By Eric Peterson | Mar 07, 2014
Grand Junction, Colorado
Bob and Billie Witham came home with a concept that evolved from retirement community to a winery.
"I'm from northwest Colorado, born and raised here, and so is my wife," says Bob.
They'd moved back to Colorado in the late 1990s and bought a 15-acre parcel of land in Grand Junction's Redlands area with an eye towards residential development. "We had purchased a property with the idea of building a gated community for seniors...a small version of a Del Webb concept."
The economy started to show warning signs, so they backed off the idea, and onto a different use of the land: a winery with a conference and events center, complete with 10 lodging units. They planted their first grapevines in 1999 and finished construction on the event facility, the Two Rivers Chateau, in 2000.
About 500 weddings and 15 years later later, it's hard to dispute the decision.
"When you're in the wine business, one of the things you're after is name recognition," says Bob. "That's why you have tasting rooms. The Chateau operation, we envisioned it as part of our marketing plan."
He says over 75,000 wedding attendees have visited the property over the years, and Two Rivers provides all of its own wine for the events onsite. "They are tasting our wine in a celebratory environment, so we're doubling down on that concept of a tasting room," explains Bob.
Volume has increased from 1,200 cases in year one to 15,000 cases in 2013. The bestsellers are Riesling and Cabernet.
While Bob "doesn't put much stock in awards," Two Rivers has won plenty of gold medals at events at top-tier competitions in California and elsewhere. "It's more of an affirmation we're doing some things right," he says.
And Bob is always looking to make the business better. "We embrace quality-improvement initiatives in our business practices," he notes. "You can always improve your products."
He says the company has brainstorming sessions to set goals and benchmark, and accountability is key.
There's a big payoff, Bob adds. "If you have several people trying to overachieve, you can make some quantum leaps in terms of quality."
An example: Two Rivers was having trouble with sediment in its Merlot. After analyzing relevant processes, the Withams realized that it was an issue with transportation during cold weather. So the winery started cold stabilizing wines by lowering the temperature to near-freezing during fermentation and solved the problem.
Bob says the company has seen benefits in everything from forklift safety to wine quality through other initiatives.
Despite two millennia of winemaking, the industry is constantly innovating, and Bob says Two Rivers is no stranger to change.
This year, the winery will employ micro-oxygenation technology to help its wines mature faster. "It accelerates the aging process," says Bob. "We've done a lot of research on it. You don't want to release a wine that's so young, the consumer opens it up and tastes it."
Another innovation: Two Rivers replaced half of the vines with hybrids on its Grand Junction vineyard, and the other half are slated for replacement by 2017.
"We struggle a bit with winter hardiness," Bob explains. He says the hybrids' higher acidity will make a good match for sparkling wines, which will be a new addition to the Two Rivers catalog in about three years. "One way to manage acids, you do it with bubbles," says Bob.
Two Rivers also own seven acres in Palisade and outsource grapes from other local growers.
Challenges: An economic boom. "We're probably in the same mode as a lot of other small businesses, with the instability of our government, our economy, and healthcare," says Bob. "We're anxious for a turnaround. That needs to happen."
Opportunities: "The movements we see going on with Colorado Proud and other organizations is very positive for our industry," Bob says. "More people are getting in tune with buying local."
Needs: Stable grape prices in Colorado. "We're concerned about the increase in grape prices," notes Bob. "We've had a three-year cycle with a lot of damage from cold weather. We want to have a Colorado product, but if we don't have the fruit, we'd have to outsource from Washington state and California. We don't want to do it. " The solution, he says, is for more growers to turn to hardier hybrids. The upside to growing grapes in the Rockies? "We don't have problems with pests," he says.