A trip on the Colorado Wine Train

Plum Creek Winery
Plum Creek Winery in Palisade. ©Jan Boespflug

By John H. Ostdick

As the California Zephyr moves toward the outskirts of Denver on its way toward the Continental Divide and a day of glorious scenery-snatching, a funny thing happens. I can actually feel my blood pressure dropping.

That familiar, gentle train rock always has the same effect on me, no matter how harried I arrive at the railcar's threshold. I study the other 53 participants of a AAA-sponsored weekend wine train excursion spread out upstairs in our own car, the last of a Zephyr procession heading toward Grand Junction, and try to determine if the iron "west wind" is affecting them in the same manner. A front is moving on top of Denver as we leave, turning the city steel-grey and chilly. We first lurch past the city's backside, and parked Burlington Northern Santa Fe engines, but within 30 minutes the scenery begins to change. The landscape becomes more suburban, then rural. Some color changes are creeping into trees. Soon we pop out onto the openness of the High Plains.

Before long, cows and ranches come into view as the first half of the group toddles off to the dining car. The rest of us settle in for a primer on wine tasting and Colorado wines from Doug Caskey, the executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.

Caskey has been at the job eight years now. The breadth and quality of the state's wine industry has increased greatly in that time. That Colorado is producing good wines is no longer a revelation for most of the state's residents. Neither is the spectacular scenery within its borders. Both still provide a bit of shock and awe this weekend.

As Caskey talks, the Zephyr enters the South Boulder Canyon and begins its 4,000-foot climb to the east entrance of the Moffat Tunnel. We blink through the first of 29 tunnels the train will navigate during our excursion. Some are as short as 78 feet; the Moffat is 6.2 miles long. At Plainview, three states are within view.

Caskey pauses as we enter the Moffat Tunnel and the train goes dark as it crosses the Continental Divide. When we emerge from the other side into the drainage of the mighty Colorado River, the canyons outside become deeper and grander—the Fraser, Byers, Gore, Red and Glenwood. Glenwood Canyon, a 6,000-foot deep slash in the ranges of the Western Slope, ends at Glenwood Springs where the train stops briefly and we get to stretch our legs. A couple of vintners join us for the ride to Grand Junction.

Grande River Vineyard owner Stephen Smith, one of the state's wine pioneers, harvested his first Grand Junction crop in 1990. His output is modest, about 5,000 to 7,000 cases annually, but it is high quality.

As the train rocks back and forth, the wine starts to flow. We taste a 2006 Grande River chardonnay that was tank-fermented and barrel-aged; its markings are distinct. His 2002 Meritage Red—a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and petite verdot-drinks like an aged Bordeaux, with a very high complexity.

Whitewater Hill Vineyards owner Nancy Janes follows Smith. Her 2007 Riesling is a sprinkling of floral grapes, smelling of apricots and jasmine and lingering on the tongue with splashes of orange, nectarine and peach. She follows up with a Crag Crest Port, which sports a big blackberry nose. It's all downhill from here, literally, and before too long we are pulling into the Grand Junction station and loading into a shuttle to our hotels.

Saturday is a big winery visit day, with five on the schedule. None of them disappoint: Each varies in product and style, but they universally offer decent—and sometimes surprisingly excellent-wines. The day is full of learning and camaraderie.

The chance to take the train through the Rockies and learn more about Colorado wines attracted Brad and Jenny Cody, Westminster residents in their 40s, to this excursion. These parents of two girls, eight and four, try to take one weekend for themselves a year. The occasional wine drinkers had toured Sonoma and been a little disappointed with their California trip. "I was impressed with the extent that some of the Grand Valley wineries went to, to impress our group," says Brad, who works in the finance/aerospace industry.

"I really didn't know the extent of the winery business in Colorado prior to our trip, and was very impressed with the owners," says Jenny, former teacher and current stay-at-home mom. "I found the group of people quite interesting and I enjoyed chatting with everyone. I also gained an appreciation of pairing wine with food that I've not had before. I never took that seriously before this trip."

Sunday calls for an early breakfast, a visit to the Colorado National Monument-20,000 acres of steep-walled red rock canyons on the eastern edge of the Colorado Plateau—and one last winery visit before a bus ride return to Denver. AAA Colorado Travel offers wine train excursions in the spring and fall. The three-day spring 2009 departure is scheduled for April 17, from $685. Call 866-581-1209 or visit http://www.aaacolorado.com/travel/wine_train.asp.