Based on what you don’t see on the shelves of Utah state liquor stores, you might think there is no such thing as a Utah wine industry. That probably syncs up with your vision of Utah: a state run by teetotallers in the legislature who don’t want anyone else to have any fun. But that’s just half the story. The number of wineries and vineyards in Utah has actually grown in the last few years, and Utah wineries are growing, making and selling wines with distinct terroir that can compete on a national stage.
Doug McCombs is the owner of IG Winery (59 W. Center St., Cedar City, 435-TOP-WINE) and the founder of the Utah Wine Festival. He’s out to dispel the myth that Utah’s wine industry is nonexistent. “You’ll still get a giggle sometimes when you talk about Utah wine,” he says. “But the wines being produced here are really good. At tastings and festivals, they are consistently surprising people at how good the quality is.”
All About That Grape
That doesn’t mean Utah vintners don’t have their growing pains. “There are six wineries in southern Utah. Some of them have vineyards…but if you slice that six ways, there’s not a lot of grapes to go around,” says McCombs. New vineyards would help, but, “when you plant vine, it takes at least five years before you get fruit,” McCombs says.
Utah’s wine industry is growing, but it doesn’t have the existing infrastructure or support from the state that they need to grow at the speed they would like. Just like grapevines, these things take time, and Utah wineries are literally having to do it from the ground up and often in the face of bureaucratic resistance.
Selling wine in Utah is a little tricky, thanks to legal restrictions and growing pains aren’t limited to the wineries in southern Utah. Chateau La Caille (9565 Wasatch Blvd., Sandy, 801-942-1751) has a vineyard at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon. “We’re farmers at heart,” says La Caille winemaker Mike Marron, and as proud as he is of their own grapes, you can only get so much of them from three acres of vines.
Without enough local grapes, winemakers need to look elsewhere to supplement their stock, which raises the question: can you call it a Utah wine if all of the grapes in the bottle aren’t grown here? “As long as it’s produced and bottled here in Utah, it’s a Utah wine,” says McCombs. “We have to make a unique blend for Utah, regardless of where the grapes come from.” IG Winery does manage to sell a wine that is made from 100% Utah grapes—McCombs’ Utah Cabernet Sauvignon retails for $100 per bottle. “It’s highly unusual to be able to get that kind of money for your wine,” says McCombs. “We don’t sell any of it for less than $60 a bottle, and it flies off the shelves.”
Likewise, La Caille makes wine both from grapes grown in their own vineyard and grapes sourced elsewhere (most of their wines retail $45-$75). Grapes from their vineyard make the Enchanté Estate Seyval Blanc (Utah Wine Festival 2021 Gold Medal Winner) and the Estate Rosé, a blend of the Seyval Blanc and Dornfelder grapes. Marron is likewise fastidious and particular about his wine, regardless of where the grapes are from. Of all of the grapes he samples for his wines, he estimates he only ends up ordering 5% that pass muster to use in his wine. “The best quality we can find, we get,” Marron says simply.
Despite the demand, you likely won’t see La Caille’s wines or IG Winery’s Utah Cabernet Sauvignon in Utah’s liquor stores. La Caille sells most of their wine, about 70%, through the restaurant, even as they’ve expanded to allow for on-site bottle purchases directly from the winery. And just about the only place you can get a bottle of IG Wine is at its winery. Unless, that is, you live out of state. We’ll explain.
Where’s the Wine?
In addition to the cost and care of producing quality wine, by the time a bottle reaches liquor store shelves, the price markup is considerable—some might say unpalatable. At 88%, the Utah DABC markup is higher than any other state. “Distributors were the only ones making real money, in this case that’s the State,” says McCombs. And some wineries felt they had to produce cheaper wines to make selling in liquor stores an economically viable option. “They had to be able to make money while selling to the state,” says McCombs, “But that reinforced the idea that Utah wines were cheap and low quality. We tried to play that game, but it wasn’t what I wanted to achieve. I believed that Utah could produce excellent wines that didn’t have to apologize to anyone for what they were.” Thus, IG Winery just stopped trying to sell through the state.
So, Really, Where’s the Wine?
Without the retail power of the liquor store, there aren’t a whole lot of options for a small winemaker in Utah to legally sell their wine. Wineries can sell directly to consumers at the winery, or they can sell to the rest of the country. IG Winery has a wine club that ships customers four bottles of wine every quarter. But no company can ship alcohol of any kind directly to Utah residents. So, he’s focused on selling his wine out of state. There have been attempts to allow wine clubs to ship to Utah. In 2020, legislators compromised by allowing wine lovers to ship their club wine to a state store and pick it up, along with that hefty 88% markup. “It was a nice idea in concept, but one that hasn’t rolled out effectively,” says McCombs. “It’s not there yet.”
Even without the support from the state, local winemakers are forging ahead. “We’re finding other ways around it,” says McCombs. “When we started, we were the only winery in southern Utah. It’s growing. It’s growing slowly.” Chateau La Caille is growing, too. Parts of the building the winery shares with La Caille restaurant is undergoing a remodel as they both expand, moving forward with plans to open up a new tasting room and café seating, in part for more opportunities to sell wine outside of a five-course meal. At the moment, Chateau La Caille offers tastings by appointment only.
In southern Utah, McCombs is helping to put together the Utah Wine Trail, a pass that will get you into six wineries as well as a special gift after you visit all six, which he hopes to have off the ground in March. And the Utah Wine Festival has continued to grow every year, surprising locals and tourists alike with the quality of Utah wine. “It’s easier for us who have been around a while to take up the mantle of promoting Utah wines,” says McCombs. “We’re beginning to create a sort of association—a family of Utah producers—who want to get the word out about the quality of what we’re doing.”
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