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Committed to aging well

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South Jeffco winery won’t let economy dampen its spirits

By AJ Vicens

Conventional wisdom holds that in an economic downturn, those with something to sell should hunker down and wait out the storm.

Not Jim "Griff" Griffin.

Griffin, owner of Avanti Gars & Grapes Winery in South Jeffco, is planning to counter a slower economy by producing more of his trademark Avanti wine and offering it in more places.

"You have to have faith in yourself," Griffin said, sitting in his store on West Bowles Avenue. "If you don't, you end up losing ground."

It's not like Griffin hasn't had to adjust in the past.

Griffin, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., opened a cigar store 11 years ago on West Bowles Avenue across from Southwest Plaza. For five years, the business model worked, but Griffin knew there was room for growth even though he couldn't quite seem to make that happen.

His inspiration came when a friend who operated his own winery asked Griffin to sell wines and promote Colorado wineries. Griffin liked the idea and took it one step further: He launched his own winery at the store.

"People would go to the mountains and some festivals and come back to Denver and not be able to find the wines," Griffin said.

He admits that his background is more entrepreneurial than as a wine maker, but over the last seven years he's grown to love making wines and has become quite knowledgeable about the process, which uses grapes grown near Grand Junction.

"My passion is more in experimenting and people having fun," Griffin said. "We take wine making seriously, but not ourselves."

Until mid-2007, Griffin produced wine right in the store. Customers would ask what he was working on, and he would give them a taste of his latest creation right from the wooden barrel. That came to an end when a valve on one of his mixing tanks opened and leaked wine all over the back of the store and into the basement he shares with an art supply store next door.

And so, the wines are now produced off site.

Griffin sells Avanti wines in bottles that bear pictures of his dogs: Avanti, Niko and Gracie. Avanti, an 11-year-old yellow Lab, is the store's namesake, but each dog’s picture appears on its own variety of wine. The “Gars” in the store’s name is short for “cigars.”

The store is doing well: Griffin sells enough of his own wines — 10 varieties of the Avanti brand — and those of more than 20 other Colorado wineries to keep the doors open and the lights on. But the summer 2008 change in state law that allows liquor stores to be open on Sundays, along with the sluggish economy, have changed Griffin's outlook.

"I need to refocus on what's going to make this store successful," said Griffin, who plans to increase production of his own wine without losing his emphasis on promoting other Colorado wineries.

In a typical year, Griffin produces eight to 10 barrels of wine, which translates into as many as 3,000 bottles. Griffin admits that his production is small compared to most wineries, but for a man who does it all by hand on his own, it's a big job.

Still, he plans to step it up in 2009. Griffin can’t yet project precise numbers, but he's emphatic that production will increase.

Griffin also plans to sell his wines in more places and in different ways.

"I've been hesitant to spend time at the different wine shows and farmers’ markets, and I'll have to change that," Griffin said. Avanti wines will have an increased presence at the annual Colorado Mountain Wine Festival in Grand Junction in September, and he plans to sell more wines wholesale.

"Eventually, I'd like it to be half and half," Griffin said. "Half outside sales and half in-store sales."

Griffin knows his plans for 2009 are ambitious. But raise a glass to his entrepreneurial spirits.

"This year I'll have to take a little more of a leap of faith," he said, adding that hunkering down and doing nothing is not an option. "I have more reservations about staying pat.

"It's like my parents used to always say," Griffin said with a gentle smile. "Your biggest asset is always yourself."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news. Check out the Avanti Gars & Grapes Winery at 9046 W. Bowles Ave., or at www.avantiwinery.com.