Jack Rabbit Hill: Local Love from a Hidden Gem in Hotchkiss

By Josh Rapp and Jen Fowler DSC_8741

Many people in our great state have inclinations toward all things local over all things not local.  Jack Rabbit Hill Winery and Peak Spirits have had “all things local” as their focus since they started up in 2000.  You may have seen bottles of Cap Rock gin or vodka at your favorite bar, or have been lucky enough to sample some amazing beer cocktails at Star Bar a while back, made with these two products and Avery Beer. Or you may not know what in the world we’re talking about! So let us take you behind the scenes of an awesome local distiller, wine maker, and hop grower.

Lance and Anna Hanson own and run three businesses from their organic/biodynamic farm in Hotchkiss.  They are: Jack Rabbit Hill Winery, Peak Spirits distillery, and new this year, Jack Rabbit Hops.

Invited to learn more about this unique concept, we loaded up the car and headed to Hotchkiss – two hours south of Glenwood Springs, by way of Carbondale. After weaving our way up a seemingly desolate mesa, we discovered the oasis that Lance and Anna have created.  There is a whole lot to say about the operation up there, so let’s get into it!

Farming Practices

It is a dry climate and the farmland was initially covered with heather plants. However, they saw the potential of the land, as first source, fresh spring water flows down to the farm due to gravity from Cap Rock, hence the title of their gin and vodka.

Recognizing how important ingredients are to the quality and complexity of their finished products, they chose to be USDA certified organic from the point of their first planting in 2000. However, they discovered that organic was quite costly and not as sustainable as they originally thought. Lance and Anna then discovered the concept of biodynamic farming and completed Demeter Biodynamic certification in June 2008. Biodynamic takes organic to the next level – it is a way of leveraging the resources of the farm, reducing off-farm inputs to create a holistic, self-sustaining ecosystem. A large part of biodynamic farming is enriching the soil through nine herb and compost teas. These teas are made from aging the waste of their cattle on the farm and are incredibly potent, so they are able to fertilize many acres with a fraction of traditional composts.

Organic, biodynamic farming is a more efficient way to run their farm, but the more important impact is the taste and quality of the wines, spirits and hops produced in this way. There is no chemical or human adulteration, allowing the natural complexity of each to shine through.

Jack Rabbit Hill Winery

All Jack Rabbit Hills wines are estate wines, meaning all of the grapes come from the 20 acres of vines on the farm. They also produce wines for two nearby farms – a Pinot Gris for Mesa Winds and a Riesling for Dill Farm – using those farms’ grapes.

In contrast to a lot of high tech processes now being leveraged in the wine industry, Jack Rabbit stays true to the wine-making craft, preferring to let nature run its course. No commercial yeasts, additives, or chemical separations are used in the wine-making process, so that the juices of the grapes develop into unique, complex wines.  That’s right, the only thing fermenting their grape juice is whatever yeast came from the field.  Most of this yeast hangs out on the grape stem and the grape skin. Vintages maintain their relevance as each year yields a slightly different flavor profile, based on the weather, soil composition and other natural factors.

We had the privilege of sampling several wines in process of fermentation, from the stainless steel casks. First, we tried what would eventually become the Pinot Gris; at this point it had a super funky nose, almost like what is characterized as a “farmhouse” note in certain beers. It also contained a lot of sediment, which contributed to the earthiness. We could sense the potential for it, once filtered and aged, to develop that clean profile of honeysuckle and slight acidity of lemon you can tasted in the finished product.

We also got to taste the beginnings of a new sparkling wine Lance was working on. At this stage it had a nice sweetness without being syrupy, and had a crisp finish. Once CO2 is added, it will make a lovely, refreshing bubbly and we’re looking forward to seeing it hit the market.

While we did not sample their reds from the cask, we had plenty out of the bottle!  They produce two red wines: M&N and Barn Red. M&N is blend of 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Meunier grape and is racked and aged 12 months in 2nd year French barrels. I love full-bodied reds and this tickled my tastebuds with notes of cherry, raspberry, and dark coffee. The Barn Red is an ever-changing blend of different varietals, potentially including Malbec, Foch, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and NY70. It is aged for 15 months in neutral French barrels, so you get a softer, more earthy wine, with blueberry, blackberry and soft tannins.

All Jack Rabbit Hill wines demonstrate the potential of organic/biodynamic Colorado wines – two characteristics that people unfortunately associate with poor quality at this point.  The quality of their wines is extra impressive as they don’t have the outrageous price point that most Colorado, and for that matter, any organic wine seem to posses. So we encourage you to take that Colorado feeling of wanting to support local stuff and try out Jack Rabbit Hill.  You won’t regret it.

Peak Spirits

As soon as Lance opened the barn doors I was blinded by the light of god, err… the light reflecting off of his super shiny copper Vendome pot still.  Not only is it pretty, it produces some really amazing booze.  Part of the reason Cap Rock Gin tastes so good is due to its use of fourteen different botanicals, quite a few more than the norm.  Lance told me about how he uses the London method for distilling his gin, which means that all botanicals are added into the still during distillation.  Many gin producers make separate distillates for each botanical (one for juniper, one for lavender, etc.) and then blend these liquors into a gin.  This makes things a bit easier as far as consistency goes but with so many botanicals in his gin, Lance decided to add them all at once, and it’s paying off with a very tasty product.  The wash for Cap Rock gin is fermented from apple grown in local orchards; essentially, the gin is distilled from something like hard cider.

Peak Spirits has their fingers in a few other projects, some of which are harder to find.  Cap Rock Vodka is made from grapes that were biodynamically grown right next to the stillhouse.  We also really enjoyed their extra special line of Brandy and Eaux de Vie and Grappa which are all worth tracking down.

Peak Spirits have some exciting plans for the future.  They are talking about making a sweet apple brandy as well as going into beer schnapps.  Beer schnapps is a fairly rare product, but what we were able to taste was really impressive.  We had some of the test batch that was made out of the Legend of the Liquid Brain beer produced at Bull & Bush and man was it tasty.  I will surely announce it if this is made again and sold, so keep an eye out and don’t miss it.

Hops

I like hops, and the most exciting part of the trip was being able to walk through acres of those babies.  The smell really goes to your head and it feels pretty cool to pick a hop flower right off of the vine and give yourself a nosegasm with the freshest possible hop aroma.  They’re growing five hop varietals – Nugget, Northern Brewer, Cascade, Chinook, and Crystal – and are selling to local breweries.  This is monumental in that they are starting up the Colorado hop growing movement.  While the Pacific Northwest has a stronger climate for growing hops, we’d all prefer to stick with the locals and buy from within Colorado. They’ve come across a few speed bumps in starting up the Colorado hop revolution, like how to get the hops either dried or pelletized to make them fit for storing longer than a few days, but Jack Rabbit Hill and a few other pioneer farmers are attempting to go in together and purchase a hop pelletizer.

 

Jack Rabbit Hill is revolutionary, creating amazing local products with a spin on organic. Ask for their products at your local watering hole, and definitely stop by if you’re ever in the area.  It surely was one weekend we’ll never forget.

 

 

Jen got some great pictures:

About Josh Rapp


Josh is a beer and whiskey enthusiast. He is a home brewer and a long time member of the Denver Whiskey Club and Denver Homebrew Club. He also makes Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey for money.