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Winemaker Spotlight: Parker Carlson of Carlson Vineyards

Palisade Winemaker Parker Carlson knows what makes grapes grow.

Parker Carlson is serious about wine. But this award-winning Colorado vintner has a playful sense of humor and a down-home friendliness that sets him apart from much of the winemaking world. His fun-loving personality is reflected in the labels he dreams up: Prairie Dog Blush, Fat Cat Muscat and the award-winning Laughing Cat series of Riesling. For him, it's all about cultivating good grapes, making good Colorado wine and having a little fun.

On a brilliant fall day in October, Grand Valley winemaker Parker Carlson is eagerly awaiting the season's last shipment of grapes. "These are the last fresh grapes of the year," says Carlson, who has been making his own wines at Carlson Vineyards near Grand Junction with his wife Mary for more than two decades.

The Riesling grapes he is so excited to receive will soon be crushed and added to grapes grown on his own vineyard, to make his award-winning Laughing Cat Riesling. His 2003 Riesling was awarded the World Riesling Cup at the 28th International Eastern Wine Competition, and won "Best Favorite Locally Made Wine" in the 2008 Best of the West competition.

"We made our name in Rieslings," says the affable Carlson, who notes the Grand Valley's climate -- hot days and cool nights -- is perfect for fruit ripening. "Ours is a little sweet, very flavorful, quite complex and good with food."

In addition to his Riesling, Carlson makes another dozen wine varieties, using all locally grown Colorado grapes: Gewurztraminer (both dry and sweet), merlot, shiraz, chardonnay, lemburger (his biggest selling dry red), fruit wines, including cherry, peach and plum, a sweet dessert wine, and perhaps one or two "experimental" wines that he sells only on the premises.

As Colorado wines continue to increase in complexity and popularity, Parker welcomes the expansion of an industry that he has helped nurture from its infancy. "The growth is really healthy," he says. "There are lots of new wineries here now, and more than 80 wineries in the state."

About 80 percent of the grapes that make all Colorado wines come from the Grand Valley, says Carlson, and winemaking techniques are improving. "The quality is constantly getting better. Wineries are bringing in trained professional winemakers who have experience and are willing to try new things. The future here is really bright."

The prices are right, too he argues. Perfect for holiday gifts, many local Colorado wines, including his own, are priced well under $20.

Visitors can meet Parker Carlson at his winery's tasting room, an old fruit-packing shed, on East Orchard Mesa in Palisade. Like many wineries in the Grand Junction area, Carlson's tasting room is open year round, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day and "if the Broncos are in the Super Bowl."

"We like to have fun," says Carlson. "We try not to be snobby about the whole thing. We try to draw people out and find out what they know, or want to know, about wine and put them at ease."

So what's Parker's wine of choice? His own Tyrannosaurus Red (or T-Red) -- a dry red wine crafted from a little-known grape called the Lemberger. The official description on the bottle includes these words: Good with pasta dishes, red meat and hearty cheeses. Serve at cool room temperature. Share with good friends.

For more information, visit the Carlson Vineyard's website