I’ve been to winery tasting rooms from Napa to Provence, so I was a bit surprised that one of the nicest is located in Utah, just outside Moab, at Red Cliffs Lodge. The Castle Creek Winery tasting room is certainly one of the largest I’ve visited: a sprawling tasting room/retail store with a tasting counter that’s longer than any Utah bar I’m aware of. The shop is stocked with all sorts of wine-related goodies, plus artisan cheeses, meats, spreads, sodas, bottled waters and whatnot. One thing that’s cool about Castle Creek Winery is that its old oak barrels are saved and recycled into things like candleholders, wine racks and even chairs. And here’s something to really love about tasting wines at the Castle Creek tasting room: Wine tastings are free, from noon to 7 p.m.
Tasting room manager Charleen Radley will be happy to pour you sips of Castle Creek’s wide array of wines, which range from Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay to Gewürztraminer, Merlot and even a Portuguese varietal called Souzão, which is used in Castle Creek’s Outlaw Red.
But let’s back up a bit for some history. Castle Creek Winery traces its beginnings to Moab’s much-maligned Arches Winery. And let’s face it: Those wines sucked. However, when the winery was moved to Red Cliffs Lodge in 1998 and winemaker Will Fryer (son of Red Cliffs owner Colin Fryer) took hold of the reins, things began to change for the better.
“Unfortunately, I had to rip out everything except the Gewürztraminer vines,” Fryer says. The problem with growing wine grapes around Moab isn’t, as you might assume, the heat. Rather, it’s the cold. Frigid desert nights and winters with snow don’t make for an optimal grape-growing environment, so Fryer now sources most of his wine grapes from Utah’s Spanish Valley and from Fruita and Palisade, near Grand Junction, Colo.
Fryer reminds me a lot of another winemaker named Will: Will Bucklin of Sonoma’s Bucklin Old Hill Ranch. Like Bucklin, Will is a jack-of-all-trades. He laid the tile in the large meeting area adjacent to the winery, and he’s a bit of a Rain Man when it comes to winemaking. He couldn’t wait to show me the very satisfactory results of chemical analyses of his wines that he’d just received: pH levels, residual sugars and so on. Wine geek stuff. He also couldn’t be prouder of his new $100,000 bottling machine. “It’ll take me 10 years to pay it off,” he says. It shines like a museum piece, and Fryer knows every gear, bolt and screw used to assemble the thing.
So, how are the wines? Well, they’re better than you might expect. With those dreary Arches wines in mind, I wasn’t expecting much from Castle Creek. However, a barrel tasting of Cabernet Sauvignon blew my mind. “This is really good!” I said, and meant it. Merlot, on the other hand, is a little light and thin and lacks fruit.
If you like a floral, off-dry white wine, you might enjoy Castle Creek Lily Rose White. It’s a blend of Muscat and Gewürztraminer (and Viognier?) that sings of lychee —a moderately sweet sipper that would make a nice aperitif. I also enjoyed the winery’s Chenin Blanc, which—as with some Vouvray from the Loire—is slightly honeyed-sweet, but balanced with good acidity.
At Castle Creek, Fryer is making boutique wines at non-boutique prices; most sell for around $12. Having witnessed his enthusiasm and passion for winemaking, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if his wines soon began to hit the peaks he’s aiming for.
CASTLE CREEK WINERY
Mile Marker 14, Highway 128