AWG Correspondent

The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey Photos

The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey Review

Region: Colorado

Reviewed: May 20, 2013 by
Published: May 31, 2013

Saints, Slammers and Spirits

The Place:  Imagine my surprise when planning a trip to the Colorado outback to discover that there was winery right in the town where our family lives. When you think of states that would have upscale wineries, Colorado’s remote back country is not one of them, but to my surprise, The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey is a great winery. This unique winery is a two hour drive from Denver, but the experience and the raw beauty of the native landscape make it well worth your time. It has been attracting visitors from around the world since July of 2002. Nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the winery is just one example of what draws visitors to Cañon City and Fremont County.

The Experience:  The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey offers an intimate setting for your tasting with views of the vineyards, the abbey, and the nearby mountains. You almost feel as though you have been transported back in time to another era. The tasting room itself is east of the abbey and resembles a quaint European cottage.

The tasting room is open daily and was voted Best Front Range Tasting Room by Colorado Vine. The counter where the tasting takes place occupies the east corner of the single, large interior room. The employees are friendly, helpful and knowledgeable about nearly every aspect of the winery, the abbey and local community. The tasting room also hosts a full gift shop complete with international as well as local art, fine oils and salts, clothing, and some very unique wine related items. Some favorites of mine were the unique hand crafted wine wracks as well as the glassware. This gift shop provides an upscale shopping experience. It is also a wonderful place for your gift giving, as they can now ship wine to most states. If you can’t visit the tasting room to shop, check out the winery website at

The History:  
Award-winning wine is not the only thing that makes The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey a must-visit winery. From its beginning as a monastery to its use of prison-grown grapes, The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey offers a story found nowhere else in Colorado, or the rest of the western states.

While one would not generally think of a connection between monks, wine and prisoners, The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey continues the Catholic Church’s long history with grape-growing, wine production, and prison ministry. Many of the local grapes used in the wine are grown on the prison grounds and tended by those incarcerated in the state penal facility located in Cañon City.

The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey has developed a partnership with the Colorado Department of Corrections subsidiary Colorado Correctional Industries’ (CCi) Juniper Valley Farms. The CCi’s agricultural practices began back in 1874 as part of the Colorado Territorial Penitentiary inmate work program. Farming addressed inmate idleness and provided food for the prison and a means of generating revenues from surplus crops. More than 130 years later, CCi’s agricultural activities include not only vineyards, but dairies, farmlands, fisheries, greenhouses, honey processing, and care of America’s Bucking Bull livestock when they are not busy performing in rodeos.

The Winery and the prison’s relationship began in 2002 when the prison planted Merlot, Riesling and Chardonnay at the East Cañon City Prison Complex. The Merlot did not fare well and was replanted with Concord, Norton and Viognier. Most of the juice from Juniper Valley Farms’ grapes makes its way into the Winery’s Wild Cañon Harvest, a sweet rosé table wine.

The Abbey itself has a history stretching back over 120 years to two Benedictine monks who arrived from Pennsylvania in 1886. Although they originally settled in Breckenridge, other monks joined them over the years and the group moved to Boulder, Pueblo and finally Canon City, where they founded the Holy Cross Abbey in its present location in 1926. Although most architecture in the area is Victorian and Territorial, the monastery building stands out as an impressive 4-story English Gothic structure, built in 1924 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in August of 1983.

Until 1985, the monks ran a boarding school for high school students on the grounds. About 50 acres made up the campus while the other 150 was traditionally used for cultivation or shops and various farm buildings. Along with their main focus on seeking God, monks were engaged in a variety of vocations from farming, ranching and bee keeping to hospital and prison ministry. In 1985, after 59 years of operation as a private high school, the Abbey School closed.

Still, some of the monks dreamt of resurrecting the Abbey’s winemaking tradition. They hired Matt Cookson in 2000 to consult in the planting of a vineyard on the property. Matt had been a winemaker in New York and in California and had been coming to Colorado to consult with wineries on the Western Slope. Matt and his wife Sally were hired to help build and operate a winery and tasting room. Over the following five years, the Cookson’s built a successful operation. Then, in 2006, the Abbey closed and the Winery’s future suddenly was in doubt.

