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A Lucky Trip to Colorado's Steamboat Wine Festival

I know it probably gets said a lot, but in my case, it was very true: I never win anything. So, at one fateful Merrell press dinner, when I won a free, all-expenses-paid trip to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for the Steamboat Wine Festival, I knew my luck was changing.

As if the folks at Merrell hadn't done enough already, they invited my fiance, Matt, along and helped us prep for the big trip with the gear we'd need, particularly some great shoes from Merrell's Vendemmia collection: Suede oak-colored Avesso flats for me and a pair of Palvai waterproof dark olive dock shoes for Matt. And then, we were off.



Day 1

Upon arrival to Steamboat, we spent the first few hours just getting accustomed to the elevation -- the town is at a base elevation of 6,900 feet -- and to the overt friendliness of everyone we met … something pretty foreign to us in New York City. You could strike up a conversation with anyone, which was something we did on our 20-minute gondola ride up to the top of Mount Werner for the festival's kick-off celebration. The couple we met pointed out patches of dead trees, caused by the mountain pine beetle infestation that has ravaged much of Colorado this year, and thus exacerbated the wild fires that break out on occasion. They also pointed out a beautiful Victorian home nestled on the side of the mountain. Apparently the owner, who lived in Kansas and moved to Colorado, missed his old home so much that he moved the entire thing in pieces. Incredible.


Once at the top of the mountain, the friendliness continued as wine makers from around the globe poured us taste after taste of some of the best wines we've tasted. It was so good that Matt -- normally one to opt for a good beer or a nice brand of whisky -- zipped past the booths of breweries and distilleries to "check out a good cab I overheard some people raving about." Another good samaritan warned us to take it easy: All that alcohol coupled with the 10,000-foot elevation at the mountain's peak might make us a bit worse for wear. Luckily the panoramic views kept our attention enough to keep us from getting too tipsy. The homemade pasta stations, seemingly endless cheese plates and trays of chocolate-covered strawberries didn't hurt, either.


Day 2

Most good wine festivals have amazing sessions that really help you become a wine-tasting pro. The Steamboat Fest was no different. Attendees could take a class on the "Secrets of Wine Blending" or find out if they've met their match at a food and wine pairing seminar. Although there's a lot to learn at these events, Matt and I knew that we didn't come to Colorado to sit inside. So the aptly titled, "Let's Get Outside Hikenar" was the perfect way to combine our love of the outdoors with a little wine knowledge thrown in. Hosted by Merrell, we were outfitted with the brand's coolest clamshell backpack to hold our water, sunglasses, wallets and even iPad if we thought to bring one. (Why would we need one on a trip like this?!) The two-hour hike along the Vista Nature Trail was guided by locals who told us all about our surroundings and by Master Sommelier Damon Ornowski, who had a knowledge of plants and crops that only a true wine expert could. He also obviously had a great breadth of knowledge on wines from importer Vin Divino, and he shared them with us at an apres-hike lunch on the mountaintop.


A lot of times, on trips like these, you get so wrapped up in the festival that you never explore the town. The Steamboat Wine Festival refused to let this happen: That night, Merrell hosted a wine-fueled stroll through downtown Steamboat, where bars, restaurants, retailers and wine galleries opened their doors. The weather was perfect for such a stroll, which went down the town's equivalent to Main Street and veered along the beautiful Yampa River. (Yampa means "bear" in Native American, yet another kind local told us.) On a similar note, Matt and I accidentally walked into a liquor store that wasn't a part of the festival, but in a mark of true Colorado friendliness, the owner gave us an impromptu tasting of some of his best beers!

 As the stroll was winding down, Matt and I fully intended to make it an early night, but as we were heading out, we heard the reverberations of a loudspeaker in the distance. I couldn't make out much but it was enough for me to recognize that it was a rodeo in full effect. And you don't pass up the chance to watch a rodeo! When in Colorado, right? I was a bit disappointed not to have packed my cowboy boots and hat, but that didn't stop us from enjoying ourselves as we watched saddle bronco riding, men wrestling with calves and team roping. For Matt, it was literally his first time at the rodeo, so he couldn't believe it when they unleashed a bunch of six-year-olds onto the arena floor to chase a calf in what's lovingly known as the Calf Scramble. I think he was bummed it was only for kids.


 Day 3

The climax of our trip was another outdoor session, this one called "Mud, Sweat & Cheers" -- a mountain-biking ride down the, well, mountain. As someone who's recently taken up road biking in New York and likes trying new things, I'd been looking forward to my first time on a legit mountain trail. On our ride up the gondola with our rented bikes, cool new Merrell backpacks and commemorative Merrell bike jerseys, I warned Matt, an expert rider, that we might need to split up so that I could go with other beginners and he can enjoy a more adventurous ride with the pros. "No, no," he said. "It'll be more fun if we do it together." How sweet. So, once at the top, when it was time to divide into groups, Matt, as he often does, switched gears (no pun intended) and prodded me to come with him, saying, "You don't need to go in that beginner group -- you are better than them." How he convinced me, I'll never know, especially seeing as when I looked at the beginner group, they looked just as nervous as I did. So, we set off, with Matt and I in the group led by pro cyclist Rishi Grewal. About 10 seconds in, I hit an inconsequential rock and fell. I could tell this was not going to be easy. After enough falls (and more than enough angry glances at my soon-to-be husband), I was clearly holding up the group. Never wanting to be the center of attention, especially when the attention is due to my inability to stay upright on a bike, I encouraged the group to go on ahead, which left Matt and me alone at the top of a mountain. Knowing there was only one way to get to the bottom -- and thus to the session's complimentary lunch and wine tasting -- I got back on my bike and sloooooooowly made my way down. On steep declines (and I mean steep!), I got off my bike and walked it. On even steeper declines, I simultaneously scooted down on my butt and yelled at Matt for going against my better judgment. Soon enough, we hit a point where the mountain leveled out and the trail became a scenic ride of fun switchbacks, much more my speed. Two hours later, Matt and I made it to the bottom. I could have kissed the ground, I was so relieved. Over lunch at Truffle Pig restaurant, I gave the highlights of our wild ride to a reporter Nicole Inglis and Joe Lange, of LangeTwins Winery and Vineyards. Lange, along with David Phillips of Michael David Winery and Tom Holdener of Macchia Winery, hosted the lunch to showcase the wines of their California town, Lodi, which is known as the Zinfandel capital of the world.

 After cleaning up (they weren't kidding about the mud and sweat in that "Mud, Sweat and Cheers" title), we hit up the festival's finale, the grand tasting in Gondola Square. It felt like a reunion of sorts, as we sampled wine from Damon Ornowski and Joe Lange and others we'd met along the way. It was the perfect way to toast our trip.


 Day 4

On our way off to the airport, we decided to pick up the morning's issue of the local paper, Steamboat Pilot & Today. Of course, the Steamboat Wine Festival was the front page story. But as I began scrolling the article, I couldn't believe what I was reading: "A couple from New York decided to give themselves a challenge and head down with the advanced downhill group." The reporter from our mountain-biking excursion wrote about how I was "very terrified" and how we "went at our own pace." It was official: We'd become celebrities. I immediately began jumping up and down, grabbing a few more copies of the paper to obviously send off to family and frame on my wall at home. Matt didn't understand why I was that excited: As a writer and editor, I'm used to seeing my name in print. But this was different. Like the lucky win that sent us out west in the first place, this was just another of the many firsts I had in Steamboat Springs, Colorado!