It’s widely known that Grand Junction is surrounded by breathtaking beauty and dramatic landscapes, but it is also known for providing the entire state with some of the best-tasting produce, used by chefs every corner of Colorado who demand the highest quality. The Colorado River provides pure, clean mountain water and the high desert creates a temperate climate of hot summer days, cool nights, and mild winters. Peaches, apples, apricots, pears, cherries, and both table and wine grapes thrive on Colorado's Western Slope.
So, it's no surprise that those passionate about crafting the best wine choose to call the Grand Junction area home. Twenty-seven wineries have established their 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 for an interview. See what they had to say about their winery and Grand Junction.
Where are you both from originally?
We grew up in the towns of Craig and Meeker, Colorado.
I would Imagine one doesn’t start a winery without a passion for wine. Where did that passion 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.
When did you first think that you wanted to open a winery?
It was a second career choice for us. After retiring and moving back to Colorado’s Western Slope, it seemed like a good time to try something new.
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 prior to returning to Colorado from Texas.
When did Two Rivers Winery first open?
Two Rivers Winery officially opened in November of 1999.
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 retired persons in a gated community but abandoned the idea because they were not comfortable with the demographics. While working the land, they noticed that someone had grown miniature cherry trees in the past. They 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.
When establishing your winery, what was the most surprising challenge that you didn't expect?
The biggest challenge for us that we didn't expect came with local utilities during the construction of the winery. For example, we had to install a fire hydrant to overcome water pressure issues and that added a costly expense we weren’t anticipating.
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 periotic 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.
In contrast, what was the most surprising positive experience you had when establishing Two Rivers Winery?
The most surprising positive experience was how our winery project was embraced by the County Commissioners, local business leaders, and our residential neighbors surrounding the project. Everyone seemed excited to have us here.
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: 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 continue to get most of our grapes from growers in the Palisade/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 proudest of?
Probably the first medal we ever received, 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 the Grand Valley unique to other wine destinations in the U.S.?
The Grand Valley grows grapes at high altitude on 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 many more 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 that time of the year when the grapes start to change (varaison) colors, the days are the warmest and the nights are cooler. This gives the plants a chance rest then the warmth provides opportunities for intense sugar.
Aside from winemaking, what do you enjoy about living in Grand Junction, CO?
We love the small and tight 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 that community.
What advice would you have for someone thinking about opening a winery in Colorado?
While we have a nice growing region, we clearly are not California. Wineries need to be sensitive about pricing and quality.
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 dreamy 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 stay a night or two. The Chateau is also a popular destination for weddings and inspiring 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.
Learn more about local wineries on page 46 of the Grand Junction Visitor Guide.