Second-career winemakers focus on flavors and finish in western ColoradoAug 23, 2021 03:16PM ● By Dominic Jones, additional reporting by Lauren Berg
Phil Patton and Mary Burns pose in front of Peachfork’s award-winning wines.
Wine gets better with age
One of the most pleasant and intriguing aspects of Western Slope wine culture is the stories of the lives behind the vintages. While some winemakers grew up in the area and in the business, many others come from all sorts of backgrounds that inevitably shape the personality of the winery itself.
For Phil Patton, 70, winemaker and owner of Peachfork Winery, 281 33 Road in Palisade, wine is a family affair.
His wife Susan’s sister, Mary Burns, 64, is the tasting room manager and assistant winemaker. Beaming, a misty-eyed Burns reflected on how Phil and Susan’s hard work and success with Peachfork honor her mother’s legacy.
“Mom would be so proud of you,” she said.
A family tradition
Susan and Burns’ mother, Lola Brennan, grew up on a farm outside of Rifle in the 1930s. She later moved to Grand Junction with her husband. Widowed at a young age, she raised six children by herself.
When Brennan retired at age 65, she began farming again in Palisade. Not only did she hope to build a nest egg for herself in retirement, she also wanted to be able to provide an inheritance for her children.
Twenty-eight years ago, she purchased the 10 acres of Palisade farmland that would later become Peachfork winery. Phil and Susan fronted some of the money for the purchase.
“We bought the property jointly, but she managed it for 10 years,” Phil said.
Originally from Kentucky, Phil worked as an engineer for mining outfits all over the U.S. before he got involved in the world of wine.
“A lot of it’s planning, note taking, tests and measurements,” Phil explained. “I was an engineer and then a teacher, so it’s a third career for me.”
When his mother-in-law started the vineyard, he spent his summers in Palisade helping the family build it up. His experience as an engineer helped him with winemaking.
“I make the wine and I grow the grapes,” said Phil. “It’s hard but I’m a perpetual learner.”
When Brennan died, Phil decided to run the winery full time. The family also started growing peaches.
Visitors at Peachfork are likely to be greeted by Phil or Burns themselves and guided along rows of lovingly tended vines and apple and peach trees while sipping the winery’s flagship semi-sweet Traminette.
“Everybody here really likes the atmosphere,” Phil said.
Further south, Ty and Helen Gillespie, 77, have mixed wine with their love of art at Azura Winery in Paonia. Nestled atop a hill, their tasting room looks down on a beautiful lake where guests can enjoy remote control sailboat races every week. They even host an internationally attended tournament each July.
Thirty years ago, the Gillespies left a lucrative career as professional display case and window dressers in San Francisco to circumnavigate the world in their sailboat, from which the winery later derived its name. They circled the globe several times from 1989 to 1995 before settling down in Minturn in the Vail Valley, where they started a design and art studio.
As their talents outgrew Minturn, they fell under the spell of the Western Slope and, while looking for some land to expand their art, happened upon an abandoned 20-acre farm in Paonia, where they then built Azura.
“The winery and the wines we produce are infused with our experiences on the ocean. Without our adventures abroad, our winery and wines simply wouldn’t exist,” said Ty.
The Gillespies didn’t intend to be winemakers, but they count themselves blessed to have befriended Steve Rhodes, one of the valley’s original winemakers, who showed them the ropes and helped them transform their new farm into an art gallery and winery. He even loaned them the equipment to get started.
Today, Azura’s wines are made by Colorado Winemaker of the Year winner, Brett Neal. Guests can sip wine and enjoy the art displayed around the grounds, most of which was crafted by Ty or Helen. Photos of the couple, taken at exotic places during their sailing days, are epoxied into the bar.
“We’ve learned that our guests visit not only for a glass of wine but also to enjoy the fine art and architecture, spectacular views and a relaxed ambiance unique to Azura,” said Ty.
His favorite wine is the popular Yacht Club Red—a Bordeaux blend with a soft, luscious palate.
“It reminds us of those special evenings on the ocean with a soft warm breeze, the setting sun and the gentle motion of a downwind sail,” Ty said.
Varaison Vineyard owners Ron and Kristin West are Grand Junction High School sweethearts who stumbled into the world of winemaking.
Ron, 63, has master’s degrees in microbiology and biochemistry. In his first career, he was recruited to conduct chemical analyses of wines from around the world, which is where he first fell in love with Old World styles of wine.
Even though the world of viticulture was new to them, after Ron’s father died in 1991, the couple decided to grow grapes on his mother’s 4-acre Grand Junction farm. With some research and the help of their three kids, the family planted 7,000 grape plants in one day.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” said Kristin, 62. “We would’ve had our first harvest that summer except we had winterkill and lost 90 percent of the plants.”
Finding the growing part challenging, the family decided that winemaking might be more fun, and purchased eight acres in Palisade in 2004. After a few years of building and planting, Varaison Vineyards was born.
In the winter, Kristin and Ron West pour wine tastings from behind the bar in their 1904 Victorian home at Varaison Winery.
Ron modeled his vintages off the Old World style of wine which, unlike much of North America’s New World varietals, has more body, aroma and mouthfeel. The difference can be surprising, which is why Ron and son Alex offer wine educations at their tastings.
“We teach them where to place the wine on the palate,” Kristin said. “We want to help people understand why they like certain wines more than others.”
Their educational approach to wine is what brings many guests back, especially to Varaison’s Firepit Fridays in the summer. Wine enthusiasts can also sample their wines and ciders (a venture of their other son, Andy) at 13 Brix Cider Bistro, 130 W. Third St. in Palisade, all paired with extraordinary food.
Next time you find yourself savoring a sip of your favorite local varietal at a tasting room, ask to meet the owner. There’s a good chance he or she will have many interesting stories to share.
Peachfork’s Semi-sweet Traminette
Floral nose touches of basil finishing with citrus zest. A perfect picnic wine
Azura Cellars’ Yacht Club Red
A Bordeaux blend with a soft, luscious palate
Varaison Vineyards’ Joyeux
This French-style rosé yields a intricate portrayal of a classic red wine grape from the southern Mediterranean