Chef News

Ben Parsons on Canning Wine, Instant Satisfaction and Infinite Monkey Theorem

Ben Parsons aims to shake up the wine industry.
Ben Parsons aims to shake up the wine industry. Infinite Monkey Theorem
From its original back-alley digs on Santa Fe Drive, Infinite Monkey Theorem has grown into a national operation: Today it maintains a trio of taprooms — its flagship in RiNo, a new outpost in the Stanley Marketplace and a spot in Austin — and also distributes its canned wine in 44 states. But growth hasn’t come easy, says Ben Parsons, the winemaker and entrepreneur behind the endeavor. Sitting in his taproom at 3200 Larimer Street, Parsons outlines his path, including revelatory moments selling expensive wine in London, the major life event that launched his urban winery, and his cautious optimism about IMT’s future.

Ben Parsons: I was born in the U.K. I did an undergraduate degree in animal science; I was going to be a vet. But I started working in the wine industry in London, selling Burgundy and Bordeaux to rich people — Helena Christiansen, Naomi Campbell and several ambassadors lived around the corner. I was twenty years old and delivering wine on a push bike. It was this crazy world where you’re selling a case of wine for 12,000 pounds, and the owner would open first-growth Bordeaux so someone could taste it, and we’d drink the rest of the bottle. So I was often riding around hammered.

I moved to New Zealand and did a few harvests on the South Island. Everyone thinks wine-making sounds great, but it’s a lot of work, and it takes a few harvests to appreciate that. I was down in Marlborough sitting on a tanker, pressing Sauvignon Blanc and filling a 6,000-gallon tanker, and looking at the beautiful valley thinking, this is pretty fucking good. Wineries are in beautiful parts of the world. Moments like that defined and cemented what I want to do.

I got a Rotary scholarship to study oenology, so I moved to Australia. The Rotary Foundation was instrumental in my career. It’s not like I could afford to go to grad school. They offer ambassadorial scholarships: Each district puts forward a nominee, and you give lectures and interviews to qualify. I managed to win it, and it paid for my entire tuition. Without that, I wouldn’t be where I am.

click to enlarge DANIELLE LIRETTE
Danielle Lirette
When I finished up there, I saw a job advertised in Palisade, Colorado. I applied for it, and they e-mailed me and offered me a job. I moved from London to Grand Junction, which was a little bit of a culture shock. I worked five harvests at Canyon Wind Cellars. They had 36 acres of grapes and a traditional tasting room open seasonally. Eventually, I was consulting for about twenty wineries in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Missouri, and I moved to Durango, to work with Sutcliffe Vineyards out of Cortez. I’d load up my 4-Runner and drive that wine to Denver, where I’d knock on restaurants’ doors and try to sell this Colorado wine to them. People got excited about it. There were no good Colorado wines at the time, and no Colorado wines on wine lists. I called up Table 6, went in and saw Aaron Forman, and he called Goose [Sorensen] and said, “You’ve got to check this wine out,” and then Goose called Aaron Foster, and it kind of grew like that. These were guys who had just opened their restaurants — they were really young and fresh. So I started selling a lot of Colorado wine. I was making these trips back and forth with fifty or sixty cases of wine, and I started thinking, why is this winery a five-hour drive from where everyone who drinks wine lives?

In 2007, when I was thirty years old, my father died of colon cancer, a year after being diagnosed. I didn’t even know he was going to die. That was a big impetus to do what I wanted to do. We’d talked for a long time about opening a winery. I was down working at a winery I didn’t want to be working at, so I used all my inheritance to start Infinite Monkey Theorem.

In London, when I was selling wines that less than half a percent of the population could afford, I started thinking, what is this bullshit? That wine is elite is somewhat self-perpetuating. People make it challenging so they can keep their jobs. But getting through that unnecessary crap and enjoying it for what it is — that’s how the winery was started. I wrote a business plan and managed to find investors in 2008 — I showed them letters chefs had written saying they’d support an urban winery in Denver. I bought an old Dodge truck and drove 25,000 miles in two months, picking up used equipment all over the U.S. from wineries going out of business or that had outgrown their equipment. I thought, I’m going to prove that this is possible.

click to enlarge DANIELLE LIRETTE
Danielle Lirette
We started this winery with $280,000. The first year, we did 2,000 cases out of a back alley on Santa Fe. We doubled production in 2009 and started putting wine on tap. For a while, there was no wine list in Denver that the wine wasn’t on. We were one of the first wineries in the U.S. to locate in a city, which meant embracing city culture. We’re more like a brewery than the pristine granite tasting room that makes you think wine-making is romantic. Wine-making can happen anywhere, so why not go where everyone is and engage the local community to go out and advocate on your behalf? Bringing the winery to the people made sense here in Colorado. Most wineries are named after owners or geography; we put a chimpanzee on the bottle. Every city has its own unique chaos, and Infinite Monkey Theorem is about order from chaos.

