From Dust to Density: The Powerful Allure of Red Mountain Wines (part one)

Part One: We made Red Mountain, Red Mountain made us.

Red Mountain

Four days after the funeral of my beloved mother and after weeks at her bedside, I had a decision to make – head for the annual Wine Bloggers (now Media) Conference in Walla Walla, Washington or stay home to begin the processing of my grief.  Plane tickets, hotels, etal. were all purchased and I knew the conference would be full of wonderful wines and a comprehensive view into a region I had read about, but had not experienced directly.  I knew my Mum, who supported my wine endeavors whole-heartedly, would have wanted me to go so, with a still heavy heart and distracted head, I headed North – well actually a bit East, as in order to get to Red Mountain Washington from LA, where my pre-excursion trip was to take place, I had to fly to Salt Lake City and then to Tri-Cities airport.

My instincts were that the buoyant and often eccentric spirits of all those wine writers, bloggers and enthusiasts …. and the passion of artisan, elbows in the dirt winemakers, would do much to lift my spirits.  I was not wrong. 

Salt Lake from the sky

I had never been to Salt Lake and as we circled over that astonishing mix of aridity and water, a flat and endless moonscape, which in many ways reflected how I felt, the adventurer in me begin to emerge – little did I know that that starkness was a preview of the kind of landscape we were headed for.  

A Champagne Kick-off

It was a short trip from Washington’s small, but friendly and efficient, Tri-cities airport to the lovely, waterfront ‘The Lodge at Columbia Point’ where the group of wine writers on the excursion were greeted by our hosts – The Red Mountain AVA Alliance – and a glass of Blanc de Blanc Champagne (yes real Champagne). The bubbles, Marquis D’Ossey, were commissioned by Red Mountain winery, Hedges Family Estates, and named after the Champagne home town of Hedges co-owner Anne Marie Hedges. “The first thing you do in Champagne when guests come in is you have a bottle of champagne,” says Anne Marie and that is what we did: not what I expected in this robust red wine region, but it was delicious, and bursting with crispy apple and biscuit notes. 

Champagne commissioned by Hedges Family Estates

Red Mountain: So much more than meets the eye

We were then whisked off to Red Mountain. I had not had time to do research before the trip and was expecting something just a shade less magnificent than the Dolomites, this was the Pacific Northwest after all! What I saw instead were the doldrums….. an arid, dusty landscape with a few rolling hills …. but, as I should have remembered, we were east of the Cascade Mountains and, in spite of proximity to three rivers – Columbia, Snake and Yakima – the impact of the rain shadow created by the Cascade Mountain is a desert climate with an average annual rainfall of less than seven inches. As we passed the bend in the Yakima River, which borders Red Mountain AVA, there was a flurry of greenery and many of the hills we passed were criss-crossed with trellised apple trees. But the overall impression was of an austere and uninviting landscape.

And still, I kept looking for that red mountain. A sharp-peaked, treeless and decidedly not red hill looked promising, but that turned out to be Rattlesnake Mountain.

Rattlesnake Mountain

But, as I learned, Red Mountain is neither red nor mountainous and named for a kind of grass – cheatgrass – that turns red in a brief flourish in the spring.   And, as the mountain finally cropped into view, across the valley from Rattlesnake Mountain, and kitty-corner to a ridge called Horse Heaven Hills, the vista was quite mundane.  I was reminded of my deflation when I first saw the Cote d’Or in Burgundy – I was anticipating far greater magnitudes of glory than its escarpment allowed.

Red Mountain, which is on the same longitude as Burgundy, although a little higher in altitude, looked to me like the Cote d’Or hillside after a serious shave…with the occasional soul patch of green. Although over 2000 of its 4040 acres are planted with vineyards (with many more on the way), the overall impression of Red Mountain is of a rippling, arid, yellow-brown slope – a bald Cote d’Or. 

Ah, but like the Cote d’Or ….there is so much brilliance below in the soil and above in the climate. And once cozily inside the AVA, it had plenty of vineyard beauty and magic. So much more than met the eye.

