One of the most rewarding day trips from Denver is a jaunt to Evergreen and lunch at Creekside Cellars Winery and Italian Café. Choose a flight of wine to sample a few Creekside Cellars wines, then another flight because it’s hard to choose a clear favorite from among favorites, then take home a few of your favorites. The choices are that good!
Creekside Cellars was opened in November 2000 by Bill Donahue. The winery soon became known for producing flavorful, big-fruit, big-tannin red wines that appeal to a palate that loves oak-aged wines. Four years later, the winery decided to hire a full-time winemaker. Enter Michelle Cleveland, who was familiar with Evergreen from biking and hiking in the area.
Cleveland, Creekside Cellar’s full-time winemaker, learned about the opening at the winery when she attended the Colorado Mountain Winefest in Palisade, an event she had attended since 1994. At the time, Cleveland had been working in a corporate position for Daz Bog Coffee. Her interest in winemaking inspired her to stop by the winery, where she met Bill Donohue. In 2005 she traded high-quality coffee beans for high-quality grapes. She volunteered at the winery for three months before transitioning to full-time work at Creekside Cellars in 2005.
The following year she enrolled in the University of California Davis graduate winemaker certificate program online, and took over from owner Bill Donohue as Creekside’s winemaker in 2007. Today Cleveland is the principal winemaker at Creekside, although she continues to work closely with Donohue and considers him to be her mentor.
Creekside is known for its small production of good wine. They make 3,000 cases of wine annually. Cleveland’s philosophy of wine is to incorporate characteristics of the Old and New worlds in her wines. She described the style of Creekside Cellars wines as changing over the years, as wine drinkers’ tastes have changed. She said they used to be known for big red wines, but today are known for friendlier, more subtle wines that pair well with foods. When Cleveland came on board as winemaker, she increased the focus on white wines. Her Viognier is one example of the high-quality white wines Creekside Cellars is producing.
Cleveland said in her work in viniculture, or the art of winemaking, she balances Old World and New World wines, incorporating the complexity of the Old World with the robust fruit of the New World. “The fruit is so good in Colorado it’s a shame to mask it in oak.” She emphasized the importance of having good fruit to make good wine.
Cleveland described one of the winemaking challenges in Colorado is that the relatively low production allows for six months of bottle aging, but the wine sells out before the wine can be aged to its prime.
Creekside Cellars Rosso red blend is designed to age and will improve with time. Creekside Cellars Syrah is multi-dimensional. Cleveland has added depth and body by incorporating Cinceau, Mourvèdre and Viognier in the wine.
“You can’t rush good wine – bottle when ready,” she said. “You can’t rush wine – it’s so easy to screw up a batch of wine. When trying to decide to do x and y, you ask yourself, ‘Is it worth losing 800 gallons of wine?’ so you do what you have to do, you don’t cut corners, you invest in good equipment.” Cleveland said Creekside Cellars has excellent equipment. “It’s a pleasure to work here.”
Some of Cleveland’s future plans include a focus on the Colorado wine industry. She has been appointed to the Colorado Wine Board and is looking forward to finding ways to promote the industry. Cleveland said we need to have a wine identity in Colorado. As a younger wine industry, Colorado cannot compete with Washington.
One of Cleveland’s beliefs is that Cabernet Franc is Colorado’s grape. She said it is “the most consistently made wine in the state.” There are winemakers who advocate for Riesling, but Cleveland said that has become Washington’s grape. “We have a more mature wine drinking audience in Colorado,” which lends itself to different varietals such as Cabernet Franc. Cleveland said the grape grows well in Colorado. It needs to have a longer growing season, and fans of Cabernet Sauvignon like it. “Cabernet Franc is more interesting than Riesling.”
Cleveland said her plans for Creekside Cellars include continuing to make really good wine. She intends to expand into different varietals. She said in 2008 they introduced Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah, which created excitement. Cleveland said it has been fun to go out and buy different varietals at all different price points and decide whether a particular varietal or style of wine would be a good fit for Creekside.
“Sometimes you have to look beyond the label,” she said when asked about a message she would like to convey to wine-drinkers. She said what is in the bottle may be more sophisticated than that label would lead a casual wine shopper to believe. However, Cleveland is cognizant that people who are not familiar with a particular wine tend to judge it by its label.
Cleveland said one goal is always to convert people to Colorado wine. The industry is still young in Colorado, and as with many young industries, it does not have the best reputation. However, things have been changing in recent years. There is more to discover in the way of solidly made, deliciously good wine. “I will do whatever I can to promote the industry.”
Her vision is to produce consistently good wine every vintage. She believes Creekside Cellars has achieved that with Cabernet Franc and Viognier.
Cleveland is looking forward to starting a wine club with limited production wines. One 60-gallon barrel of wine can yield 22-24 cases of wine. At present, she has barrels of Pinot Noir and Mourvèdre wines awaiting introduction to the future wine club. Traditionally she has used Mourvèdre as a blending wine in Rosé, Rosso, and Syrah, but is excited about offering it to club members as 100% varietal.
She sees the club as a more intimate group of Creekside Cellars wine lovers, and plans to host wine events for club members, as well as tap the more serious wine drinkers for membership. Initially the club will be a small group of people who really appreciate wine, who will have access to limited-release wines.
Now that’s one club you’ll want to join!
Visit Creekside Cellars in historic downtown Evergreen at 28036 Highway 74, or at the 3rd Annual Bootstraps Western Winefest this coming Saturday, August 18, 2012.