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Ripe for success: Creekside Cellars has grown into a thriving business

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By Vicky Gits

You know it’s October when the grapes start to pile up in a parking lot in downtown Evergreen and Bill Donahue and his staff are making wine again.

For Front Range dwellers, a trip to Creekside Cellars is like a visit to wine country without the trek to the Western Slope. All the wines served are processed and aged on site. Donahue, the owner, grows his own grapes on 10 acres on the Western Slope.

Housed in a former gas station on the edge of Bear Creek, Creekside is part of a growing trend of putting new wineries in busy places where great vineyards are scarce but wine drinkers are abundant.

“It’s a trend, yes, but is it new? No,” said Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.

A wine board brochure describing “The Front Range Wine Trail” includes Creekside and five other wineries in the “Denver Winery Region,” not normally thought of as a wine lover’s mecca.

Creekside is becoming a mini-powerhouse winemaker, judging by the number of prestigious awards it has earned. In 2008 at the Indy International Wine Competition in Indianapolis, the winery won gold medals for both the 2004 cabernet sauvignon and the rosso (house table wine), and bronze for the 2006 gewurztraminer and the 2005 merlot. And at the Denver International Wine Competion in 2007, the cabernet franc won a gold.

“We like real robust reds with some tannin. That’s what we are known for,” said Creekside’s winemaker, Michelle Cleveland. Her wines are meant to be “drinkable now — not 10 years from now,” she said.

No dark secrets were divulged, but Cleveland would say the expensive American and French oak barrels have something to do with the taste.

“The wines have shifted a lot from the monsters Bill used to make early on,” said Caskey. “When Bill’s son, Tim, was doing it, they started becoming more refined. They are still very powerful, very muscular wines but on the other hand showing a much greater level of refinement. He has that sense of Old World gutsiness.”

At 3,000 cases, or 36,000 bottles, a year, Caskey said Creekside’s production is “about in the middle” in terms of sheer volume for Colorado wineries, which produced a total of 110,000 cases last year.

Harvest time

On Oct. 30, the winery in Evergreen was in high gear, with fresh-picked grapes from Donahue’s vineyard in Palisade arriving weekly at the winery side of the establishment.

This year’s crop was outstanding because the fruit was about perfectly balanced with the canopy or foliage, meaning the grapes ripened at the perfect rate, the winemaker said.

In the fall, the grapes reach their peaks in stages and are trucked to Evergreen, where they are de-stemmed, cold-soaked whole in bins, and inoculated with yeast. After fermentation from five to 10 days, they are pumped into a wine press, which gently forces out the juice and strains out the seeds and skin.

On Oct. 29, the cabernet franc grapes were going into a gigantic pressing machine resembling a stainless steel commercial barbecue and coming out as a ruby red and purple waterfall. Two days later, giant plastic crates of freshly harvested petit verdot were de-stemmed on site and pumped into the fermenting vats.

Hobbyist turned wine entrepreneur

“I had a certain amount of money I was willing to lose,” said Donahue, who founded the winery. Donahue is a former printing business owner in Denver who had been making up to 200 gallons of wine at home as a hobby for many years.

Donahue launched the winery as something to do as a second career, and it turned out to be much more complicated and successful than he ever envisioned.

“My second career is a lot more fun,” he said.

Before Donahue launched Creekside, he originally intended to move to wine country, but when that didn’t work out, he found an abandoned service station in Evergreen in 1997 and in 2000 opened the restaurant and the companion winery in the vehicle bays. He bought the land in Palisade and started growing his grapes in 2002.

Although running a restaurant is complicated and labor intensive, Donahue believes the wine sells better because it is frequently served with food, like the popular antipasto plate for $22. In fact, it sells so well out of the restaurant that Donahue has no desire to sell much out of liquor stores, where he has to compete with all the other labels on the shelf. (The only other outlet is Evergreen Discount Liquors on Evergreen Parkway near Safeway.)

Creekside sells seven types of wine samplers, or flights, ranging from $9 to $12 each and consisting of variation combinations of the proprietary wine creations in half-ounce tastes. Bottles range in price from $12 to $35, with most priced at $20 and under.

Cleveland joined Donahue almost five years ago, after working seven years in distribution and production with Daz Bog coffee in Denver. Cleveland grew up on a farm and has a degree in oenology and viticulture from the University of California at Davis.

After she saw the winery from the road on her way to hiking in Evergreen, Cleveland became a regular customer and then a part-time employee.

“I told him I was going to quit my real job,” which she eventually did. “I love the whole process from start to finish,” she said.

“Her devotion to detail” is what makes her a good winemaker, said Donahue, a proficient winemaker himself.

Small is beautiful

Among other things, Creekside is famous for the red wine Robusto, which sold out at $60 a bottle. Robusto is made with cabernet, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot grapes.

Donahue refuses to get any bigger or grow anymore grapes.

“It’s all about better food, better service and making better wine,” he said.

Today, Creekside Cellars produces more than a dozen varietals and blends of wine per year, including reds like cabernet franc, syrah and merlot; whites like viognier, chardonnay and riesling; and even dessert wines. Most of the grapes are grown on a beautiful 10-acre vineyard, The Vinelands, that the Donahues own in Palisade with the Book Cliffs as a backdrop. (There is no tasting room or visitor facility there.)

On weekends, long lines frequently snake out Creekside’s door. At the end of April or so, Creekside clears out the production room and sets up tables for the Spring Barrel Tasting event, a party that usually sells out in about a day, Donahue said.

Donahue sells this volume of wine and food with virtually zero advertising or marketing to speak of. Creekside isn’t big on arty labels and trendy names.

The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week and is never open for dinner. No reservations are taken. The wines are for sale only at the winery and at Evergreen Discount Liquors.

But don’t let that fool you. The wines are dry, sophisticated and well put together for such a small winery and so many varieties. They have a fresh, unique taste one expects from Colorado-grown grapes fermented in small batches on site by local winemakers with world-class goals.

For information, visit www.creeksidecellars.net.

IN THE CONIFER AREA

J. Susi Winery is a Conifer micro winery that is open to the public on weekends. Owner John Susi has been making wine for about five years and uses grapes from the major American wine-growing regions. He produces wine from a dozen or so varieties of grapes for sale by the bottle. Before visiting, call the winery at 303-717-1527. The wine is sold under the J. Susi wine label in area liquor stores such as Biggie Wine and Liquor in Conifer. For information, visit www.jsusi.com. The winery’s address is 26832 Barkley Road.