In 1981, Carlson Vineyards' Founders, Parker and Mary Carlson, planted their first vines and seven years later established the winery in a vintage 1930s fruit packing shed on four acres on East Orchard Mesa above Palisade, Colorado. What started out as a home hobby that eventually took over all spare spaces throughout their house has grown into one of Colorado's most award-winning, recognizable, and friendly wineries.
In their own words, Parker and Mary share the stories from their first days as the founders and winemakers of the fourth winery to be licenced in Colorado.
"During those early days, we learned the ropes as “cellar rats” with the original Colorado wine pioneers Jim and Ann Seewald, owners of Colorado Mountain Vineyards, just up the road. Harvest meant having our friends over to pick grapes, followed by Mary’s marvelous hearty spaghetti, washed down with lots of red wine. When it was bottling time, we used a hand-levered corker and applied wine labels one at a time. We honed our winemaking and vineyard skills in classes at the University of California at Davis (near Napa – think “wine mecca of the universe”). In spring, we relished being outdoors pruning the grapevines under blue skies and hearing the noisy Sandhill cranes migrating high overhead.
From day one, we decided to make wine from the superlative locally grown wine grapes and fruit from farms in Palisade and Delta County. We also decided that while we took the art of winemaking very seriously, we liked to have fun too. We asked “why make drinking wine complicated?” Our idea was to craft fine wines that people enjoyed drinking, that were affordable, friendly and unpretentious. We encouraged people to “trust your own taste.” Our belief was that wine is a great accompaniment to life, best with food and friends.
We had fun giving our wines names after local themes – with a twist, like Sipasaurus and Prairie Dog Blush. Since we are “cat people,” the Fat Cat, Laughing Cat, and Cougar Run monikers evolved.
Parker became an icon with his red suspenders, affable disposition, considerable knowledge, and ready wit. Soon Parker (and our photogenic farm winery and lounging cats) became a favorite for interviews and TV cameras. A publicity shot of Parker offering a glass of wine became the most popular Colorado wine image chosen by news editors across the USA.
Since those first harvests, our wines have enjoyed much success. Our wines have been sipped and savored at all kinds of tastings, winemaker dinners, and events. Some of the most unusual were tastings for first class passengers on the famous Amtrak California Zephyr train; and at the Chicago Field Museum, where our Tyrannosaurus Red was featured at the unveiling ceremonies of "Sue," the world’s largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus-Rex skeleton.
People discovered what we were doing, and liked that it was savory and authentic. They liked our unoaked Chardonnay, robust reds, and Peach and Cherry wines made from fresh-crushed local fruit. They liked our peaceful, shady yard furnished with comfy Adirondack-style chairs. They brought picnics, sipped wine, relaxed outdoors and soaked up the scenery.
To keep up with demand, we expanded our winery, bought better equipment, and built relationships with more growers. Our wines became available statewide in better liquor stores and wine shops, and later online. To keep things interesting, our cellar master recently planted an experimental vineyard with 5 different wine grape varieties.
And then there’s the story about Sunnydale Nudist Colony. People were showing up at our winery, nervously looking around and asking about “the nudist colony.” We thought - what?! Well, our neighbor, artist Lyle Nichols, was playing a joke on us! He posted a sign, “Sunnydale Nudist Colony 1 mile ahead” on his property. “Suzi,” a svelte brunette mannequin donated by friend and artist Charles Hardy, soon adorned our vineyard, and we created a commemorative wine and t-shirt (“It’s the naked truth…”).
Over the years, we have generously given time and resources to benefit our community and to help the Colorado wine scene mature. We served on boards of CAVE (Colorado Association of Vintners and Enologists – formerly RMAVV), Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, Colorado Mountain Winefest, and Mesa Land Trust. We mentored many wineries during their start-up. Today there are more than 95 wineries and tasting rooms in Colorado.
We are known for producing easy-drinking regional wines that have earned hundreds of awards locally, nationally and internationally, including double golds, best of fests, and the international World Cup Riesling Award. While we enjoy the recognition of the medals and ribbons dangling on wine bottles displayed in our tasting room, we think your opinion is just as important."