Colorado Grapes Mix with Ancient Techniques to Produce Rare Wine
Walking into Parker’s new winery is like stepping into the Old World. Throughout the room, beautiful hand-finished furniture gives the impression of another place or time.
Decorative brickwork around the tasting room is reminiscent of a centuries-old mansion on a European wine estate. Dark bottles are stored in diversely shaped spaces around the room, reinforcing the name of Purgatory Cellars.
Marko Ćopić and Gary Tassler are the owners of this fascinating business. They are eager to share their wines with the increasing number of area residents who are visiting the local venue.
Ćopić, who grew up in Croatia, is the winemaker. His family have known winemakers for generations, and his father used to make his own wine.
After years of studying enology and experimenting with different techniques, Ćopić was ready to bring his Croatian background, and the Old World methods that most interested him, to the United States.
On arrival in Colorado two years ago, the Ćopić family—Marko, Ivanka and their two young children—visited vineyards and wineries throughout the state, hoping to buy an existing business.
Purgatory, an old abandoned mining town turned ski resort near Durango, was one of the places they visited. They could not find anything suitable for what they planned, so they decided to build their own winery.
The Ćopić family found a space in Parker, but they kept the name of Purgatory. They teamed up with Tassler, an American friend of the family, who had visited Croatia and enjoyed the region’s wines.
Purgatory Cellars opened its doors in April this year, but the preparation started many months earlier.
Stephen Menke, a Colorado State University associate professor of enology who also works with the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, was instrumental in getting them off the ground. Menke runs Ram’s Point winery in Grand Junction, which is used by the university for training students, research and outreach. It was here that Purgatory Cellars made its first wines.
“We made about 8,000 or 9,000 bottles total in 2014,” Tassler says. “We’re planning on about 35,000 bottles by the end of 2015.”
“Colorado has very nice grapes,” Ćopić notes. “We already got 35 tons from two local suppliers: Talbott Farms and Desert Moon Vineyards. I would prefer to get all our grapes from Colorado.”
All of Purgatory Cellars’ white wines are produced with Colorado grapes, but so far the red grapes have come from New Mexico, including eight tons that Ćopić picked up at the end of August.
A Unique Experience
“We are completely different from other local wineries,” Tassler says.
“Other wineries offer a taste of the end product, when it is already bottled,” Ćopić explains. “But we want people to be involved in the wine-making process while it’s happening. Every day there will be something at some stage of production that you can try. You can taste how the wine is changing.”
Ćopić uses his knowledge of modern fermentation techniques, combined with time-tested processes, to create wines that are somewhat unique in this part of the world.
He gestures behind the bar, where steel tanks, a huge wooden barrel and a box with a clay pot in it are visible from the tasting area. The oval pot, half-buried inside the large box, is called an amphora. This is what Ćopić and Tassler are most excited about.
“Marko uses ancient methods that nobody else in Colorado is using,” Tassler says. “Maybe two or three wineries in America are using amphorae. It is very rare.”
An amphora is a clay vessel, as used thousands of years ago by the Greeks and Romans, but originally from the wine lands in the country of Georgia. The time-consuming and labor-intensive method of making and aging wine in amphorae allows for a natural wine with a distinctive flavor.
“The wine stays in the amphora for up to six months; the time depends on the flavor you’re aiming for. I taste it and then I know when it’s ready,” Ćopić says.
Ćopić learned about this method from established winemaking friends in Croatia—the Tomac family and Antonio Ivančić, who brought Georgian amphorae to Croatia. Ćopić shipped his amphora from the same supplier.
“You cannot simply go and buy amphorae,” Ćopić says, explaining how hard it is to get hold of such a specialty item. “There is more equipment on the way. Three more amphorae from Georgia and fifteen barrels, 500 liters each.”
“Those fermenters are handmade by our cooper,” Ivanka says. “A cooper—that’s a barrel-maker.”
“Almost everything in here is handmade,” Tassler adds. “Marko spent four months just sanding the furniture. To say ‘Marko is dedicated’ would be such an understatement.”
Ćopić’s long-term vision for Purgatory Cellars is one of excellence, with creative ways to involve patrons and support the Colorado wine and grape industry, as well as offer a unique tasting experience that will bring visitors from all over the country.
The Wine List
“Our 2015 wines will include 30 varieties. There will be four different Chardonnays: stainless steel, on oak, amphora and aged on lees,” Tassler says.
Purgatory Cellars currently offers an award-winning Zinfandel, Malbec, Sangiovese, Petite Sirah and Syrah on its list of reds.
The whites, while supplies last, include unoaked Chardonnay, Roussanne, Riesling and the rare Amphora Riesling. Ćopić plans on entering the latter into competition in California, but there is currently no category for amphora wine.
“The wine industry is going to get a little bit shaken up here,” Ćopić laughs. “People will come from all over to taste this wine. I really like the amphora style. We are hoping to make that one of our signatures.”