Which Colorado winery started with an exorcism, makes wine with prison-grown grapes and has earned more than 1,000 awards? The backstory of The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey, located at 3011 East Highway 50 in Cañon City, along with its bucolic setting and excellent wine, make it worthy of a pilgrimage.
On a drizzly December Friday, the Craftsman-style cottage that houses the Abbey’s tasting room and charming gift shop was filled with waves of merry visitors. The winery is known for its heavenly merlot, which has the smoothest finish of any merlot I’ve tasted. The cabernet Franc has a hint of licorice on the nose and a little blackberry on the tongue. It would pair perfectly with Christmas goose or a ribeye. The viognier is refreshing and crisp, redolent of honeysuckle and apricot.
The winery makes more than a dozen wines, mostly from Colorado grapes grown on the Western Slope, on its own small plot, and at the nearby Cañon City prison complex. The winery helped the prison create the vineyards eighteen years ago, and today about 30 percent of the grapes the winery purchases come from the penitentiary’s farm program. Cañon City’s backyard growers also contribute grapes that are used to make Wild Cañon Harvest. Since the hodgepodge wine is made from thirty to sixty different varietals, depending on what comes in that year, I was skeptical. Turns out it’s quite nice and would make a good Christmas mulled wine or a summer sangria. Contributors get 50 cents a pound for their grapes, and their names go on the label. “It’s very popular with the community,” says winery owner Larry Oddo, who adds that he served Wild Cañon Harvest at his own Thanksgiving dinner.
As for the exorcism, let's start at the beginning. In 1923, Captain Benjamin F. Rockafellow sold ninety acres of land to the Catholic Church to build an abbey. The main building was completed in 1926, but the Craftsman cottage that houses the current tasting room predates the abbey by fifteen years. It was owned by Rockafellow’s daughter and son-in-law, Alice and P.H. Troutman. After bankruptcy wiped out the couple’s fortunes, the church bought the property.
The abbey ran a boys' college-preparatory high school from 1926 to 1985 that graduated a couple of recognizable names: former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer and Celestial Seasonings founder Mo Siegel. In addition to the school, the monks also ran a dairy, farmed the land, grew grapes and made wine for their own use.
After the school’s closure, the number of Benedictines began to decline. In its last few years in the early 2000s, fewer than twenty monks lived at the abbey. One of these monks, Father Paul Montoya, resurrected the practice of winemaking at the abbey after doing an exorcism at St. Kathryn Cellars in Palisade, which was under construction at the time and experiencing many unexplained mishaps. Beams were falling from the ceiling, electrical boxes fizzling, and a foul smell permeated the air. Owner Fred Strothman contacted Bishop Arthur Tafoya, the head of the Pueblo Diocese, to inquire about an exorcism. The bishop sent Montoya to the Grand Valley to cast out whatever evil was plaguing the project...and the construction troubles ceased. Before heading home, Montoya discovered a love of winemaking, and his fellow monks at Holy Cross Abbey agreed to give it a try. They planted grapes and hired winemakers and a tasting room manager.
The winery opened in 2002, but the monastic program was not long for this world, dissolving in 2005. New York City CPA Larry Oddo purchased the winery, and with the help of winemaker Jeff Stultz and tasting room and events manager Sally Davidson, transformed the monks’ winery into the 9,000- to 10,000-case-a-year establishment it is today. “We are passionate about everything we do, from our wines, to our grounds and tasting room, to our customer service, to our hostesses,” said Sally Davidson. Oddo also credits the “warmth and acceptance of the community” for the winery’s success.
As for the abbey, the story gets stranger. Raffaello Follieri, an Italian-born “investor” and then-boyfriend of actress Anne Hathaway, bought the Holy Cross Abbey and other church properties around the country, supposedly with the support of the Vatican. After running up millions of dollars in debt and living lavishly on investors’ money, Follieri’s con came to light. He went to jail for four years, was dumped by Hathaway and ultimately deported. The 175-acre property is now owned by billionaire Ron Burkle, one of Follieri’s swindled investors. The campus serves as an events complex for weddings, retreats and expos.
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The winery is a beautiful place, making a worthy stop in winter or summer. Pop in on the way back from Monarch Mountain Ski Resort or after a day of antiquing in Florence. In the summer, the tasting room is refreshing after a day of rafting the Royal Gorge or a visit to the nearby May Natural History Museum, which boasts the word's largest collection of tropical insects (yep, that's a real thing). Don't miss the metal statue of Herkimer, the World’s Largest Beetle, on Highway 115 next to the museum.
The winery holds several events throughout the year, including Harvest Fest on the last weekend of September, with live music, food and wine, and, of course, a blessing by Father Jesse. The Abbey’s wines are also available at Front Range wine and liquor stores.
The Holy Cross Abbey tasting room is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays, from May through December. From January through March, the tasting room closes at 5 p.m. Visit the winery's website for more details.