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Friday, June 1, 2007

High country viticulture

Lance and Anna Hanson of Jack Rabbit Hill embody the spirit of Western idealists. They're growing wine grapes on their terms in the place of their choosing. They also aren't allowing convention to determine what they grow and how they grow it.

To find Jack Rabbit Hill you have to switchback up Redlands Mesa outside the town of Hotchkiss, Colorado. The air is dry and the breeze stiff, and the West Elk mountains stagger on the horizon, and in the distance you can see the wild peaks of the San Juans.

Their home and winery overlooks 22 acres of vineyards. One might not expect to find vinifera growing at 6,000 feet, but they produce Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc among their varietals. But they also grow Chambourcin and Maréchal Foch of the oft-maligned French-American hybrid lineage. They are the only growers in the region to work with hybrids, and a recent freeze event that devastated other vineyards I saw in the region validates their decision to grow some cold hearty varieties. Their hilltop location with its exposure to prevailing winds, plus large wind machines of the sort found in Ontario vineyards, also must have helped them survive this year's spring cold, very similar to the event that hit our Missouri vineyards.

Their organic practices, along with their choice to grow hybrids, is what piqued my interest and encouraged me to look them up by way of a 100-mile detour during a recent fishing trip to the Gunnison River. When I stopped by in late May, their hospitality confirmed what I've often found in the wine industry: folks drawn to the practice of viticulture are friendly, curious and welcoming, particularly to anyone who shares an appreciation for wine and how it's made. There are few exceptions to this rule, and it's especially true in the case of small, family estates. We spent several long hours in conversation covering all aspects of the wine business. I probably could have spent several more if trout weren't calling.

We tasted a range of wines, including a very nice Riesling with hints of the petrol/slate texture found in some Saar/Mosel/Ruwer versions of this varietal. It was truly distinct from California and Washington Rieslings. The hybrids were surprisingly textured, especially the Maréchal Foch. The Chambourcin was a classic example of this varietal at its best as a food wine. The combination of cool nights, hot days, dry growing conditions, irrigation from the nearby Grand Mesa, and the intense UV sunlight of these high-altitude vineyards created a distinct characteristic to these wines. I'll be the first to admit that I know a lot more about a growing grape vine than I do about the vocabulary wine connoisseurs use to describe what's in the glass, but I also know Jack Rabbit Hill wines could hang with any number of wines grown in classic regions and falling in a higher price range.

Organic viticulture, I learned, is much easier in Colorado than in Missouri. I expected to learn of a list of organic sprays and fungicides, but it turns out that they don't have to spray on Redlands Mesa to grow quality grapes. Compare that to our 10 to 15 sprays of various cocktails in the Midwest. The dry weather and intense UV rays precludes most rots, molds and mildews. They're also blessed with that Grand Mesa snowmelt, so they have a ready source of irrigation despite their minimal rainfall. They do, like us, have to contend with cold weather, and it seems like intense springtime freeze events might be more common there than in Missouri. But unique wines always make it worth the extra effort. Adding to the singularity of their product is the small scale of their production: roughly 1,000 cases per year. The wine is made at the top of the hill in view of the vineyards where the grapes are grown in what is essentially the basement of their home. They also have a small distillery where they produce organic spirits for their Peak Spirits line of products.

If you run into a bottle of Jack Rabbit Hill estate wine, be sure to try it out. And if you're ever near Hotchkiss, be sure to stop by. Jim Harrison once wrote that "the sound of the popping cork has brought more happiness to human kind than all of the governments in the history of the world." Lance and Anna Hanson and their work at Jack Rabbit Hill confirm that bit of sagacity.

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