exactly where their wines end up. The good news for the winemakers is that the restaurants and bar pay full retail rather than a wholesale discount price.

The wineries have to ensure a steady supply to the state liquor stores in order to not lose their shelf space. This leads to wines not being available at the wineries but you can find them in town.

I recently visited the two wineries located in Moab. Although they are within 30 minutes of each other, the experiences are entirely different.

My travels first took me to Spanish Valley Vineyard. Pulling up to a small building, I felt like I was entering someone’s home. Stacey Dezelsky greeted me warmly, describing herself as the “owner/laborer.”  Self taught, she learned by selling grapes and making homemade wines. “It’s only the scale that’s gotten bigger,” she told me.

Stacey and her husband took over from the previous owners back in 1991. At the time, the vineyards had not been well tended and their harvest was very small (1 ½ tons of grapes). The next year, they were able to expand that to 13 tons by rehabbing the vines.  She currently turns out about 1000 cases of wine a year.

From the tasting room, I could see the Cabernet Sauvignon growing right outside. Stacey prunes it herself, a great source of pleasure for her. Sourcing all of her grapes from her own vineyards or from neighbors, she is proud to be a truly local winery, with all of her grapes coming from within the state. Got some extra cash to spare?

The year had been so good for sales that there were limited offerings at the tasting room to try. A Gewurtraminer, Riesling, and Syrah/Merlot blend were all pleasing but did not stand out. The Cabernet Sauvignon and late harvest Riesling were sold out.  A little surprise was a cherry fruit wine (cherries did come from Colorado). Mmmmm….

Due to the demand, the winery is ready to undergo a major expansion and Stacey has put the winery on the market. She’s looking for someone enthusiastic who can carry Spanish Valley to the next level.  If you have a spare $775,000 and a desire to work the land, then this winery is for you!

After considering throwing down a deposit and making a career switch, I came to my senses and headed to Castle Creek Winery. This winery is attached to the Red Cliffs Ranch, a beautiful resort in an unbelievable setting. In sharp contrast to Spanish Valley, the tasting room is large, full of wine paraphernalia and a large bar that could fit about 30 people comfortably.

I was promptly handed a sheet where I could select 3 wines for tasting. This winery had the “tour bus” vibe. Making 20,000 gallons of wine a year, it cranks out about 8000 cases of a variety of reds and whites. The grapes are sourced from the Four Corners area. A small vineyard out front stood forlornly as a hailstorm had wiped out the grapes a few weeks previous to my visit.

I chose my three wines, which were served to me in an efficient manner. The Lily Rose White is one of the best sellers. Featuring a cowgirl on the label, this wine made from Muscat had hints of spice and sweetness. The Chardonnay was unoaked, citrusy, and fairly crisp. Unfortunately it was served a little warm. The Cabernet Sauvignon comes from two growers in Colorado and was pleasant but not worth buying.

I purchased a bottle of the Outlaw Red, a 100% Petite Sirah ($11.95), which I enjoyed that evening. The most developed of the wines and probably the best one I tasted while I was there.  Plus it had a cowboy on the label, and who doesn’t like a cowboy?

If you enjoy the great outdoors, then Moab is a fantastic destination featuring some of the most beautiful National Parks in the country. I recommend staying at the Sorrel River Ranch, which nestles up to the shores of the Colorado and serves amazingly good food. Check out the area and stop in to check out two very different, very local wineries!

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