A journey where the food is worth the trip

July 15, 2012 (ASPEN, Colo.)

I've seen more private jets at the Pitkin County Airport than I have farmer's markets, so I knew Aspen and Snowmass weren't representative of the state's agricultural potential (although, as I would later learn, they do make up a considerable amount of the state's purchasing power for farmers in the Western half of the state). I went to the North Fork Valley last week, as well as some other stops along the Western Slope, to see if there was anything else worth eating. I was mildly surprised.

The first thing you see when driving into Paonia, along Highway 133, are the signs for "Cherry Days." This annual bacchanal of all things Bing culminates on the Fourth of July, with a giant parade and a weekend-long party in the town's main park. The Fresh & Wyld Farmhouse Inn was our home base for a few days, allowing us to visit farms and wineries in the area by car. Breakfast each morning was a study in locavore ideology (or Portland practicality): eggs from the coop, beets from the garden, yogurt straight from the kitchen; a feast for the eyes, to be sure.

We visited some farms, like Small Potatoes, where you can take a baking class in the owner's giant, outdoor oven, or just come for a lunch featuring roasted chicken and the farm's own produce. We also visited Delicious Orchards, twice. After devouring their homemade tamales smothered in green chili pork and feasting on their apricot-cherry pie (see yesterday's blog post), we stocked up on their fresh-pressed fruit juices. We also stopped at a number of local wineries. The region is trying to promote itself as a winery destination - sort of like Sonoma might have been doing 20 years ago - but despite the marketing effort, the wine felt more Michigan than Mission Viejo. I think they're pouring them too young; or maybe it's because they're grown at higher elevations, around 6,000 feet.

"We can't really produce wines like they do in California," said Stephen Menke, Ph.D., the Associate Professor of Oenology at Colorado State University. "In the spring, we start out cool, but very quickly it gets hot; then there's frost by October."

As we toured the North Fork Valley - a verdant plateau between mountain ranges, seemingly bursting with stone fruit - almost every winery seemed to be either pouring wine from '10 or '11, or offering hybrid grapes like Cayuga White or Chambourcin.

"In terms of getting a consistent crop every year, hybrids are more reliable," said Menke. "We've been looking at blending grapes to give consistent yields."

Some of his most recent experiments include a syrah-chambourcin-tempranillo, as well as a chardonnay-rkatsiteli-vidal wine. But if you're not used to drinking them, don't expect a Napa-like experience. Although Menke points out that even in blind taste tests, they've found some of the hybrids come out on top. Another problem has been storage. 2005 was a good year in the Valley, but improper storage has made that vintage unreliable as well. For now, the industry in this part of the state is still young, so while the landscapes may be breathtaking - and the food as farm-to-table as you can get - it's going to be a while before tourists come here exclusively for the wine.

One place where the wines don't need to be exclusively from Colorado is the Smith Fork Ranch. This small, upscale dude ranch, tucked behind a sandstone pillar near Crawford, maintains a rustic edge while also pampering guests with upscale food and wine. We only saw a few meals there, but the courses coming out of the kitchen were inspired: whipped lardo with herbs from their garden, agro-dolce onions and toast; a Hawaiian crudo dressed in citrus supremes and olive oil, garnished with pea tendrils from out back. Wine from the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast shows up as frequently as any local wine, but the real gems are the regional spirits. Sipping a Colorado bourbon beneath a giant Elk's head mounted over the fireplace in the den, I was reminded that there are so many young distilleries in the U.S. today producing excellent spirits. Fortunately, I was going to see one of them the next day.

The drive to Grand Junction (and the neighboring town of Palisade) takes about an hour-and-a-half, unless you choose to drive over the Grand Mesa, an enormous, flat plateau the rises over the Valley like the monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey." The drive is splendid - winding around turns made for car commercials - and takes a little more than two hours. Once you descend into the valley again, you can't help but see dozens of tiny farm stands, some in people's garages, selling apricots, cherries and peaches. Palisade is to peaches what Chicago is to pizza. Everyone sells them and everyone has an opinion on which variety is better. We happened to be in town the weekend of the annual Lavender Fest, so it was no surprise when I saw a local jam company selling a peach-lavender jam (outstanding, by the way).

Just a few blocks from the lively Palisade Farmer's Market, Peach Street Distillers has a lock on the local movement toward craft spirits. They now make bourbon, gin, eau de vie and a type of tequila (technically, they can't call it tequila, but it's made with 100% blue agave so it's legit). The distillery also has a great little bar set up inside for tastings, where they'll also make you hand-crafted cocktails. The bloody marys seems to have a lot of fans.

Over in Grand Junction, the highlight was actually a bit of a surprise. After taking the meandering, 23 mile drive through the Colorado National Monument, a glorious visual result of millions of years of sandstone erosion, we checked out Bin707 Foodbar downtown, and were delighted with a plate of kurobuta pork tacos and local greens.

A few blocks away, we were told to visit Enstrom Candies, a local legend, where they've been making toffee for about 60 years. They had a little ice cream shop set up inside, and the toffee-embedded version was as cool and creamy (and satisfying) as a scoop of Homer's from Wilmette.

The problem with doing a trip like this is that everyone chimes in via Twitter of Facebook, while you're posting pictures along the way. "Make sure you check out Crested Butte," "Telluride is fantastic," "are you also going to Moab?" But of course, there is never enough time to see and taste everything on a week-long trip. We've got plenty of notes for the next journey west.

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