April 2017 Issue of Wines & Vines

Infinite Monkey Theorem

Urban winery in Denver finds success with edgy branding and canned wine

by Andrew Adams

If the old adage in business and real estate is correct, and success is all about location, some may have said winemaker Ben Parsons wasn't making the best decisions when launching his new wine company.

As the U.S. economy plunged into recession, Parsons envisioned an urban winery in a city and state that weren't known as epicenters of wine appreciation.

Born in the United Kingdom, Parson worked in the London wine trade before pursuing winemaking in Australia. He took a job offer at Canyon Wind Cellars in Palisade, Colo., and went from making wine in an established New World region to quite literally a new world of winemaking and grapegrowing. After five harvests, Parsons had built a reputation of winemaking expertise and soon was consulting for 20 different wineries in the region.

Parsons had a hunch that an urban winery would be a good fit for a rapidly changing Denver, and he also had a unique name. The winemaker founded Infinite Monkey Theorem in 2008. "Somehow I managed to find investors to start an urban winery, which at that time was an unproven concept in a state that is not known for its wine," he said.

He and his then-girlfriend (who would later become his wife) bought a used truck and trailer and drove more than 20,000 miles over two months scrounging up second-hand winemaking equipment to support the fledgling enterprise they founded for about the same amount of money that a single acre of vines would cost in Napa Valley. The name for the winery comes from the concept that an infinite number of monkeys banging away at typewriters would eventually produce any piece of text including this article.  

Starting in an old Quonset hut in Denver, they produced 2,000 cases during their first vintage, followed by 4,000 cases the next year. Back then Parsons used connections in the Denver restaurant scene to sell almost all of the wine on premise. That helped build brand recognition and enabled Parsons to move into a 15,000-square-foot building in north Denver.

At the time, the neighborhood was a run-down mix of vacant commercial and light industrial buildings. "When we moved into this neighborhood, we were really the only people that were here," he recalled during a recent visit.

The company didn't have much capital to spend on improvements, so Parsons said he had to frame out a barrel room from the existing structure himself. Most of the winemaking equipment he acquired to increase production was purchased second-hand from other wineries.

By the time of the move, the winery was producing around 8,000 cases of bottled wine, and Parsons decided to launch a keg program. He had also been in touch with Ball Corp., which is a metal packaging producer based in Colorado and a leader in canned beverages. "They were super pumped we wanted to put wine in a can," Parsons said of Ball.

After a year of research and development, Parsons unveiled his first canned wine at the Aspen Food & Wine festival in 2011. Frontier Airlines was one of the first major accounts to pick up the canned wine, followed by Whole Foods, and by 2014 sales were really starting to take off. Now Parsons is negotiating with major national retailers including Costco and BevMo and is considering exports to China, Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom. "It's exacting, but at the same time it's a huge challenge to create the inventory and the supply."

He buys the 187 ml cans pre-labeled with only an American appellation and no vintage so he can stay flexible with his supply. "If you think about it, why would you put an appellation on a can? Why would you put a vintage date on a can?"

The wine comes from California wine and grape brokers, and supply is often dictated by price. "The margin is so low on the canned products, the per-gallon price is the big driver."

Blending is key to consistency, but Parsons admits the consumer and typical drinking environment for canned wine does give him some wiggle room. "It's not for everyone, you know; the people who are buying $80 bottles of wine aren't drinking wine in a can," he said. "Remember, (if) you're drinking out of a can, you're probably hiking or camping. It doesn't have to be spot-on like Coca-Cola or something, but it has to be as close as it possibly could be."

Infinite Monkey Theorem is now producing 10,000 cases of bottled wine per year, 30,000 to 40,000 cases of canned wine and around 8,000 cases of wine in kegs. "It's just been massive growth," Parsons said. "All with very little investment."

The initial funding was mainly through friends and family, and Parsons said as he's grown he's been able to maintain the same group of investors with just a few additional rounds of investment.

In 2015, Parsons opened a second winery in Austin, Texas, where he produces wine made with Texas grapes and runs a second kegging operation. Infinite Monkey Theorem was named one of Wine Business Monthly's "Hot Brands" of 2016.

"I had no idea it would become as large as it has," Parsons said of the winery. "I thought I'd be 2,000 to 4,000 cases and we'd be fine, but the whole canning thing just changed everything."

Originally all the canning was done at the winery in Denver, but the program grew so quickly that Parsons had to send it out to a canning company in California. He still cans a perry (pear cider) made with juice trucked in from Oregon. The pear juice is fermented, dry hopped and canned at the Denver winery. He said he tried grinding and pressing the fruit himself but found it just has too much pectin and took forever to settle and clarify-even when using a bunch of enzymes.

