Anna and Lance Hanson don't know who nominated their business, Peak Spirits, for a James Beard Foundation award last spring. But it's a tremendous honor, said Lance, who was nominated in the Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional category, given to a winemaker, brewer or spirits producer who "has had significant impact on the wine and spirit industry nationwide."
Only four distillers made the list of 20 semifinalists, and Peak Spirits, the sole Colorado nominee in the category, was among them. "We were definitely the dark horse," said Hanson.
They didn't win, but the nomination puts the Hansons, who also make organic wines under the Jack Rabbit Hill label, in good company among the nation's finest distillers and winemakers. And it wasn't their first national recognition.
Peak Spirits' CapRock Gin and CapRockVodka received the 2012 Good Food Awards, which honors creators of food and drink "that is delicious, respectful of the environment, and connected to communities and cultural traditions." Some of the biggest names in organic and sustainable agriculture, including Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, are involved in the awards.
And it is those values that the Hansons had in mind 11 years ago when they made a drastic lifestyle change. They left their professional careers after 15 years in California, Anna as a teacher and Lance in the software
industry, purchased arable acreage on the west end of Redlands Mesa, and settled in to produce organic wines and raise their children, Hadley and Evan.
It turned out to be a good thing.
"We really wanted to farm, to do something that tied us to the land," said Lance. It was a dive off the deep end, since neither had experience in farming or wine-making. "We weren't pursuing this fantasy and not understanding the real risks and difficulties involved."
They immersed themselves in the business, taking an online wine-making course, researching, and networking with other professionals. Lots of networking.
"Looking back on it, we wouldn't do it any other way."
Their timing was good. The Slow Food movement was awakening, and the concepts of locally-grown artisan food and drink and "know your farmer" were gaining traction. In 2002, despite a drought, they had a small harvest and made their first Jack Rabbit Hill wines. Early one Saturday morning in June 2003, and with the help of Paonia farmer Jack D'orio, they sold their first wine, a bottle of Red Barn, at the Aspen Farmers Market. "We remember that," said Lance. "That was the turning point."
Word was out that Delta County was producing world-class wines, and people came to see for themselves, purchasing estate wines from the
area's growing number of small vineyards and wineries. Since they are located off the main path, they couldn't rely on walk-in sales. They needed a way to move product. The Hansons knew they had something valuable, and much of that value was held in "the story behind the bottle," of bucking conventional trends and growing without chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
With a background in marketing, Lance took the product and the story to buyers in the high-end markets and restaurants, and was "surprisingly successful." Despite being a start-up, they sold out every year.
"It just seemed like our restaurant buyers really dialed into that," said Lance. Restaurants now account for about 85 percent of their sales.
The Hansons also elected to eschew commercial yeasts and let the fruits ferment naturally. The process takes longer, but they believe the result is a higher-quality product.
In 2004, they re-evaluated the business and realized that one bad year, one more drought, would be devastating. They could plant more grapes and concentrate solely on growing the wine business, "Or we could mitigate our risks somewhat," said Lance.
They decided on spirits, with an emphasis on eaux de vie, or waters of life — dry, un-aged fruit brandies and grappa, an aromatic, grape-based brandy. Definitely a niche market, said Lance, but with potential. They found world-class sources of certified-organic fruit — peaches, pears, apples, cherries — at nearby Ela Farms and Gunnison River Farms. They purchased a distiller and began networking.
Not much information is published on distilling, since federal law prohibits distilling alcohol for personal consumption. Making eaux de vie is tricky, so they turned to Jorg Rupf, a German distiller known for bringing the craft to America, and who would later join Peak Spirits on the list of finalists for the James Beard awards. In August 2005, they went through a few small but successful trial runs and Peak Spirits was born.
In 2008, they added CapRock Gin and CapRock Vodka.
Despite growing, they remained true to the belief that their deeply organic methods and the use of premium ingredients in their products set them apart, and ultimately led to their award nominations.
The source of products is of growing concern to consumers, and wineries work hard to educate the public on their grapes. But there hasn't been a lot of discussion about the product sources when it comes to spirits, which are often made from genetically-modified ingredients, said Lance.
To key in on this and further set them apart, the Hansons turned to biodynamics in their farming practices, which emphasize the use of manures and composts for fertilizer and pest management. Now, their sheep, cows and chickens are part of the loop that creates a healthy and sustainable system. Their three dogs and two cats help control predators and other pests without poisons. "That's how we bring fertility into the soil," said Lance. "It's surprising how well it works."
While getting the fruit to the point of distillation takes much time, the actual process takes less than two hours. But a lot happens in that time, explained Hanson, who sees the process from a culinary perspective. By adding key ingredients to the mash and through constant temperature control, the spirit's "character" is formed. As the "run" nears its end, the distillate becomes more astringent and less pleasing to the palate and is not used in the final product. But it's a valuable product to makers of tinctures — a market the Hansons hadn't even considered.
The spirit flows crystal-clear from the spout, and a highly pure water, which comes from a cap-rock formation of basalt located at 10,500 feet on the Grand Mesa, is used in the final process. Lance demonstrates by pouring CapRock Gin, which is infused with lavender, pink rosebuds and other aromatics, over ice and invites a sniff. Definitely lavender and roses.
This is a "new Western gin," explains Hanson. "Different from London Dry . . . We think this is a very interesting way to do gin, because it's going to appeal to people who are on the fence."
The Hansons make use of the Internet through their websites and Facebook page to get the word out. Business has picked up since the award nominations, and the company, which currently provides four full-time jobs, is poised to grow. But the Hansons want it to grow at a manageable pace. While they are quickly making their way into major markets and restaurants across the country and in Europe, they're also still available at local markets and at Jack Rabbit Hill Farms. Visitors are urged to call ahead.
The Hansons would like to add more staff, and are working to increase production space. They continue to look for new and innovative ways to expand, and recently began growing hops to sell to organic breweries, although they might experiment with hops infusions.
But they aren't interested in becoming the next Madison Avenue brand or getting so big that the company loses its soul, said Lance. "The authentic approach that we've taken, we want it to always be that way."blog comments powered by Disqus