Interview with a Winemaker, Jay Christianson with Canyon Wind Cellars
Earlier this summer I was invited to a small, private, wine tasting for writers here in Colorado. The gathering was specifically put together to preview wines that had won the Governor’s Cup Wine Competition, an annual competition recognizing the top wines in Colorado. This year, the 16 winners were chosen out of 240 submissions, from more than 30 local wineries – all of which were judged by a panel of wine experts, sommeliers, chefs, and writers.
To say I was excited to attend is an understatement.
Not only was I able to taste the winning wines but speak directly with the Colorado winemakers. Which brings me to the latest in my Interview with a Winemaker series. I had the opportunity to speak with Jay and Jennifer Christianson, the owners and winemakers at Anemoi Wines and Canyon Wind Cellars. Both their labels – Anemoi Wines and Canyon Wind Wine – received an award; the Anemoi Wines 2013 Lips Syrah also tied for Best in Show.
Being a family-owned, estate winery Jay and Jennifer took over Canyon Wind Cellars in 2007, a few years later they introduced their Anemoi Wines label, which they call “the second generation of what Canyon Wind is.” All their wines – both Anemoi Wines and Canyon Wind Cellars are 100 percent estate grown (aka 100 percent Colorado fruit).
Canyon Wind Cellars is in a unique location in the Palisades – at 4,710 feet above sea level, the 35-acre vineyard enjoys a high altitude growing location, without a significantly cooler climate or a drastically reduced growing season that often comes with higher elevation vineyards. The wines are a testament to the loose cobblestones, sand, and mineral-rich soil and ideal growing conditions.
Jay took some time to answer a few questions for the Interview with a Winemaker series, not only regarding his labels but the Colorado wine industry. Oh, did I mention he’s the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board and served on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Association of Viticulture and Enology from 2013-2015. He knows his Colorado wine.. .
Stay tuned for more interview with Colorado winemakers my Guide to Visiting the Colorado Wine Country.
Interview with a Winemaker: Jay Christianson, Anemoi Wines / Canyon Wind Cellars
Tell me a bit about your background and how you became involved with running Canyon Wind Cellars.
As this is a second-generation company my background here starts when my father planted the vineyard back in 1991. I have done a bit of everything here, including my summer job since I was 10. Most of that time I was working in the winery, but it wasn’t really until 2007 that I took over the winemaking and then in 2009 Jennifer and I took over all aspects of the company. Before 2007, I did try my hand at being a professional skier; I coached and taught at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH and also spent three seasons as a Coach for Ski and Snowboard Club Vail once I came back to take over winemaking.
I read that you came up with the Canyon Wind name when you were nine years old. What’s the story?
Well that is certainly true – and it is still not my favorite! My parents were all set to go with the winery, and had chosen a formal business name: Christianson Cellars. We were 99% of the way through construction, had permits waiting to be issued, all that was missing was the name. As I was a child of the Front Range I was very familiar with the radio, and television ads for Cave of the Winds and as we drove by a billboard the name Canyon Wind Cellars just popped into my head! I instantly hated it for the association with the radio and tv adds but my parents loved it – so it stuck.
When did you fall in love with wine? Do you remember the wine that was “the one” that started it all?
Is there a story behind it? I fell in love with what wine was before I fell in love with wine. Wine was the chance to produce something, and that was a gratifying experience. Falling for wine started with a 1982 Bonny’s Vineyard Silver Oak. It was just great. From there it was the deep, and repressed love for Zinfandel, I have a real soft spot for the grape.
You all recently introduced Anemoi Wines, can you share some details on how this came about? Is this a completely new line or an extension of Canyon Wind?
Well it really came about from Jennifer, my wife and co-winemaker. She likes to tell people that she’d had maybe six glasses of wine before we met, so when we decided to take over the business we launched into a full tilt wine education – starting with my fathers’ collection of old Bordeaux wines and moving around the world tasting as many different styles and types as we could. Through this wine exploration we both came to realize three things:
1. Jen has a way better palate than I do.
2. We both love blends.
3. We both love oak.
So fast-forward a few years to after we had taken over and we launched Anemoi to be our playground for that concept – we get the best possible situation; we get to experiment, make wines we truly love, and still keep the identity of Canyon Wind consistent for the marketplace. So in many ways it is really the second generation of what Canyon Wind is- we are still 100% estate, we have picked for Anemoi only, and sometimes blended from CWC wine. To me it is the logical expression of place and an outlet to create wines in a style in which our passion lies; while still respecting the past and keeping the Canyon Wind identity growing along its path as well.
“People take wine too seriously. Have fun, relax.”
What are some of the misconceptions/phrases you hear from people regarding wine that are simply not true (or drive you crazy)?
Number 1 has to be sulfite headaches all the way up to sulfite allergy. It is just super simple, if you can eat dried fruit then the sulfites in wine can’t bother you. You are not allergic to sulfites (and if you are wine is the least of your trouble, and you would have been diagnosed long ago). After that, I don’t really have any, wine is taken too seriously, it’s a drink to have fun with (responsibly of course, thanks TTB). Experiment with what you like, if you want an ice cube, I’m not going to judge you, you are after all the one drinking it, not me! In fact after thinking that through that may be my number 1 issue – people take wine too seriously. Have fun, relax.
