Travel Tips for North Fork Valley, CO: Colorado’s Secret Wine Town

Stone Cottage Cellars’ vineyards offer views of the snow-capped peaks of the West Elk Mountains. (Provided by the Stone Cottage Cellars)

North Fork ranchers move their cattle between pastures in early summer, so don’t be surprised if cowboys are in charge of the cattle drives. That same weekend, local winemakers will kick off their 2024 season with North Fork Uncorked, a series of winemaking events running from June 8 to 9.

Colorado’s North Fork is a federally designated American Viticultural Area (the West Elks AVA) fed by a tributary of the Gunnison River. Cattle ranches, organic orchards and vineyards thrive equally well in the area’s fertile valley, where a sophisticated arts scene also thrives. In an era marked by political division, it is this unexpected convergence of seemingly incongruous offerings that makes the region so intriguing.

Colorado’s North Fork Valley consists of three major cities – Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia – that form a triangle on the Western Slope. The largest town, Paonia, is known locally as “the Rock of the West,” explains Nathan Sponseller, spokesperson for the North Fork Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Stone House Inn in Crawford.

“Everyone says the North Fork is a hidden gem. Um, no, we’re just a gem,” says Steve Steese, who co-owns a Hotchkiss winery, The Storm Cellar, with his wife Jayme Henderson.

Colorado’s climate, elevation and soil produce unique grapes, and wine enthusiasts are starting to take notice as they seek out new wine tasting experiences. Many area wineries – including The Storm Cellar – integrate all elements of winemaking into the customer experience, from growing and harvesting to processing, aging, production – and of course, tasting.

Paonia is home to five of the area’s thirteen wineries, making the eclectic town a good home base for a summer vacation. Please note: North Fork wineries are open seasonally, Memorial Day through October or November, and most owners make appointments outside of posted hours. The hours below provide guidelines, but it is always best to call first.

Friday Steak Nights at The Storm Cellar in Hotchkiss with Chef Joseph Kerns.
Friday Steak Nights at The Storm Cellar in Hotchkiss with Chef Joseph Kerns. (Provided by The Storm Cellar)

Friday night

On your way into town, stop at Stone Cottage Cellars, 41716 Reds Road, open daily from 11am to 6pm. The first winery after McClure Pass, it offers an idyllic setting for a post-ride charcuterie board and a glass of wine—perhaps barrel-fermented Chardonnay—on a patio overlooking the snow-capped peaks of the West Elk Mountains. If you plan far enough in advance, you might be able to snag the Vineyard Winery’s hand-built two-bedroom cottage, available on Airbnb, conveniently located between the vineyard and a large garden where guests are welcome to choose their own salad for the dinner .

Downtown Paonia is also home to the 118-year-old Bross Hotel Bed & Breakfast, 312 Onarga Ave. Delta County’s oldest inn offers 10 rooms tucked away on a tree-lined street. On a quiet night, in a sleepy town, hotel guests can fall into a zen-like state while sitting in the bright white rocking chairs on the hotel’s veranda.

Saturday

Owners Mike and Suzanne serve a home-cooked breakfast at the Bross. We won’t judge you if you also try a tart cherry cornmeal scone and artisan cheese from Paonia Bread Works, 530 Grand Ave. before taking a morning stroll through Paonia’s main street (i.e. Grand Avenue). In between tastings, be sure to take some time to explore the galleries, studios and artsy shops that line the city’s creative district.

Get a restful night's sleep at the Bross Hotel Bed & Breakfast, Delta County's oldest inn.
Get a restful night’s sleep at the Bross Hotel Bed & Breakfast, Delta County’s oldest inn. (Provided by the Bross Hotel Bed & Breakfast)

When you’re ready for the first sips, drive a mile north of town to reach Qutori Wines, 40823 Hwy. 133, open Thursday to Sunday, noon to 8 p.m. The 25-year-old Pinot Noir vineyard has a winery with a spacious terrace overlooking Mount Lamborn. Meals at the on-site café are Mediterranean-inspired (think local bison meatballs on house-made pasta and tri-tip steak salad).

From here, continue approximately 0.8 miles to Black Bridge Winery, 15836 Black Bridge Road, open daily from 10am to 6pm. This winery is named after the centuries-old bridge you cross to get there, and the owners are especially proud of their distinction: winning Pinot Noir grapes – although they also produce Chardonnay, Riesling, rosé and a newer sour cherry wine.

I bet you haven’t visited many cart tasting tours. The Black Bridge team takes guests through five vineyards on a vintage tractor, providing educational tidbits and examples throughout the tour. Another point of difference is Black Bridge’s charming farm stand, stocked with balsamic vinegar, EVOOs and plenty of jams and jellies. Down by the river you should not miss a large orchard with sweet cherries, peaches, pears, apples and pumpkins.

There are plenty of places to recharge between tastings, but this writer likes sandwiches and salads at Sweetgrass Paonia, 120 Grand Ave., open Wednesday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Since wine and cheese go well together, you might want to nibble on this. small-batch handmade cheese at Western Culture Farmstead, 39883 Mathews Lane, open daily from 9am to 5pm (free goat cuddles included with every visit!)

Don’t miss Alfred Eames Cellars, 11931 4050 Road, open by appointment only. The winery’s full-bodied 2019 Carmena captured a coveted spot in the Governor’s Cup Collection, which designates Colorado’s finest wines as determined by a panel of 15 judges. In addition to tours, owner Alfred Eames and his team host seasonal brunches and dinners, but most people visit to see the breathtaking wine cellar: a vaulted cavern inspired by a trip to Spain that Eames designed and built with his son.