Grand Junction is widely known for its breathtaking beauty and dramatic landscapes, but it is also home to some of Colorado’s best-tasting produce. The Colorado River provides pure, clean alpine water and the high desert creates a temperate climate of hot summer days, cool nights, and mild winters. Peaches, apples, apricots, pears, cherries, and grapes thrive in Grand Junction.
It’s no surprise that those passionate about crafting award-winning wine, choose to call the Grand Junction home. Thirty wineries and tasting rooms have established a little slice of paradise in Western Colorado. To find out just what makes Grand Junction the best place for a winery, we sat down with Bob and Billie Witham, owners and founders of the beautiful Two Rivers Winery and Chateau. See what they had to say about their winery and Grand Junction, established in 1999.
Where are you both from originally?
We grew up in the towns of Craig and Meeker, Colorado.
We would imagine that in order to start a winery you have to have a deep-rooted passion for wine. Where did that passion come from?
Our passion for wine came from a combination of things. Growing up in rural agricultural areas, and we were both familiar with farming. As adults, we had the opportunity to experience different wine and food pairings from across the U.S and European regions. Through that, we grew a passion for growing grapes and making wine.
What were your first careers?
Bob has a degree in Criminology and Law Enforcement and later he obtained an MBA. Billie has a degree in Accounting. Their careers were in Heath Care, with Bob eventually becoming President and Chief Operations Officer for a public corporation. Billie had her own business where she consulted with various healthcare facilities on financial and accounting matters. They both were involved in developing and operating two assisted living facilities in Texas, prior to returning to Colorado.
Did you consider opening your winery anywhere else, or was Grand Junction always your ideal place?
Grand Junction was the only choice for us.
Both of our parents lived here, and we came back to assist them. Initially, we purchased the land to build housing for retirees in a gated community but abandoned the idea after researching the demographics. While working the land, we noticed that someone had grown miniature cherry trees in the past. We also knew about the fruit growing opportunities on the Western Slope and focused on the possibility of growing wine grapes and then making wine. It was all serendipitous.
Any wine-making challenges that come from being new to the business? Like finding the right mix and varietal of grapes, for example?
Growing grapes can be a challenge because of the rare cold spells we can have in the valley. We learned quickly that the grapes that grow the best are those with thicker skins. Grapes in Colorado also tend to need more hang time to mature, getting a nice balance of sugar, total acidy and pH.
What grapes did you originally plant? Is that any different from the vines you currently cultivate?
We originally planted Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Now, we currently cultivate cold, hardy varietals, like Baco Noir and LaCrescent.
Why the shift from one grape variety to another?
It is called urban sprawl. A housing development came about just east of our property along with a large vinyl fence. With winds from the south, southwest the previous flow of air to lower areas was disrupted and the cold air would flood back into the vineyard. This caused us to seek out grapes that were more winter hardy. We also purchase grapes from growers in the Palisade and East Orchard Mesa area.
What was the first variety of wine that Two Rivers Created?
Our very first varieties were Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Two Rivers has won over 60 different awards since opening in 1999, but is there one particular award you are the most proud of?
Probably the first medal we ever received, was for the first wine we ever released. It was a silver medal from the Pacific Rim International Competition in California for our Riesling. A neighbor who was a former wine judge encouraged us to enter the wine because he thought it was outstanding.
What do you think makes Grand Junction unique to other wine destinations in the U.S.?
Grand Junction grows grapes at high altitude in the high desert with just enough frost-free days to achieve maturation. Our climate and altitude present challenges, but also unique benefits. For example, we do not have the pest or disease problem that is prevalent in other moderate climates.
Could you explain a little about how the warm days and cool nights cause the grapes to expand and contract and that creates higher sugar content?
During the time of the year when the grapes start to change colors and ripen (also known as varaison), the days are warm and the nights are cool. During the day, the grapes expand, and at night, they contract. This expansion and contraction creates intense sugars.
Aside from winemaking, what do you enjoy about living in Grand Junction, CO?
We love the small and loyal sense of the community which offers up nice opportunities to participate in local happenings. It allows us to feel like we’re not just a winery, but a part of the community.
To experience Two Rivers for yourself, visit the wineries tasting room and try one of their award-winning wines. Or, schedule a tour to see the behind the scenes technique, from growing grapes to harvesting, to turning them into handcrafted wine. With scenic views and divine libations, don't be surprised if you find yourself wanting to stay awhile. With a ten-room Chateau located at the Winery, you’re more than welcome to settle in. The Chateau is also a popular destination for weddings and corporate retreats as well.
See for yourself why so many winemakers and wine tasters choose Grand Junction. We hope to see you soon and be sure to plan your visit around all of the other unique experiences the area offers, from Colorado National Monument, to the Grand Mesa bursting with over 300 lakes, and the nationally-awarded Downtown with 100 high-end outdoor sculptures on display.