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Preparing fresh fruit for the 2014 crush

Want to be invited to the most exclusive wine event of the year? You’ll have to join the club. Not a members-only golf club (we have plenty of those), but the winemaking club Vines at Vail at 4 Eagle Ranch in Wolcott, the valley’s sole commercial winery. Over the summer, members (typically groups of oenophile friends) ante in to reserve a barrel of a yet-to-be-made top-tier blend or varietal. Then, once a California-plated semi arrives with its cargo of fresh-picked Central Valley fruit in late September, they converge on the winery for the annual harvest crush, a weekend bacchanalia of swirling and sipping (on house malbec and Muscato), grazing (on a potluck feast), and stomping (on grapes, preferably costumed like Lucy and Ethel).

“You can’t do this at home,” says Daniel Takacs, a retired landscape contractor from Basalt, as he feeds 300 pounds of grapes he purchased as a winemaking co-op member last fall into the churning auger of a destemming machine. “The crushing, pressing, and bottling get-togethers are fantastic, a big party.”

Co-op members like Takacs rally at the winery on those three occasions each year to DIY their vino (each 60-gallon barrel yields 24 cases) without the burden of a liquor license—since everything’s made for personal consumption. Besides the smug satisfaction of making and drinking their own labels, members pay about $15 per bottle for very drinkable wine that would fetch up to $50 at retail outlets. That’s no small feat for rank amateurs (though they are coached by a Vines at Vail winemaker).

If you’re feeling like you’ve missed the party, you’re not alone. Founded 23 years ago as Churchill Wine Cellars at 4 Eagle Ranch, the winemaking club was, and still is, an invitation-only affair. That invitation comes courtesy of founder and owner Patrick Chirichillo (pronounced “Churchill-o”), a Vail Valley general contractor and real estate broker relocated from the Jersey Shore who credits his calling to a long Italian family lineage of winemakers, including a grandfather who taught him the craft when he was nine years old. “We started out word-of-mouth, and it grew in scale with our capacity,” he says of the 2,000-or-so club members he’s shepherded over the past two decades. “Most years we’ll see about 150 members who stomp grapes in fall and drink some of the wine by spring.” Under Chirichillo’s tutelage, a handful of these fledgling vintners have won awards from the Colorado Mountain Winefest Amateur Winemakers Competition, a sort of The Voice for wannabe winemakers held every September in Palisade.

In 2014 his club officially transitioned to the commercial Vines at Vail Winery, offering two varietals (malbec and Muscato) and 10 blends (bearing labels like “Gore Range” and “Côtes du Vail”). The wines are served at valley restaurants (Avon’s Northside Coffee & Kitchen and Route 6 Café in Eagle-Vail); sold at the winery’s tasting room, online to Colorado addresses, and to fine wine retailers (Beaver Liquors in Avon and Riverwalk Wine & Spirits in Edwards); and, for visitors, even delivered to valley hotel rooms. Chirichillo’s larger vision for Vines at Vail is as expansive as his wine list, including a winery that increases production tenfold from the current 1,200 cases per year and, on a 40-acre parcel he’s ogling in Wolcott, a Tuscan-inspired health and wellness resort village complete with banquet hall, organic-themed restaurant, lodge, and multilevel piazzas. Think Napa Valley in the Vail Valley.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” he says, adding that co-op winemaking will continue to a lesser degree at 4 Eagle Ranch. “Members can still purchase grapes, assist in making wine, and keep their portions. With this new phase, the winemaking journey continues.”

And only gets better with age. 

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