Story by Mark Schapker and photos by Joe Mendoza
Editor’s note: This story was originally featured on the cover of the winter 2022 edition of Around the Oval, a benefit of CSU Alumni Association membership.
Tiffany Weber (B.S, ’99) woke up one morning in late July during a spell of typically untypical Colorado weather. A long stretch of sweltering heat gave way to darkening skies and cooler air the day before, and rain inundated Northern Colorado throughout the night. It felt like fall as Weber began her day at Hillside Vineyard, the property she bought in 2020 that serves as both a vineyard and wedding/event venue.
The impacts of the rain at Hillside, nestled in the foothills of northwest Fort Collins and just a jaunt away from Lory State Park, were clear. Puddles swelled in the dirt road up to the winery building, and you had to tread carefully through the muddy vineyard if you walked toward the pond, gazebos, and 4,500-square-foot event hall on the other side. When Weber took such a walk that morning, she leaned into the vines and could tell that the ripening grapes were happy.
In the misty fields that day, you would never know that the three different grape varieties grown at Hillside faced any challenges more serious than hungry deer searching for a sweet snack. Known as “cold and hearty hybrid” grapes and perfect for the Northern Colorado seasonal climate, they had faced a period of neglect before Weber took ownership of the property.
“We were concerned we were going to lose them,” Weber explained. “During that period of transition before and after the sale, nothing was happening and they didn’t get any care.”
Weber’s study and attention and the TLC she put into the grapes during a tight learning curve helped them recover and thrive, and along the way she developed a passion for making the land sustainable – a true organic bio farm. Extra care went into decisions such as water origin, fertilizer, and sanitation, and the vineyard is pesticide-free. She even partnered with a local company to get the crops naturally pollinated by bees.
“At first we were worried about the bees and whether they would scare people at the weddings,” Weber said. “Luckily, they don’t bother anyone and just do their thing.”
That morning, as Weber surveyed the healthy, wet vines and lush landscape, she expressed gratitude for the friendly weather and optimism about the approaching harvest season. All the hard work was about to pay off.
Hillside Vineyard – described as having a “Napa Valley flavor with a Rocky Mountain charm” on their website – is a true family affair. Along with Weber’s husband, Michael Wamsganz, her three boys and parents pitch in when they can, and her sister Lindsey manages the wedding and event venue side of the business. On any given day, Weber is not only focused on strategic planning but also can be spotted doing just about anything.
“No day is ever the same. You’ll see me at the tasting rooms pouring wine or in my office doing all the accounting and payroll. You’ll see me cleaning. You’ll see me out in the fields picking grapes and getting my hands dirty. I mow.”
The whisper of truth
In the not-too-distant past, Weber, CFO of Banner Health, had just returned to Colorado from corporate headquarters in Phoenix. It was one of many trips she had taken there recently, and she had a lot on her mind, mostly about an upcoming building upgrade in Sterling. With eight years of executive and financial experience at Banner, she could always be relied on to lead major undertakings like this.
Weber was at the top of her career, which started modestly as a part-time nursing assistant. Taking shifts wherever she could at her local Banner hospital and being especially drawn to the emergency room and ICU, she developed a passion for helping others and making a difference in people’s lives. When she earned her nursing degree, finished EMT school, and soon after started her own air ambulance company in northeast Colorado, it was clear that the moment of truth for her life path came early: “Health care is for me.”
From Sterling back to Banner headquarters in Phoenix, and back again and again, Weber still had a lot on her mind about the building project, but other subtle whisperings – not about work – entered her thoughts as well. Another round of her kids’ sports games missed. Another absence from a family memory. Sitting in another Phoenix hotel room. As the days and weeks progressed, the whisperings became louder, until they turned into a single truth that she couldn’t deny: “It’s time.”
“It was just the right moment to move on from Banner and be more present with my family,” Weber said. “If you would have asked me a year before about leaving, I would have said ‘no way.’”
New, exciting ideas came to Weber about how to parlay her earlier business experience of running the air ambulance company into her love of people and planning.
“I owned a rental property in Brighton and started doing weddings there with my sister Lindsey. It was so successful that we looked for a larger venue.”
An opportunity quickly came up in Castle Rock, and Weber thought it was a done deal after signing all the paperwork. She woke up the next morning, however, and learned a cash buyer outbid her at the last minute.
Then Hillside came up for sale – with the added bonus of having a beautiful vineyard on the property. Weber and her family were intrigued. Could she grow grapes and do weddings at the same time? They decided to give it a shot, together.
