The Storm Cellar has overcome challenges to become a West Elks winery darling that’s available in a venerable wine room very close to you. 

It’s been five years since Jayme Henderson and Steve Steese bought their 55-acre property on Sunshine Mesa just above Highway 133 between Hotchkiss and Paonia. At the time, it was a defunct vineyard in need of serious rehabilitation. Then, the couple, former sommeliers and restaurant managers from Denver, was more comfortable with white tablecloths than water ditches. They spent the first year irrigating, trenching and retraining the vines. And, that’s what they still mostly do, but admittedly, have gotten a lot better at it. 

“Jayme has been out pruning and I’ve been planting,” says Steese, who owns The Storm Cellar with his wife and business partner. “We are planting 4,000 new vines this year. We’re preparing the fields to plant four new acres of chardonnay and pinot noir in May and June.” 

It’s spring, and the couple is getting ready for what they hope will be a successful summer in the North Fork Valley. The pandemic was obviously tough on their fledgling operation—their tasting room was set to open spring 2020—but they persevered through virtual seminars, online sales and a lot of time in the field. 

But it wasn’t until last spring when they, along with most Colorado winemakers, realized that a late-season frost the previous fall decimated their crops, making for another survival-mode summer. 

“If you made wine in Colorado last year, you weren’t making Colorado wine,” says Steese. “The loss rate was over 95% for Colorado.” 

Yet again, the couple took it as a learning opportunity, creatively sourcing both out-of-state grapes and those of a cold-weather, hearty variety. They were able to increase their production, and their popularity, with a tasting room that was packed whenever it was open. (They run on reduced hours because, besides being makers, marketers and managers, they’re the ones pouring the wine, too.)

“It’s just a lot, a big blur,” says Henderson. “We’re so grateful that we have survived and made it through the first five years of our business. A lot of businesses don’t make it to that point. We are beyond grateful to be here.” 

Surviving is their success, but there have also been highlights.  “We got a call from Chris, and he said, ‘I’ve heard about your wines,’” says Henderson. They immediately drove to Aspen to meet Chris Dunaway, The Little Nell’s wine director, who currently oversees one of the best wine programs in the country, churning out master sommeliers and awards. 

But, it’s a program that historically hasn’t paid a lot of attention to the West Elks AVA—the wine region just over McClure Pass where The Storm Cellar lives. For years, Colorado wines have been dismissed industry-wide for counterparts along the West Coast. That, however, is changing. 

“I think Colorado wines are enjoying a surge in interest, and as quality continues to improve with each successive vintage, Colorado wineries will enjoy placement on more lists around the country,” says Dunaway. “The prevailing climate in our AVAs lend well to more elegant and vibrant expressions in lieu of ripe and powerful which I think bodes well for traction with the sommelier community.” 

To that end, Dunaway put The Storm Cellar’s 2020 dry riesling on the Nell’s wine bar list, offering it by the glass.  “It has incredible typicity, bright and vibrant freshness of flavor, and a compelling texture that makes for an outstanding selection that while snappy and appetizing by itself is incredibly versatile with food,” he says. For Henderson and Steese, this was a “bucket-list” moment.  “It was a confirmation that our wines, they’re good, they’re acceptable … they’re beyond that. To be on this list, it was an honorable moment,” says Henderson. 

From the start, The Storm Cellar delineated itself by only producing white and rosé wines, which shocked some in the industry because reds typically carry a label. But the couple stayed the course, focusing on what they like to drink themselves. 

“We don’t do a lot of winemaking tomfoolery,” says Steese. “People are tired of over-adulterated and over-manipulated wines that are covered up in oak, or are gimmicky. People want to know what Colorado tastes like.” Pretty good, it turns out. 

The Storm Cellar tasting room is open 12-7 p.m., Thursday through Sunday through October.