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The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey

by Eric Peterson on September 30, 2019, 11:05 am MDT

www.abbeywinery.com

Cañon City, Colorado

Founded: 2001

Privately owned

Employees: 20

Industry: Brewing & Distilling

Products: Wine

Owner Larry Oddo and Head Winemaker Jeff Stultz prize quality and creativity over quantity at their standout Southern Colorado winery.

It began with an exorcism at a Western Slope winery. 

A Benedicitine monk who was based in Cañon City at the historic Abbey of the Holy Cross performed the ritual. After he returned to the abbey, that monk thought a winery would be a good way to make some money.

The monks made about 700 cases in year one, then annual production grew tenfold to hit 7,000 cases by 2005.

Meanwhile, Oddo had been commuting from New Jersey to work as a CPA in Manhattan. "Public accounting had lost its luster for me," he says. "We decided to move and look for a business to run."

A food and beverage company was his first choice. The abbey was on the market, and Oddo bought the winery from the monks in 2005. (An institutional investor bought the abbey property in 2006.)

The growth continued under Oddo's ownership. "We were poised for growth to satisfy the Colorado Springs/Pueblo markets," he says.

Volume continued to grow to about 11,000 cases in 2011 before disaster struck in summer 2013: A fast-moving forest fire destroyed the area's anchor tourist attractions at the Royal Gorge. The blow was "significant," says Oddo. "Sixty percent of our sales come out of the tasting room here."

He said tasting room sales declined by about 30 percent, then slowly recovered to where overall production is back to 10,000 cases a year.

Head Winemaker Jeff Stultz started at the winery before Oddo bought the business. "We continually play with yeast strains and different techniques," says Oddo. "We hope to produce interesting, complex wines that help identify Colorado as a bona fide wine-producing state."

The catalog currently includes 16 wines, and it was designed with both ends of the wine-drinking spectrum in mind. "We have a product line that's attractive both to connoisseurs and to newbies," says Oddo.

The winery once sold more Riesling than anything else, but now it is better known for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Oddo says he tries to keep the supply chain in-state. "Right now, we're getting most of our grapes from Palisade," he says. "We're trying to keep the characteristics of the wine consistent from year to year, and you can only do that by getting the wine from the same vineyard."

A notable exception, the fruit for the winery's top-selling Wild Cañon Harvest, "a sweet, Concord-y blush," is grown in backyards in the Cañon City area. The winery pays 50 cents a pound for local grapes.

Oddo calls the Winery at Holy Cross Abbey "Southern Colorado's winery by all accounts," but says it's difficult to keep up with the region's population growth.  As the 10,000-case mark actually represents 130 percent capacity for the equipment, he says he's hesitant to make a big investment to increase production.

"To do any more than that, you're going to be sacrificing quality," he says. "Supply is not guaranteed. Distribution channels are not guaranteed. While we pretty much own the Southern Colorado market, breaking into the Denver market is challenging."

"I don't necessarily see it in the cards that we're going to be growing substantially. I'd like to say we're going to be focusing on quality, on our premium wines, while continuing to provide the fun wines visitors like."

Challenges: "There are a lot of things working against the boutique winery industry now," says Oddo.

One is demographics. Younger generations are not buying wine like their parents did. "They are extremely price-sensitive, they are not brand-loyal, and they are looking for an experience rather than buying a bottle of wine and bringing it home."

In Colorado, he adds, "It's a challenge to make consistent wine." The climate makes for different grapes from year to year, and the harvests are not always big enough to meet local demand for grapes.

Location can also be an issue when it comes to buying, maintaining, and repairing equipment. "We're in Southern Colorado," says Oddo. "We're not in the middle of any wine region." The solution is vertical integration: "We have to do everything in-house. Our winemaker also has to be equipment person and forklift operator. There's a lot of challenges being isolated from the rest of the wine world."

Opportunities: Special events. Beyond regular Wine and Pizza Mondays, the winery plays host to several annual events, but Oddo says he is looking to grow that side of the business (and that it dovetails into attracting younger customers seeking experiences first and foremost.) "We feel this is a beautiful property and a community gathering spot," he adds, noting that the winery can accommodate about 2,000 people outdoors. "Shoulder seasons are an opportunity." 

Needs: The winery "needs access to an educated, more experienced labor force," says Oddo, and that can be tall order in Cañon City. "It's not like we're out in California," he says.

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