But the timing of the closure was fortuitous. The fathers were able to sell the winery to Larry Oddo, a New York City accountant who had just moved to Canon City the year before. The Cookson’s became partners with Oddo in 2007. And with this partnership, the Winery has continued the success that began in 2002.

As Matt continues to win awards for his wines, his wife Sally has led the sales and marketing. This has included organizing special events such as hosting fundraisers, a bike ride, an art and music weekend, and the annual Harvest Fest. Sally also has grown the tasting room/gift shop into a bona fide tourist attraction.

The Wine:  My favorite Holy Cross Abbey wine was the 2010 American Merlot, which was awarded the 2013 Best New World Merlot, Best of Varietals, Best of Class, and Double Gold Medal at the Jerry D. Mead’s New World International Wine Competition. This 100% Merlot is smooth, fruity, and oaky and the awards are well deserved.

The Wild Cañon Harvest is a sweet, light, and fruity rosé blend made from 30 grape varieties from over 100 local growers. This wine is the highlight of the annual harvest festival where the crushing of the community grapes for this wine is held. The wine is traditionally released the week of Thanksgiving and has become the celebrated holiday wine of Cañon City. It just might become your family holiday selection as well.

Most of the grapes used in other wines are grown in the Grand Junction and Palisade area of Colorado’s Western Slope, though some grapes, particularly the Chardonnay, are from out of state. Besides the standard grape varietals, the winery offers Apple Blossom, a wine made exclusively from apples. This wine is low in acid and has 9% alcohol. It is crafted from Red and Golden Delicious, Wine Sap, Honey Crisp and Fuji apples. The juice is slowly cold fermented to retain the apple fruit quality in the finished wine. Fleur, the employee who guided us through our wine tasting experience suggested that it is a perfect summer wine and is especially good served chilled over ice with a little lime.
If you are looking for a great tasting and unusual port-style wine, the 2010 Colorado Merlot Divinity is fabulous. It is one of the few port-style wines made from 100% Merlot. The grapes are harvested from Black Bear Vineyards in Palisade, Colorado. This wine is full of berry flavors with a hint of chocolate.

If you prefer a drier wine, The Sangre de Cristo Nouveau is a good bet. It contains 20% Norton grown in Fremont County at Bear Basin Ranch, which is the highest commercial producing vineyard in North America, at an impressive 6,950 feet elevation.

My favorite white was a dry 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Reserve. The 50% stainless steel fermentation and 50% barrel fermentation in new oak preserves the varietal lemon grass flavors the grape is known for. This wine is light on the palette with citric notes. There was no extra charge for sampling this reserve wine.

Insider Tip:  The tasting of most wines is complimentary, although some reserves cost $1 for a two-ounce pour. I tried the 2010 Colorado Merlot Reserve and the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. You won’t want to miss these wines. The 2010 Colorado Merlot Reserve is made from 100% Colorado grapes. It is 93% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Franc. The 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve is full bodied with hints of leather and cherry. Both wines are superb.

If You Go:  Take a leisurely stroll through the serene abbey grounds. The monks are gone now (they’ve moved to other abbeys), but the buildings and the lawns still retain some of the peace and serenity usually associated with life in a monastery. The abbey also offers tours and a gift shop.

Besides the winery and tasting room, there are other out buildings that are used by the State of Colorado for the Colorado Department of Corrections training. There are numerous events, including the annual harvest festival, held all year round at the Abbey event center located on the grounds. The annual harvest festival, always the last weekend of September and now in its twelfth year, celebrates the year’s grape harvest with music, food and the arts.

Address & Contact Information: 3011 E. U.S. Hwy. 50 Canon City, Colorado 81212. Telephone: 719-276-5191, email:, website: Tasting Hours: Mon-Sat 10:00-6:00; Sun 12:00-5:00.

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