Kiona: Red Mountain pioneers

Our destination was the pioneering Kiona Vineyards and Winery, named for the look of that initially disappointing landscape: Kiona is Native American for ‘brown hills.’ The winery is built almost like a bunker into a hillside and when we arrived just at ‘magic hour,’ sun dappling gold as it shed its rays on the vineyards, we all instinctively leapt out of the bus into the vineyards to snap pictures of grapes and vines…. images that no wine writer ever tires of.

After much picture taking, we headed upstairs to the main tasting room, a stunning, modern construction surrounded by windows and patios that opened up beautiful views of the developing sunset that would soon set the slope of Red Mountain and surrounding vineyards ablaze.

We were greeted by JJ Williams, whose title is ‘Director of Operations, Whippersnapper.’ JJ is the grandson of Kiona founder John Williams, who was half of the partnership that pioneered the very first plantings in Red Mountain. John Williams was an engineer at GE Hanford in the 60s when one day his desk was pushed together with that of another engineer, Jim Holmes. They became fast friends, bonding over their love of wine and what many thought was a hare-brained idea to buy (from Harris’ father-in- law) 80 acres of barren, uninviting, very sandy, scrubby hillside to plant a vineyard. But, as it turned out, the idea was not so crazy, they were methodical engineers and knew that there was huge potential for grapes, and definitely some water, in them thar hills. They even convinced their skeptical well digger, who was ready to quit the water search at a depth of 545 feet, to keep on going. Sure enough, the engineers had accurately plotted it out and they hit water at 550 feet.

“He kind of rolled his eyes at us, a couple of young guys telling him where the water was… The next morning he had hit water at almost exactly 550 feet. He told us, ‘Boys, you did know where that water was.'”

Jim Williams
Kiona Vineyard

By 1975 they had planted (with the help of JJ’s father and Jim’s son, Scott, and a group of his classmates, among others) 12 acres of Chardonnay, Riesling, and Cabernet. As they grew to understand the terroir, and its synergy with red grapes, they shifted the vineyards to predominantly red grapes (today 98% of grapes grown in Red Mountain are red)  … and the rest is history – the Red Mountain AVA was approved in 2001 and is a sub appellation of Yakima AVA which is a sub appellation of Columbia Valley (and we thought the French were complicated!). There are over two dozen wineries in the AVA and its vineyards provide grapes for over 60 producers.

On the balcony of Kiona Tasting Room

Today, Kiona Vineyards and Winery is one of the most highly regarded wineries in Red Mountain, not to mention in Washington and the US, with 236.1 acres under vine in the AVA (62.7% Cabernet). Kiona also provides fruit to over 50 producers in the Pacific Northwest and has helped Red Mountain earn a reputation as one of the hottest AVAs in the country, with big names like Duckhorn, St. Michelle and Antinori now growing grapes and making wines there. As JJ pointed out, his grandfather Jim’s and Holmes’ investment could not have been more shrewd –  their land was bought at about $50 an acre … while Antinori, it is rumored, bought at $50,000. 

But for the Williams family, the pay off of the investment is all about the wine and a deeply passionate and integrated family business – all three generations live on Red Mountain.  The Williams mantra “we made Red Mountain and Red Mountain made us”  rings deeply  true – were it not for Harris and Holmes, Red Mountain would probably still be an ignored, inhospitable slope of sandy scrubland, instead of the source of some of the best red wines anywhere in the world.

Today, the Williams family wholly own Kiona, while Jim Williams’ still-best friend and former partner Jim Holmes, and his son, run and own the neighboring Ciel de Cheval vineyard, one of the most treasured vineyards in Red Mountain, focused on selling grapes to over 30 wineries. (More on this in Part 3: Good Dirt: Wine Treasures in a Pile of Garbage.

I love Kiona/Red Mountain’s origin story…. which echoes so many of the risks taken by the intrepid pioneers of new world wines and which is so dramatically different from the origins of old world vineyards, which were nurtured and codified by monks across centuries… and yet, in the obsessive and sacred mission of winemaking and concomitant details needed to nurture a vineyard, these determined and meticulous engineers were perhaps not so far removed from their old world brethren.CLICK HERE TO READ PART TWO: Red Mountain’s Five Pillars to World Class Wine

CLICK HERE TO READ PART TWO: Five Pillars to World Class Wine

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