How Urban Wineries Succeed

Product, marketing and location are key for these Central U.S. vintners

by Ben Weinberg
The Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery
The Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery operates on the west side of Denver, Colo.
Denver, Colo.—From the banks of the Mississippi River, across Colorado’s mountain peaks to the dunes beside the Great Salt Lake, winery trendsetters feed the appetites of devoted urban followers in locally relevant ways.

Ben Parsons, the British-born winemaker/owner of 5,000-case The Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery (TIMT), operates out of a Quonset hut on Denver’s industrial west side. Fruit from Colorado’s fertile Western Slope comprises the bulk of production, although his Albariño and Verdelho come from Lodi, Calif.

“Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Black Muscat, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Parsons. “All Colorado fruit. But as the town of Palisade relies entirely on tourism, I decided to vinify in Denver, which has an up-and-coming restaurant community. I’m happiest in a city, and my young, educated clientele loves locally sourced wine.”

To the west, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Kiler Grove Winegrowers opened a 500-case urban winery in January. Michael Knight serves as general manager and covers vineyard work, winemaking, bottling, logistics and sales. “I grew up in Sonoma County and worked a few years at the University of California, Davis, where I picked up a great deal of information. But mostly I self-studied, and I’m lucky to be able to source fruit from my family’s vineyard in Paso Robles, Calif.”

Amigoni Urban Winery in is a 700-case operation in Kansas City, Mo.  Owned by Kerry Amigoni and her winemaker husband Michael, the winery currently produces Cabernet Franc, Mourvèdre and white and red Urban Blends exclusively from vinifera grapes.  “A lot of this job is trial and error,” Kerry Amigoni says.  “Michael took classes at UC Davis, and we’ve traveled extensively to California and Italy, but nothing really prepares you for this unique challenge.”

Thriving in slow times
Three local businesses in diverse urban settings—dependent on well-heeled, technologically adept customers—are thriving in the current economic climate.

“We broke even last year,” TIMT’s Parsons says, “and we made a $25,000 donation to the University of Colorado Cancer Center. Production has grown every year, starting with 2,500 cases in 2008 to this year’s projected 6,000 cases. We’re expanding into canned wine, and by summer we’ll have an on-site kitchen for full restaurant service and a rooftop deck. Website version 2.0 is about to go live, and our wine club is gaining speed now that people can sign up online. We also do parties.”

The winery has also made a success of offering 3- and 5-gallon kegs to more than 400 local customers, including more than 100 bars and restaurants. “The juice stays good for three months,” Parsons says, “which means little wastage. We also don’t have to purchase bottles, so restaurants can keep the price south of $9 per glass.”

“There’s no substitute for having attractive products,” Knight says. “If you make good wine, you can welcome the public and just let them taste. We operate in a commercial district next to hand soap bottlers, temp-labor companies, kitchen designers, tailors and fire extinguisher rechargers. We may look a little rough, but if the wines satisfy, then people are willing to spend time here.”

Why Utah?
A posting on Kiler Grove’s website asks, and answers that predictable question: “Why establish an urban winery in Salt Lake valley of Utah? Sound like a demented scheme? Not so. We hope. We are doing just that. After years of attempting to work with San Luis Obispo County to get past the severe restrictions and other complications facing us, we took up the suggestion of a trusted Utah friend to do this in Utah….The community of South Salt Lake and the state liquor control agency have been amazingly accommodating in our effort to get established in Utah.”

WinesVinesDATA currently lists three other wineries in Utah, 6,000-case Castle Creek; 900-case Spanish Valley Vineyards & Winery, both in Moab and 1,700-case Hive Winery, Layton.

“For us, accessibility is the key,” Amigoni says, “as well as a strong, local marketing push. Being part of the city’s core has allowed our customers to come in whenever it’s convenient. We advertise along the highway and call on hotels across the city. Our most powerful tool is our monthly newsletter, but we also maintain an active social presence on Facebook and Twitter.  We’ve been able to increase production 30% each year. Before 2010, all of our sales were in Kansas City, but we are now finally distributing to the rest of Missouri.”

Black Muscat and butchers

What does the future hold for these vinous urban pioneers? TIMT will release its first sparkling Black Muscat this July, and Parsons is teaming up with Justin Brunson of the Masterpiece Deli to create a salumeria and artisanal restaurant in the trendy Highlands neighborhood northwest of Denver. “We’re excited about our FDA-approved dry curing room and open butchering area, where you’ll be able to see skilled butchers break up whole animals.”

Kiler Grove is in the process of finalizing its 2009 blends, to be released shortly. Amigoni is working on private label projects for some of the city’s historic venues, as well as continuing to plant additional acres of varietals like Petit Verdot and Mourvèdre, based on customer demand.

“This isn’t rocket science,” Parsons says. “The best wines are made from perfect grapes, wherever they’re grown or processed.”

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