Songbird Cellars

Guide: Off the Vine in Southern Colorado

southern colorado wine
Carol Kemski of 80/Twenty Wines completed the first level of sommelier testing in May. “Wine has always been a hobby of mine,” she said. After hanging around 80/Twenty so much, she said owner John Myers hired her as the business’ first employee. Photo by Kara Mason

It might be said that Pueblo’s always been a drinking town. Previously it was known for having more bars per capita than any other city in the U.S., although currently that title goes to another “Steel City,” Pittsburgh.

Even though there’s a drinking culture in Pueblo and the rest of Southern Colorado, that doesn’t necessarily mean all stripes of drinkers have been equally represented. If you love beer, you’re in luck! If you prefer grape over wheat, however, well . . . you can certainly find plenty of wines in liquor stores, but may be left wanting in terms of learning about wine and enjoying the same type of wine culture that proliferates in areas like Sonoma, Napa, or Willamette Valleys.

Fortunately, the wine culture in and around Pueblo has taken root, with several excellent locations that are must-visits for any wine lover in the region.

In many ways the heart of Pueblo’s wine scene is 80/Twenty Wines, a wine store on the corner of Greenwood and 5th Street. The name of the store refers to their affordable selection of wines, 80 percent of which are priced under $20 (it might also be a clever reference to the Pareto Principle, but that’s a topic for another day).

If you’ve only ever shopped in large, big box liquor stores, 80/Twenty Wines will completely change your expectations when it comes to buying wine. The staff is knowledgeable and the selection, which may seem small at first glance, is much more varied than one finds at a general liquor store. Whereas you might find three different Bordeauxs at a regular liquor outlet, 80/Twenty Wines offers six or seven.

The wines are a good mix of familiar, large-distribution blends and more unique, hard to find vintages. Similarly, the price point is broader than one might expect. You can find a $250 bottle of champagne for that special occasion, or hit up the $10 sparkling wine to celebrate the fact that it’s Friday.

The main reason why 80/Twenty Wines is first on our list isn’t just because they sell wine, it’s their commitment to wine education. The store publishes a weekly newsletter that lists local wine events and new wines to try. They also partner with Springside Cheese Company, located across the street on 5th, for free wine and cheese tastings every Friday 4-6 p.m. and every Saturday 1-5 p.m. To repeat: FREE WINE AND CHEESE. Enough said. Or, if you really want to take wine tasting to the next level, 80/Twenty teaches wine classes on different regional wines at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center. Prices start at $35 per person.

If you want to go out with friends for a drink or two, a bar is called for. Until recently, Pueblo didn’t boast any wine bars, but that’s changing. Wine Down By The River on Union has a very laid-back, casual atmosphere. It’s the type of bar you can go into by yourself for a glass after work and not feel awkward or out of place. The wine selection leans heavily towards California reds, with plenty of blends and sauvignons. One could criticize the wine list for a lack of balance. But chances are also good you’ll be trying all of the wines for the first time, which is the perfect excuse to go to a wine bar instead of drinking at home. The mini-iPads-used-as-menus seem to avert conversation with the staff. A positive or a negative depending on your view. But the takeaway point is that this is a wine bar with an open and unstuffy character, definitely worth regular visits. A Pueblo West location is also in the works.

Songbird Cellars
Chris Huggins of Songbird Cellars has branched away from the confines of his music hall in Beulah to open a wine bar with his own Songbird label wines in Pueblo.

Down the street from Wine Down by the River is Songbird Cellars, a satellite music venue and tasting room for Songbird’s home location in Beulah. The concept of Songbird Cellars is super cool and creative: they work with musicians to make small-batch wines inspired by music. Many of the wine labels have QR or download codes for tracks by their artists. Sounds very awesomely-hip-coffee-shop-meets-vino, right? The only catch is that Songbird Cellar’s wines are fruit wines: strawberry wine, wassail, plum, and so forth. If you don’t enjoy fruity or sweet wines, this could be a deal breaker. But don’t let it stop you from enjoying the live shows at Songbird, which are very reasonably priced.

Finally, while not a wine bar, Mr. Tandoori Urban Bar and Grill on Victoria Street has an absolutely fantastic wine list, arguably the best of any restaurant in Pueblo. If you like a full meal with your wine this is a promising, if pricey, location.

Further Afield

If you’re in the mood for a road trip, there are several places less than an hour outside of Pueblo that cater to wine lovers, as well.

The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey (Cañon City)

The very earliest vintages of Holy Cross Abbey’s wine were rough drinking, to say the least. The Abbey Winery has since been made over and is now a boutique winery, meaning they import their grapes rather than use the ones grown on the premises. The wines are high-quality, and the bustling tasting room (open seven days a week, 10am-6pm) can easily be imagined as the social epicenter of Colorado wine lovers. Wine tastings are very affordable–free for most wines, only a dollar for the reserve wines. Full wine, cheese, and meat tastings are offered by reservation only for $25 a person.

D’Vine Wines (Manitou Springs)

This is another boutique winery that also creates custom wines to order (a genius gift idea for a wedding). The atmosphere is cozy and unpretentious, more like going to a friend’s house than a bar, with an adorable resident dog named Maya who loves stealing customers’ attention. If you take the time to look up a coupon, the wine tastings are a good value for the money, with simple fruit and cheese platters, and the pinot noir is one of the most unique I’ve ever tasted. With all of D’Vine Wines’ strengths, however, the quality of the wines can be inconsistent–you might find a wine that you love, only to discover the bottle you brought home tastes differently.

Swirl Wine Bar (Manitou Springs)

Swirl is everything D’Vine Wines isn’t, boasting a young, hip vibe. The decor is Wednesday Addams meets film noir, the menu’s comprised of complex, seasonal, locavore dishes created by chef Jim Stone; and the wine list is curated by Swirl’s in-house sommelier, who has a flair for fun, obscure, yet bizarrely accurate wine descriptions. For example, the 2013 Chateau Pajzos is described as, “Off dry, round and completely unexpected. Fun Juicy [sic], peaches, apple rose, and a sneaky spice on the finish that tingles.” I love tingly, sneaky spices. The wine list is long, featuring an impressive range of reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from around the world, and the prices are surprisingly reasonable. Whether or not you prefer Swirl over D’Vine Wines will depend on your personality, so try both.

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