As the storied California Zephyr moves out of Denver toward the Continental Divide and a day of glorious scenery-gazing and wine-sipping on its way to Grand Junction, an old Hank Williams ditty plays in the back of my mind.
While she's circlin' through the canyons
Can't you see that mountain stream
It's the California Zephyr
The Union Pacific Queen
A zephyr is a west wind - at its most poetic interpretation, any soft and gentle breeze. For most of an eight-hour journey from Denver to Grand Junction, it lives up to its moniker for 54 participants of this AAA-sponsored weekend train excursion.
We're spread out in our own car at the rear of the Zephyr's regular service, that familiar, gentle train rock lulling away pent-up tensions by the mile. Not far removed from the urban landscape, we pop out onto the openness of the High Plains as we settle in for a primer on wine tasting and Colorado wines.
That Colorado is producing good wines is no longer a revelation, although its industry is still very young. California didn't emerge as one of the world's best wine-growing regions until 30 years after the end of Prohibition. Colorado's seminal efforts are about 20 years old. Merlot is the most widely planted varietal, accounting for 22 percent of the state's acreage. In total, Grand Junction produces 80 percent of the state's grapes.
The Zephyr enters the South Boulder Canyon and begins its 4,000-foot climb to the Moffat Tunnel's east entrance, blinking through the first of 29 tunnels it will navigate today. Some are as short as 78 feet; the Moffat is more than six miles long. The train darkens as we navigate the Moffat Tunnel and cross through the Continental Divide. When we emerge, the surrounding canyons become deeper and grander. Glenwood Canyon, a 6,000-foot-deep slash in the western slope, ends at Glenwood Springs, where the train stops briefly and a couple of local vintners join us.
As the train rocks back and forth, the wine starts to flow. We taste a local chardonnay; its markings are distinct. A Meritage Red - a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot - drinks like an aged Bordeaux, with a very high complexity. Another vineyard's Riesling is a sprinkling of floral grapes, smelling of apricots and jasmine, and lingering on the tongue with splashes of orange, nectarine and peach. A Port sports a big blackberry nose. It's all downhill from here, literally, and before too long we pull into the Grand Junction station and load into a shuttle to our hotels.
Saturday is a big winery visit day, with five on the schedule. None of them disappoints: At each stop, treats augment great Colorado wines. The day is full of learning and camaraderie. Sunday calls for an early breakfast and one last winery visit, to the Grande River Vineyards. Sitting behind an array of opened bottles, Grande River owner Stephen Smith spreads his hands and says "When I started, I was only going to make six wines. Look at me now. I have 16 you're tasting now, and I've got a few more up my sleeve."
All too soon, we load onto a bus for transport back to Denver, with many cases of wine in its luggage hold.