DRINK: High on the Vine

EamesThink Colorado’s too high for fine wine? Elevation and chilly nights combine to make some tasty juice at Alfred Eames Cellars.

Colorado’s high elevation draws mountaineers, free spirits, and Olympic hopefuls, but it’s never been a prime lure for winemakers. The thin air didn’t stop Alfred Eames, however. In fact, the undaunted oenologist is the proprietor of Alfred Eames Cellars in Paonia, Colorado, which—at 5,980 feet—is the third highest vineyard in the U.S.

Eames, 62, learned the art of winemaking in the Rioja region of Spain in the early 1960s. “I was traveling around and would offer to work for room and board. The very simple, natural way of growing and fermenting wine really appealed to me,” he says. “I’d never drank wine with dinner before, only beer. I was just a kid from Wisconsin.”

The ample sun of southwestern Colorado proved ideal for growing grapes. After trying “seven or eight varietals,” Eames settled on pinot noir. He devotes all 9 acres of his vineyard to the grape. Lauded for its sensitivity in the movie Sideways, pinot noir likes cold nights in the fall before harvesting, which it gets courtesy of the high elevation here. But late frosts can kill an entire harvest.

“That’s our trade-off. When it makes it, the pinot is incredible. Great character. But sometimes they don’t make it,” says Eames, who lost his 2007 crop to subfreezing temperatures.

Eames does not have any employees, other than at harvest and bottling time. “I’m as big as I can be,” explains Eames. “It allows less investment, but it’s more hard work.” In this spirit, he’s a proponent of “open-vat” (aerobic) fermentation in masonry vats (as opposed to steel, which is most common for anaerobic fermentation, or plastic), which transfers heat evenly.

“My theory is that open-vat fermentation is more natural. The juice is more exposed to this environment, and I like doing it that way, all of which have some affect on taste,” he explains. Once fermented, he barrels his pinots for about 18 months in French oak.
In addition to pinot noir, Eames also ferments cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes that he buys from Orchard Mesa of Palisade for his blended wines. He makes a total of 1,400 cases annually, 300 of which are pinot noir. “I have more fun blending than anything else,” he says. “It’s by far the most creative part of what I do. I don’t claim to know more. I just like doing it my way.”

For more info or to order wines, go to www.alfredeamescellars.com or call 970-527-3269.

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