A slice of heaven
Choose any morning of the year, with the possible exception of the coldest of winter days, and you’ll likely find Weber enjoying a cup of coffee on the front porch of Hillside’s main building before she starts her busy day. The mountain skyline provides a majestic backdrop to her view of the vineyards and pond, and she can always see the birds coming in or mischievous deer trying to get over the fence. It’s her favorite place on the property to relax.
If she’s sitting alone, thoughts of all the happy moments at Hillside make it impossible to feel any sense of solitude: Couples taking their vows and making lifetime memories; the joy of celebration and togetherness at the events throughout the year; local folks or tourists coming in to see what Colorado wine is all about.
And students, many students. Not only is Hillside a place of community, it’s a growing hub for education in the region as well.
“Agricultural tourism is a big part of the business. We work with a lot of teachers and teaching associations to help get agriculture back into the classroom. I also love to see families and kids come out to learn all about the grapes and where food comes from.”
Weber is also bringing CSU to Hillside with exciting experiential learning opportunities for Rams across a diverse array of colleges and disciplines, including soil sciences, engineering, hospitality, and fermentation sciences, the latter two within the College of Health and Human Sciences, where she earned her health and exercise science degree.
Weber’s passion for education – and the community – is what drives her every day and includes her dedication to supporting nonprofits in the region however she can.
“Nonprofits may have an event or fundraiser, so I offer Hillside for the event so they can save the money. It makes a big difference for their bottom line and mission.”
Power of a berry
It’s not just about the grapes at Hillside Vineyard. The aronia berry is a major crop grown at the vineyard and has been shown to exhibit more free-radical fighting ability than any other fruit – including blueberries and elderberries. Loaded with vitamins and antioxidants and known as a “functional food,” aronia berries have a number of health benefits including reducing inflammation and digestive system support.
Tiffany Weber is a member of the American Aronia Berry Association and has started producing a special aronia berry cold-pressed juice that will be available later this year. She is also partnering with CSU researchers in the Functional Foods and Human Health Lab to provide further learning opportunities related to the berry and its impact.
As a proud alumna and CSU alumni member, Weber loves attending CSU sports games and Alumni Association events with her family. She fell in love with the University in high school during summer camps there and credits many mentors and faculty, especially Sheri Linnell of the College of Health and Human Sciences, for inspiring her passion for health care and making the world a better place.
Weber is excited about her continued connection to CSU and new membership in the CHHS Executive Leadership Council, where she acts as a liaison between the broader community and the college. In her role, which she just took on in October, Weber helps the CHHS dean implement short- and long-term goals, community outreach, and partnership development.
Looking back at her time at Colorado State, Weber recalls spending countless hours at the Oval – reading, studying, or just relaxing and gathering her thoughts. It’s easy for her to compare the magic of that enchanted place to Hillside.
“Hillside is a little slice of heaven, and we’re just happy that we can share it with people.”
A wine lover’s guide to Hillside Vineyard
Blendings, the onsite winery and tasting room, is a highlight of any visit to Hillside Vineyard. Here you can taste wines from grapes grown on the property in addition to other high-quality varieties produced in the U.S. The winemaker, Richard Bender, will help give you a hands-on experience in creating your own special blend.
Hillside has more than 30 official labeled blends, and one of their most popular selections is a special chili pepper wine that always sells out quickly at tastings and festivals. You can also taste Hillside’s wines at the Exchange in Old Town Fort Collins and events throughout the area, and their new wine club will give you the chance to enjoy delicious selections every month.
- Marquette – Related to pinot noir, Marquette grapes are the perfect cold and hearty variety for the Northern Colorado climate and provide complex notes including black currant and cherry. It’s delicious as a dry red, blended, or rosé wine.
- Frontenac Blanc –This new variety of Frontenac ripens to a yellow and gold hue and produces a light, straw-colored wine. These grapes work well in both dry and sweet wines and can also be used well in ice wines along with Frontenac gris.
- Louise Swenson – Light in body with low acidity, Louise Swenson grapes are growing in popularity and make an excellent dry white wine. Notes of flowers, honey, and tangerine make this a crowd-pleasing selection on any occasion.
For more alumni stories like this, and many other member benefits, join the CSU Alumni Association.
The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition – including the Fermentation Science and Technology Program and Hospitality Management Program – and the Department of Health and Exercise Science are part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.