Now he treats the juice with a Winetech cross-flow filter that he also uses for white wines. "We still do the enzyme additions pre-fermentation, but post-fermentation we run it straight through here, and it's just brilliant," he said of the filter. "Then it gets hopped and then gets thrown in the brite tank, carbonated and into the canning line."

The perry is canned with a Wild Goose Canning line that is linked to a Ska Fabricating depalletizer, which feeds empty cans into the filling line.

While he's outsourced some of the canning, Parsons still does all of his own kegging. When he launched the keg operation, he successfully petitioned the Colorado state government to change existing laws so he could fill kegs for other companies. That company is called Iron Monkey and has its own dedicated fleet of kegs that Parsons uses for his wine and that of his kegging clients.

Parsons bought an IDD keg filling, washing and sanitizing system that can be connected directly to tanks. The kegs are a key component to the winery's hospitality program, which is based around an inviting tap room and patio area. When Wines & Vines visited the winery on a weekday in November, the tasting lounge was filling up soon after opening at 11 a.m., with visitors tasting wines at the bar and enjoying glasses of wine at tables. 

Parsons has the same kind of setup in Austin, and he's thinking of opening other tap rooms but in cities that aren't already steeped in wine culture. "We don't choose, as you can tell, traditional winegrowing states," he said. "We're definitely exploring that option, but it may not even be necessary if we can get the growth on shelves in the grocery chains. If that happens, then you can just do anything you want to do."

Despite all the growth in cans and kegs, Parsons still operates a very hands-on boutique winery. Grapes are trucked in from vineyards throughout Colorado and unloaded onto either an elevated conveyor that serves as a sorting line or into an Armbruster ET-V 2500 vibrating hopper from Scott Laboratories. The hopper and a bin dumper are recent additions, and Parsons said they have been most welcome as he used to shovel all the grapes into the Rauch destemmer. Parsons bought his destemmer used, but Euro Machines USA is the company's U.S. distributor.

The destemmed grapes are either collected into 1.5-ton bins or pumped directly to tanks. The bins are given regular punchdowns, and the tank fermentations are managed with pumpovers. Parsons was able to buy his tanks secondhand-and at quite a bargain, too. His larger, 3,000-gallon tanks had removable lids that he welded tight, and he said they've worked just fine.

He'll put some of his Bordeaux varieties through extended maceration, and for that Parsons said he wraps up the bins in plastic and fills the headspace with argon gas. Most of the reds will age in neutral, French oak barrels. One unique challenge to making wine in Denver is the relatively lack of humidity. "It's so dry here, you have to rehydrate barrels every six weeks," he said.

All of the barrels at the winery are neutral, and Parsons buys them through Premier Wine Cask. He keeps them clean and sanitized with a steam unit from Criveller Group.

White wine grapes are pressed with a Della Toffola membrane press, which is also used for the reds. None of the reds are filtered, but Parsons will run the whites through a membrane filter prior to bottling.

Infinite Monkey Theorem produces a Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Sirah, Petit Verdot and Syrah. Parsons said his 2014 Syrah earned an 89 in Wine Spectator and a 90 in Wine Enthusiast.

Parsons also makes a red and white blend as well as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. He also produces a dry-hopped Sauvignon Blanc packaged in can and keg that he says is delicious.

Infinite Monkey Theorem's "Bubble Universe" is what Parson claims is Colorado's first methode champenoise sparkling wine. The base wine is mostly Albariño and is the result of Parsons meeting Schramsberg Vineyards winemaker Craig Roemer at a bike race in 2013. Roemer has been consulting since then, and Parsons even picked up some second-hand sparkling wine equipment from the Napa Valley winery.

Bottling at the winery is still particularly hands-on, as it's still done by hand. All of the Colorado-sourced bottled wines are filled with a GW Kent six-spout filler and single-head screwcap spinner by Prospero. Parsons buys silk-screened bottles and screwcaps from Universal Packaging in British Columbia so he doesn't have to mess around with labels. And while the single capper does slow the process down, he said he can still do 600 cases per day.

When Parsons signed the lease for his current building, it was for $3.50 per square foot; now commercial space is going for more than $30 per square foot. New condominiums built near the winery are selling for $1 million each, and the neighborhood is home to 12 breweries, two distilleries, several high-end restaurants and a few marijuana dispensaries. It even has its own trendy acronym, RiNo, short for River North Art District. "This neighborhood is ridiculous, and it's great," he said.

It may not have seemed like it at the time, but the right location did turn out to be a gritty north Denver neighborhood, and it turns out the right place for some of Parson's wine was in a can.



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