In the picturesque North Fork Valley of western Colorado sits the state’s first certified organic vineyard, Jack Rabbit Hill Farm. This 70 acre farm, which is both certified organic and biodynamic, includes 18 acres of vineyards, 11 acres of hops, wildlife margins, and a host of assorted animals. While traditionally Colorado might not be too well-known for its wine, Jack Rabbit Hill Farm is quickly making a name for itself by sustainably producing high-quality wines, ciders, and spirits. We had the chance to speak with Lance Hanson, co-founder of Jack Rabbit Hill Farm, to discuss how producing wine in a conscious way adds value to the farm’s brand.
What is the story behind how Jack Rabbit Hill Farm came to life?
Lance Hanson: Anna and I and our two children moved to Jack Rabbit Hill Farm in 2001 to partner with my sister in transforming a small cattle ranch into vineyards and a winery. We wanted to make wines that naturally expressed the breathtaking beauty and climate of our valley. Inspired by some world-class orchard growers in the area, we embraced low-input organic farming practices from the beginning as the way to produce distinctive, expressive wine. At Jack Rabbit Hill Farm, clean farming is always the most important factor in producing quality wines, ciders, and spirits.
What do you love about your company?
LH: It's really satisfying to make products that the market really believes in and supports, but that can't happen unless every single individual on the team excels. We're a bootstrapped operation and our staffing is lean, so every individual is really key to the operation. We all wear lots of hats - animal husbandry, composting, pruning, fermenting, bottling, delivering, selling, and hosting visits. Everybody on the farm participates at some level in everything happening on the farm. So, what Anna and I love most is our expanding team of very talented and passionate individuals. It really is the most fulfilling part of what we do.
Can you tell me a bit about the sustainability efforts at Jack Rabbit Hill?
LH: First, we use holistic farming practices (organic, biodynamic, no-till rational grazing). We started out as an organic farm in 2001, and we were the first vineyard in Colorado to obtain organic certification. When we started biodynamic farming in 2006, [Rudolph] Steiner’s (the founder of the biodynamic movement) ideas really got us thinking about and focusing on the importance of holistic practices for growing expressive wines with fewer inputs than other approaches and the importance of livestock on the farm for building fertile soils. We’re now extending these practices by implementing the cover-cropping and grazing ideas of Andre Voisin and Allan Savory.
Second, we have gain-share pricing for growers. We know firsthand how hard it is to grow clean, expressive fruit, and quality fruit means quality wine, cider, and spirits. So, our other growers are all certified organic, and we’ve been happily paying them above-market prices since we started sourcing non-estate fruit in 2005. In some cases, the prices we pay are double the going market rate, and this makes a real difference for these growers.
What are the top three benefits that come from operating your vineyard in a sustainable way?
LH: Product quality, product quality, and product quality.
Can you taste the difference that being certified organic or biodynamic makes?
LH: We think so. We think products grown without synthetic inputs (i.e., organic and biodynamic) and with zero-additive processing (i.e., biodynamic, which means no commercial yeasts, fining agents, or other additives) have more intense, expressive, vibrant flavors.
Does anything concern you about how conventional wine is made?
LH: We’re not really concerned about conventional wine. There’s lots of it and there are certainly plenty of buyers for it. But for us - for how we want to work and live - holistic farming practices are a better fit, and we think we’re making a much better product because of it.
"But for us - for how we want to work and live - holistic farming practices are a better fit, and we think we’re making a much better product because of it."
What should people look for to assure that the wine that they are purchasing has been created in a conscious way?
LH: Like in all other consumer products segments, there’s tons of green washing in the wine industry. If you ask 100 wineries if they’re sustainable or low-input or organic, all 100 will say yes, yes, yes. The conscious consumer always needs to peel back a few layers - read the fine print, look at the ingredients, determine whether the product is certified organic or biodynamic - and it never hurts to reach out directly to the winery to get more information on their practices. We love getting inquiries like this! In fact, anyone is welcome to email me at email@example.com!
What gives you hope for the future?
LH: I think as long as countries like the US protect the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, then I think there’s a lot to hope for. Our children are much smarter and more reasonable than I was at their age. We just need to make sure we don’t screw up so badly that we diminish opportunities for successive generations. We need to make sure they always have access to good and full information so they can make their own personal decisions. In the food industry, GMO labeling would be a good start.