I may never eat grocery-store peaches again — not after tasting the largest and juiciest peach ever. Moments ago, it was hanging on a tree at High Country Orchards near Palisade, Colorado, a few minutes east of Grand Junction in the far western part of the state.
“Our fruit has more sugar because of the altitude,” explains Theresa High, owner of High Country Orchards. Its 126 acres sit at 4,800 feet overlooking the Colorado River and the verdant valley through which it snakes. In the background: Mount Garfield and the chalky Book Cliffs, so named because they resemble volumes lined up on a library shelf.
I’ve come to expect natural drama in this part of the Colorado after spending a couple of days in and around Grand Junction. Our group explored the nearby Colorado National Monument and spent time in the town’s quaint and vibrant Main Street district. Today brings us to some of the area’s 20 vineyards and wineries, and a few of the local orchards and farms. The landscape is as beautiful as anything you’ll see elsewhere in the state, and yet the Grand Valley may be Colorado’s best kept secret.
The Rocky Mountain state is not yet readily synonymous with “wine country,” but it won’t be long. Grand Junction and Palisade have earned an American Viticultural Areas (ANA) designation called Grand Valley — an indication that the area has “identifiable and unique geographic and climatic features” that make the land here oh-so-perfect for growing grapes.
“Warm days and cool nights create the perfect conditions,” says High, also owner of Colterris Wines, which first harvested the vines in 2008, and opened the tasting room in 2011. We enjoy a glass of crisp Coral White Cabernet Sauvignon — so perfect for a warm summer day — then tour the property. We discover the larger-than-life sculptures created by High’s husband, Scott, as well as portions of his collections of antique trucks, metal signs from bygone eras and 5,000 corkscrews.
A few miles away, “Farmer Bob” Helmer, wife Alida and a two employees are busy transforming their fruit and vegetable crop into jams, jellies, syrups, salsas, candy and luscious, lacy-crusted pies.
Today Helmer, who regrets not wearing his peach-patterned shirt and bib overalls for photos, shows visitors around their small-but-efficient operation. The machines package thousands of pounds of peaches for Sam’s Club and lots of gifts and foodstuffs for the busloads of tourists that make Alida’s a regular stop.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life,” says Helmer, who bought his land in 1990, “but this is the best.”
Other families, like the Clarks, have been in Grand Valley for more than a hundred years. Dennis and Staci Clark’s children will be the sixth generation to care for their 100 acres and 40,000 fruit trees — peaches, apricots, cherries, pears and plums. Customers at their fruit stand get free wagon rides on summer weekends and during the Christmas season.
“Palisade peaches are known as one of the best peaches in the world,” he proudly tells visitors while taking a break from the usual workday because of the rain earlier in the day — an unusual phenomenon for this time of year.
Some of Grand Valley’s abundance comes in the four-legged variety, like the alpacas that reside at Sun Crest Orchard Alpacas and Fiber Works. Mike and Cindy McDermott bought his parents’ farm in 2003 and tried raising several animals and crops, then settled on alpacas. It’s easy to see why. It takes about 10 seconds for one of the 50 animals to steal your heart.
The McDermotts also process alpaca hair that comes from about 200 other farms across the country. (McDermott says that the U.S. alpaca population totals 350,000.) It takes 15 labor-intensive steps to transform hair into yarn, which McDermott demonstrates. The tour ends in the gift shop, which offers colorful, soft alpaca hats, gloves and scarves. Since these are of little use in Southern California, I opt for a pair of hand-carved alpaca Christmas tree ornaments.
For information on the city of Grand Junction and area wineries, farms and orchards, visit HYPERLINK “http://www.visitgrandjunction.com” http://www.visitgrandjunction.com.