We moved to River North in 2012 and opened this tap room the same night that Jonathan Power opened the Populist. The only other thing here was Crema, and that’s when it was about 400 square feet. Now this neighborhood has blown up. It’s been great for us; we’re surrounded by a lot of restaurants and bars. It’s much more densely populated by a demographic that’s going to drink wine compared to Santa Fe, where we were only ever busy on First Fridays. In 2014, we thought, in what other cities would this be successful? We opened in Austin. We make wine down there in a full-production facility — we’re bringing grapes in from around Lubbock — and we have a taproom there as well. It proved to be successful. We opened at the Stanley Marketplace on March 23. That’s an under-serviced part of Denver, and having 55 businesses in this space makes it a destination that people over there are crying out to go to. Our space is more loungey over there, more gritty here.

This [growth] has been a struggle. There’s been months where I haven’t paid myself. I still only have nine employees, besides the tipped bar staff, so we’re totally understaffed. The wine industry is very capital-intensive, and it’s only really in the last three months [that we’ve] thought, oh, we think this is going to be good. We’ve had a bunch of investment bankers come to us about rolling out [more taprooms]. We’ve looked at other cities, like Nashville, Miami, Minneapolis and L.A. We’re deciding as a whole whether we want to go that route, but it’s in the cards. We sell about 5,000 kegs of wine a year, and 6,000 to 7,000 cases. But it’s the canned wine that has really helped grow the company: We’re at 80,000 cases a year and growing.

click to enlarge DANIELLE LIRETTE
Danielle Lirette
If it’s about making wine accessible, I thought, what’s the least pretentious thing you can do with something? Put it in a can. In Colorado, everyone is outdoors all the time, so they want something they can pack in and pack out. We started experimenting with Ball [a can manufacturer] in Broomfield: We put a batch of wine in a can and did comparative taste testing to see if there were any deviations. After a year, we launched at Aspen Food and Wine in 2011. Now we have six wines in cans and distribute to 44 states.

The canned wine is not just about camping; it’s about instant satisfaction. That’s what the American consumer is familiar with and demands, and that’s what the can gives them. If that wine is sitting on a shelf in two years, I’m out of business. The can is very versatile. It’s great for airlines and music venues, where you don’t want a glass because you might spill. There were so many naysayers when we started. Now they’ve come around: The biggest wineries are putting wine in a can, and they’re calling us to help them do it.

Moving to Colorado and making wine in an untraditional wine-growing region, putting wine in a keg, putting wine in a can: Maybe you can tell that I’m all about shaking up an ancient industry and making it relevant. A lot of people don’t want that; they want it to stay rooted in this land of unobtainability. That can only last for so long. There’s no other industry like the wine industry, where there are a million brands competing and no leader — no Coca-Cola. How do you even get noticed? You need a compelling story to stand out from the crowd. We decided to try to stand out and be relevant, and we’re still operating as a small business nine years later in an industry that’s notorious for going out of business.

A lot of people who come here don’t know the wine is made in the back. A lot of people still don’t think this wine is from here, which is baffling to me. I always wanted to have a local fruit component, and when it can be, all of the fruit is from Colorado. Canned wine is a different beast. There are not enough grapes grown here to support that, and the cost to grow them is high, so all of that fruit is from California. But this is a Colorado brand — and it’s all about supporting the community. I moved here in 2001, and now I wouldn’t be anywhere else.

Infinite Monkey Theorem
3200 Larimer Street
4-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday,
3-10 p.m Friday, 2-10 p.m. Saturday,
2-8 p.m. Sunday

2501 Dallas Street, Aurora
303-726-8276, ext. 20
2-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday,
2-8 p.m. Sunday

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk