DINING REVIEW: Take in the setting as well as the wine at Wines of Colorado

August 30, 2013

Is there anything more relaxing than a glass of wine next to a burbling creek? Think about the sunshine, the azure skies, a soft breeze carrying the scent of the coming autumn. The Wines of Colorado has that to offer - and more.

Tucked off Highway 24 in Cascade, Wines of Colorado sports indoor, patio or creek-side seating, as well as a wine tasting bar. While the setting is lovely, both the service and the food were spotty: While I tasted a couple of exemplary dishes, others were merely average.

The indoor seating area is airy and spacious. If you pass through the tasting area, you can be seated on the outside deck or go farther down to sit by the creek. The outside setting is pretty and relaxed, but very little shade is provided.

The tasting counter is in the epicenter of the restaurant, which boasts the largest selection of Colorado wines in the state. While the wines produced in Colorado have markedly improved over the last 10 years, they are certainly still a work in progress. Happily, then, you can sample everything on the list before choosing a glass for dinner or a bottle to take home. The restaurant carries work by critically acclaimed wineries, such as Guy Drew in Cortez and Infinite Monkey Theorum, the urban winery in Denver. And for those with a sweet tooth, there are a lot of fruit-flavored wines, which are made with local produce, such as Palisade peaches or cherries.

Unfortunately, for all the emphasis on wine, the tasting room is quite small and the wait staff must pass through it to serve the indoor customers. Although the gentlemen pouring the wines were helpful and knowledgeable, I felt slightly dismissed as a white wine drinker: My companion got much more information and conversation about the red wines she was tasting.

The grilled mahi mahi sandwich ($11.95) was outstanding. A thick hunk of flaky, juicy fish was coated with just enough almonds and bread crumbs to add a bit of crunch. The light dill sauce was another tangy accent. The soft bun did lose structural integrity, but it tasted so good we didn't care. The roasted potatoes on the side were nice but needed salt.

The pulled pork sandwich ($8.95) came on a more substantial ciabbatta roll, so this saucy sandwich held together. The slow-cooked pork is juicy and rich, topped with a sweet Asian chili sauce. For my taste, the sauce was too sweet, although the effect was somewhat mitigated by the grilled onions and roasted green chilis. The pasta salad on the side was very good. The pasta was firm, and was combined with cherry tomatoes and feta in a tangy vinaigrette.

On a dinner trip, we tried the dolmas (stuffed grape leaves, $4.95), which the waitress said were house made. While the dolmas had a nice lemon flavor, the filling was bland and very mushy. I may have discovered the cause later: I noticed that stacked beneath the serving window at a prep station were several large blue cans with labels that read, "Dolmas: Stuffed Grape Leaves."

The hummus that came with the dolmas was good, very smooth with a hint of cumin. The warm pita bread was a welcome addition.

We also sampled the whole smoked garlic we missed on an earlier visit. The two heads of garlic are roasted in the restaurant's smoker, a glorious mess to eat but well worth the effort. The mellow, soft cloves, which were slick with olive oil, were infused with subtle smokiness. The garlic was even better when dunked in the peppery olive oil on the side.

We tried the homemade veggie burger ($8.95), a large and mild patty made of rice. It's hard to say if the burger was good, because the predominant flavor came from the heap of grilled onions, roasted chilis and sauteed mushrooms on top.

The Buffalo Wine Burger ($10.95) came with the same toppings, but the succulent flavor of the buffalo wasn't overwhelmed by them. The chef did right by this burger, leaving it very juicy with just a hint of pink in the middle, as requested. The burger could have used a little more char on the outside and a sprinkle of salt to add depth to the flavor of the meat.

The pan-seared salmon dinner ($14.95) delivered slightly over-cooked salmon on a delicious bed of fresh baby spinach. On the side was crisp-tender asparagus and a decent if unexciting rice pilaf.

We decided to try a couple of desserts. The lemon cream cake ($6.95) and the Kentucky bourbon pecan pie ($6.95) were disappointing. Both were served chilled, which muted the flavor of the lemon and did no favors for the consistency of the pie.

Next time, I'll skip the dessert and have a glass of mead or one of the sweet, fruity wines made here in Colorado.

The Wines of Colorado

Restaurant character: A casual restaurant where you can take advantage of the wine tasting room to sample a huge range of Colorado wines. Not the place to go if you're in a rush, but the setting makes it a nice place to take out-of-town visitors. The food and service are spotty - sometimes terrific and sometimes just average.

Rating total: 3 out of 5 stars

Food: 3 out of 5 stars

Ambiance: 4 out of 5 stars

Service: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Value for the money: 3 out of 5 stars

Address: 8045 W. Highway 24, Cascade

Contact: 684-0900, www.winesofcolorado.com

Hours: 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. daily, May-September; 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. October-April

Entrees: $7.95-$21.95

Alcohol: Colorado wines

Credit cards: Yes

Vegetarian options: homemade veggie burger ($8.95), mushroom ravioli salad ($8.95)

Wi-fi: No

What's online as of Aug. 21, 2013:

- 89 percent of 92 voters "liked it" on Urban Spoon

- 3.5 out of 5 stars based on 49 reviews on Yelp

- Active on Facebook; search The Wines Of Colorado

- Two violations were corrected during an April, 2013 inspection by the El Paso County Health Department

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