How have you seen the wine industry in Colorado mature and how is it changing the perception of those who do not (or have not) considered Colorado being a wine producing state?
That is a really tough question to answer. Maturity implies that it was at one point immature and that it now is different and somehow better then it was. I 100% believe that the industry is different than it was when I was a kid growing up here, but I am not willing to say that it was immature, and that it has gotten better. The industry has certainly expanded, and with that there have been some tremendously talented people entering the game.
The perception element is certainly a different question. The local food movement coupled with the explosive growth in Colorado produced beer, cider, and spirits has appeared to grab some attention from some gatekeepers that previously marginalized Colorado wine. But truly the main driving force of change is the consumer voting with their requests and wallets. I see that as a direct response to industry expansion more then anything else. Has the wine world outside of Colorado recognized any of this? Perhaps, but in very small ways.
How does your approach differ from other winemakers in Colorado?
I would say that the number one thing that we would put in the elevator speech is that we are 100% estate. That means that every grape we use we grow. We take that one (admittedly small) step further and grow everything in one contiguous parcel in the best grape growing spot in Colorado. That influences our winemaking philosophy tremendously. We are of the mind that we are really growing the wine, once it gets to the winery we need to just stay out of the way more often than not. There is an old joke that gets passed around in wine that winemaking is 90% cleaning, 5% moving heavy stuff around, and 5% drinking beer. In many ways that is pretty true.
Are there any memories / lessons you learned in your training that have stuck with you?
Absolutely. In 2007 I came back all hot to trot after my skiing career, and spending time in the wine market listening to all the pros talk about what they wanted. I put together a picture in my head of a wine that CWC had never even talked about – a big, burly, jammy, monster of a wine with 100% new French oak. I was really trying to make what now is called a Parker wine. I did everything. I dropped fruit to intensify flavor, I did all sorts of handwork, I did nothing by machine, at every fork in the road of the wines life I took the path of most resistance. When the wine was aging in barrels I was convinced that I failed. The wine was soft, supple, integrated, and totally the opposite of what I set out to make. It took the recognition of someone outside of the process to look at the wine and say: “Hey, this is the first $100 bottle of Colorado wine I’ve tasted” for me to realize the lesson. That lesson is simply that as a winemaker I’m here to not mess up, it’s the grapes, the season, and ultimately the wine that is in charge of the final product.
What is your winemaking philosophy?
My winemaking philosophy is one of cooperation. The land and the grapes we can grow can say so much more in the finished product then I can as a winemaker. That means my job is to know everything I can about staying out of the way and where I need to intercede. I frequently discuss the 1-10 scale with 1 being producers like Zind Humbrecht that literally do nothing other then crush grapes, and 10 being people who are proponents of de-alcoholizing, mega-purple, and heavy wine manipulation. For us I would put CWC at a 4 and Anemoi at a 5.
What would you hope people say about your wine?
I think that the finest compliment that I could receive is that the wine tastes of its place. One of the most illuminating wine moments for me was tasting a Cote Rotie; the wine tasted like the land that produced it. That is really what I am trying to accomplish here – if you taste what we grow, I would love it if it could also conjure up the image of place like that wine did for me.
What resources would you reference for people who want to learn about wine?
From a novice to more advanced. For novice it would really depend on what they wanted to learn, but a great starting point (actually what lead Jennifer at the start, and why I had that transporting Cote Rotie experience) was the Wine Bible – truly a good jumping off point that helps open up further exploration. Also a great liquor store is invaluable, those folks taste tons of wine and a great one will be able to tell you that if you like A you may like B. That is a great tool as well.
Can you share a little about the 2015 growing season and what we should expect from the wine?
2015 certainly started out well. We had a super mild winter and an early spring, all good signs of a good growing season. If the weather holds in this pattern I would look back at 2012 for possible analogies in weather, and that is a great thing as I would call that our best vintage to date.
What would you suggest people pair with your wines that received the 2015 Colorado Governor’s Cup – 2013 Canyon Wind Cellars Petit Verdot and the 2013 Lips Syrah?
Petit Verdot is probably my favorite grape so I like to have a ton of fun pairing it. My traditional pair would be Bison Short Ribs – super savory, the wine complements the unctuousness, just a great pair. For a less traditional pair I love to do Petit Verdot with a Saag Curry, if you can keep the heat down (hard to do if you truly love curry) there is a great compliment of flavors going on there as Petit Verdot is such a spicy wine in character. For Lips I would jump to a Bin Burger at Bin 707 Foodbar in Grand Junction – a great burger, a fried egg, and Lips is one of my favorite things out there.
Besides your wines, what are a few of your favorite wines?
Like I said above, a great Zin is always welcome. I’m a big Rhone fan as well; there is something really fun there. It is so hard to pick favorites, I like the mental exercise tasting wines that I am not enjoying for one reason or another, and I love wines that taste good. But if I went to the cellar right now for tonight what would I grab? I’d probably go for a T-Vine Petit Syrah from 2005 – it is a fun wine and I have wanted to re-visit it for a little while now. That might actually be the hardest question here.
Interested in learning more about Colorado wine? Stay tuned for my Guide to Visiting the Colorado Wine Country.