Vino Colorado: Award Winning Wines with Jay Christianson ’05

Photo by Nancy Cole.

To an easterner, thoughts of Colorado evoke images of snow-capped mountains. But Jay Christianson’s Colorado also contains acres of grape vines. He is co-owner and winemaker at Canyon Wind Cellars, a 50-acre estate winery that produces award-winning Bordeaux-style wines in the high, dry country near the Utah border.

The 2005 fine arts grad has been a teacher and a ski racing coach, but in wine making he finds ultimate job satisfaction: “Making something people enjoy—and that you enjoy yourself—is possibly the most gratifying and fulfilling thing to do,” he says.

Jay Christianson '05

He comes by the trade and talent naturally. The Palisade, Colorado, location was chosen by Christianson’s parents because the climate and growing conditions are identical to that of the Bordeaux region of France and similar to that of northern Spain. They set out vines in 1991 in the gravelly soil along the Colorado River and sold their first crush of Merlot, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon in 1996. It was their son who named the estate for the breezes that cool Debeque Canyon at night and provide the perfect ripening conditions.

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Helping out in the family business, Christianson cleaned and sanitized equipment and received an ongoing education from his parents and the winery’s consulting winemaker, Napa Valley vintner Robert Pepi. By the time he went east for high school, he likely knew more about wine than many sommeliers. While living in one of the townhouses at Saint Anselm in his junior and senior year, he struck up a friendship with the folks at the local wine shop, which (not coincidentally) sold his family’s products. Ski team dinners were known to feature very, very good cabernet.

Christianson returned to Colorado in 2007. While coaching at Vail the following year, he met Jennifer, a fund raiser for the youth racing program. They shared a love of skiing, food, and wine. She is now his wife, business partner and “fellow grape slave,” and was largely responsible for a new brand, Anemoi (named after the Greek gods of wind).

“It’s a total paradigm shift from what we’ve always done, which is to produce varietally focused, old world style wines,” Christianson says. “It uses newer techniques and is more creative and youthful.”

Anemoi was a result of an exceptionally chilly summer, Jennifer’s first in the business. The longer hang time needed to ripen the fruit resulted in a more concentrated juice.

“We had one of those wine-geek moments where we said to each other, ‘This is really cool!’ Christianson says. “The final product has been received better than we could have possibly imagined.” In its first season, it was awarded a gold medal at an invitational wine competition.

“We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t LOVE IT.”

To the Christiansons’ palates, each Anemoi wine has distinctive characteristics produced by the winds and weather. The first was named Boreas for the god of the north wind. Three more soon followed: Eurus (east wind), Notus (south wind), and Zephyrus (west wind).

The newest is Lapyx, a late harvest Pinot Grigio named for the god of the northwest wind.

Of all the Canyon Wind wines, though, Jay’s favorite is IV, a blend of four Bordeaux varietals: Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, aged two years in French and American oak barrels. It’s another award winner (double gold at the Indy International Wine Competition). However, Christianson says, “Medals mean nothing. They’re totally not repeatable. You can enter the same wine in a different competition and have different results.” (They do, however, sell wine.)

Letting the Grapes do the Work

The younger Christiansons took over full operations of Canyon Wind in 2010, overseeing every aspect of the business in the vineyards, barrel cellars, warehouse, and two tasting rooms (one on the estate and the other within an hour of Denver). They live in a small former bunk house used by peach orchard workers, less than 100 yards from the vineyard.

Jay calls his father, an exploration geologist by training, “a phenomenal resource. He did this for 15 years. Even though you always keep records, the knowledge is all in your head.”

Jennifer is also educated as a geologist, so she can tell you all about the Mesa Verde sandstone that underlies Canyon Wind’s Cliffside and Riverside Vineyards and sweeps upward in formations like the Book Cliffs and Grand Mesa.

While still producing the 13 wines his parents made, Christianson and his wife have introduced changes and innovations. They’ve incorporated green practices, such as mowing and tilling to keep weeds down instead of using herbicides. They use organic pesticides and mulch; plant wheatgrass to prevent wind erosion; and return vine trimmings and grape skins to the soil. It is a low-intervention, sustainable approach.

“Your vines are really in charge,” Christianson says. “We’re really focused on letting the grape do the work and allowing what we do in the vineyard to become the liquid we’ll be working with. Vineyard practices — the decisions before harvest and how you harvest — are definitely the least glamorous but the most important thing in making a wine great.”

Lest that sound like a walk in the park, Christianson explains that a typical day in the wine making business is anything but relaxing.

Filthy but Happy

One afternoon last May, when the buds were beginning to swell (break, in viticulture lingo), Christianson described what his day had been like. Work on a broken tractor. Run (not literally) to the winery to set up for Barrel Tasting. Call sales brokers. Fix a sign that was blown to the ground by a less than cooperative Canyon Wind.

From June through August, most of the couple’s time is spent in the vineyard mowing, clipping, fertilizing, soil testing, evaluating crop load, inspecting for disease, and performing a myriad of other tasks.

When the grape leaves turn red and orange in September, the vintners are up at 5 a.m. tasting grapes and determining the picking schedule. They contact clients who are waiting for their grapes. Both wine makers are up  to their shoulders in crushed fruit until 10 or 11 p.m., overseeing all the critical steps between the harvest and the bottle: pushing skins, seeds, and pulp down into the juice, siphoning the wine off the deposits of yeast and other solids, and picking stems out of the crusher.

“It’s like monitoring a growing child,” say the winemakers. “You can’t leave it alone for long.”

The weather determines the length of the season, which determines how fast they work. This year is compressed, meaning busy. Occupational hazards? Jay is hoping to break a trend, and not get stitches this year.

“It’s a physically challenging, dirty process,” Christianson says. “It’s a great diet plan during the harvest because you’re not eating very well and you’re working very hard. It’s a ton of work. But it’s a very cool business for a lot of reasons. We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t love it.”

“The best thing is when someone says ‘Wow… I didn’t know Colorado could make good wine.’”

Compliments of the Vintner

Palisade, 12 miles east of Grand Junction’s airport on Interstate 70, has more than a dozen wineries and vineyards. Canyon Wind is the only one that offers a free bottle to Saint Anselm alumni who show up at their tasting room. Warning: if it’s September, you may be invited to help harvest.

Jay’s Picks

Favorite Canyon Wind wine: Cellars 2007 IV. According to Colorado Wino: “The nose is dominated by peppery overtones that take a powerful front over dark fruits. Once it opens, it is an elegant and balanced take on Bordeaux with strong plums leading a black fruit basket, noticeable tannins, and a charred finish that transitions to chocolate and caramel.”

Best wine in recent memory: A 1989 Figeac. “There is just something about that bottle that expresses the land, and the brightness of fruit and just plain awesomeness. Sorry, I am a bit at a loss for words with this wine. Is it too cheesy to say it spoke to me?”

Best advice: Drink what you like, not what you think you’re supposed to like. Go to a wine store and ask what other wine is similar to one you really like; they’ll know what to recommend.

Best description of winemaking: 90% cleaning things, 5% moving stuff around, 5% drinking beer and hoping. It takes a lot of beer to make wine.