Grape Expectations

The monks have moved on, but it's another vintage year in Cañon City.

If you want to add something special to your holiday toast, try a wine produced by the Winery at Holy Cross Abbey in Cañon City. At around $15 a bottle, it's a good deal for the wallet -- and for the Colorado Department of Corrections: The grapes used to make the abbey's chardonnay and riesling are picked by prisoners.

Every fall, between 45 and 60 inmates come out to harvest the fruit, working for Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of the DOC that the state legislature created in 1977 to produce a variety of goods and offer assorted services -- everything from picking grapes to breaking horses to growing flowers -- with prison labor. State prisoners apply to work for CCI; those chosen get paid 63 cents a day plus up to $100 a month in bonuses based on production. In order to qualify, they must have a high school diploma or have completed their GED.

"Prison's a bad place; the strong feed on the weak," says Steve Smith, CCI's agri-business division manager. "I mean, if you were going to do time, wouldn't you rather do it out here, get some sanity?" Plus, the recidivism rate for former CCI employees is about half that of the DOC inmate population as a whole (a depressing 48 percent).

Mark Andresen

This year, 25-year-old Juan Fajardo was one of the inmates who got a grape-picking job. He came to this country from his native Honduras, crossing the Mexican border when la migra wasn't looking. "It was easy," he remembers.

Fajardo got his first taste of the American dream making money at an auto shop in Aurora -- until someone beat up his brother. Fajardo assaulted the guy and was sentenced to three years in the state pen. In prison, Fajardo is a trusted man, someone his supervisor, Rich Saunders, knows he can count on.

"I could tell in two or three weeks that I could leave Fajardo and tell him to do something, and it would be done and he'd do a good job at it," says Saunders, a civilian employee of CCI.

Saunders supervises fifteen convicts -- they call the seventy-year-old "Grandpa" -- on 28 acres of grapes, which were planted on DOC-owned land with prison labor about six years ago. With Colorado's burgeoning wine industry, CCI had decided that selling grapes to the highest bidder would be a lucrative endeavor. The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey ultimately won the contract, in part because of the low cost of transporting the grapes just three miles down the road from CCI's east Cañon City complex to the Abbey. This year, inmate crews spent three days harvesting about 24 tons of the fruit, which the winery bought for between $800 and $1,100 a ton.

Holy Cross was established in 1926, but the abbey didn't begin producing wine until a half-dozen years ago. That's when the monks came up with the idea of starting a winery as a way to generate income and prevent the Catholic Church from shutting down their home. On the recommendation of some Western Slope wineries who'd used him as a consultant, they brought in Matt Cookson from Napa Valley. Cookson planted a few acres of the abbey's land with grapes in 2000, and Holy Cross Abbey began selling several varietals the next year; the winery added to its offerings after it began purchasing grapes from CCI. The monks' experiment was so successful that it staved off the monastery's closure for several years -- but not forever.

Earlier this year, Holy Cross closed the abbey, and its residents scattered. The Catholic Church now rents out the buildings to assorted private enterprises as well as the Department of Corrections. The winery business was sold to New Yorker Larry Oddo in October.

"I love it," says Oddo, a former certified public accountant. "I absolutely love the area, and the change has been sort of like a rebirth for me. I get to do different things every day, wear a lot of different hats and operate a business in an environment that I've created myself."

He's retained Cookson, and the two plan to continue using grapes grown and harvested by the prisoners for the riesling and the chardonnay; the grapes for the winery's merlot and other vintages come from fields elsewhere in the state. Oddo projects that 144,000 bottles will come out of Holy Cross Abbey this year, selling online and in such stores as Chateau Liquors in Cherry Creek.

And wine isn't the only product coming out of Cañon City. Lilies bloom in the prison's greenhouse; apples grow in the orchard; fish are raised in the pen's ponds. The complex also has a dairy and a cornfield, free-range organic chickens, indoor tanks of fish, a dog kennel and a horse-training operation, among other things. More than 1,800 inmates and 150 full-time staffers such as Saunders work the CCI-controlled businesses, which bring in $35 million annually. Of that, Smith says, $34.9 million goes back into the business for day-to-day operations; the other $100,000 is reinvested.

In the prison greenhouse, big dudes with tattoos organize dahlias and sunflowers, lilies and snapdragons into bouquets. The arrangements are sold to distributors or prison staff for between $28 and $60.

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