The Secrets of Red Mountain Winemaking
Over the last four decades, Red Mountain has established itself as not only Washington’s premier winegrowing region, but one of the finest in the world. Once a well-kept secret, the recent boom in plantings and investments have served notice: Red Mountain has arrived.
—Sean P. Sullivan
Photos by Richard Duval
From Humble Beginnings
Red Mountain’s ascent began quite modestly. In 1972, General Electric engineers Jim Holmes and John Williams decided to invest in a piece of property.
“We had tried the stock market, and we were miserable failures at that,” Holmes says with a laugh.
At first blush, their land venture didn’t look much more promising. The 80 acres they purchased and the surrounding area were barren and isolated. The two had a hard time even determining the exact location of their land.
“There was no road, no signs,” says Holmes. “There was nothing.”
The idea of planting a vineyard—based on research at Washington State University that stated growing wine grapes nearby was possible—seemed absurd.
“Everybody thought they were nuts,” says grower Dick Boushey, who now manages vineyards comprising hundreds of acres in the Red Mountain area.
The area’s lack of infrastructure only reinforced those doubts.
“There was no water, no power, no roads,” says Holmes. “Strangely enough, we decided we’d go ahead and do it anyway.”
“No one thought red wine grapes had a chance in those days,” says Holmes. Most areas of Washington were thought to be too cold and the growing season too short to ripen red wine grapes, especially the heat-loving Cabernet Sauvignon.
They named their vineyard Kiona (pictured)—a Native American name for the region that translates as “brown hills”—and in 1980, founded the first winery on Red Mountain.
Red Wines with a Distinctive Style
Planting red wine grapes in 1975 seemed quixotic but turned out to be prescient.
“It’s red wine country,” says Master of Wine Bob Betz (pictured), the founder/winemaker of Betz Family Winery. Over 90 percent of the appellation’s 1,500 planted acres are now dedicated to red varieties.
Red Mountain’s red wines have become known for their distinctive style.
“Red Mountain wines taste different,” says Tom Hedges, of Hedges Family Winery, which planted its first vineyard on Red Mountain in 1989.
Growers and vintners all start with the same word when describing the wines.
“Structure,” says Ben Smith, of Cadence Winery. “Red Mountain has a magic combination of structure, both from acid and from tannin.”
This structure not only gives the wines great longevity—a hallmark of Red Mountain wines—it also provides a framework for ripe fruit and savory flavors.
“Red Mountain wines can have intense amounts of fruit, but they also have this chalky, gravelly minerality,” says Chris Gorman, winemaker for Gorman Winery.
Though fruit intensity is the calling card, the wines can also show surprising finesse.
“Red Mountain wines have that sense of restraint and freshness that you see in European wines,” says Chris Camarda of Andrew Will Winery, which began using fruit from Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, one of Red Mountain’s top sites, in 1989.
Growing Grapes in a Blast Furnace
Looking at Red Mountain from afar, two things are striking. The first is that it looks like a peculiar place to grow wine grapes. The second is that its name seems like a misnomer. Red Mountain is neither noticeably red, nor particularly mountainous.
The appellation, which received federal approval in 2001, is a subappellation of the Yakima Valley (itself a subappellation of the larger Columbia Valley). Its name comes from cheatgrass, which turns a reddish hue during springtime. Its elevation, nearly 1,000 feet from base to summit, is the result of a buckling up of the basalt bedrock.
What Red Mountain lacks in hue and elevation, however, it more than makes up for in heat accumulation, perhaps its defining characteristic as a growing region.
“It’s hot,” says Whitman College geologist and viticultural consultant Kevin Pogue. “Unrelentingly hot.”
Pogue says heat plays a significant role in the Red Mountain style. “Growing grapes in a blast furnace makes big, powerful wines.”
The appellation, triangular in shape and a diminutive 4,040 acres, is a broad, southwest-facing slope that bakes in the summer sun.
“There’s very few places in the world that really have a perfect southwest exposure for Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Chris Upchurch of DeLille Cellars (pictured), which has been sourcing Red Mountain grapes since 1993. The area is also dry, receiving on average just five inches of precipitation per year.
Near constant wind decreases berry size and thickens grapeskins, helping provide concentration and tannic structure.
“Vines really struggle here because it gets so hot and windy during the summer,” says Scott Williams, John’s son and the owner and general manager at Kiona.
The soils, a combination of sandy loam, gravel bars and deposits left by a series of cataclysmic floods thousands of years ago, drain extremely well, which is ideal for irrigated viticulture. This provides fine-tuned control over grape growing, helping to achieve consistent high quality.
A Special Place
As Red Mountain’s star has brightened, so has the pace of vineyard development and investment.
“When we bought the land for Col Solare, it was the most desolate part of Red Mountain,” says Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “It was nothing but sagebrush and prairie dogs.”
Ste. Michelle partnered with Italy’s Antinori family to build a winery and vineyard on Red Mountain in 2006. “Now there are vineyards as far as the eye can see,” Baseler says.
One of those vineyards belongs to Napa Valley icon Duckhorn Vineyards, which recently planted 20 acres and released its first Red Mountain-designated Cabernet Sauvignon under the Canvasback label last fall.
“We like the elegant ruggedness, the subtlety and the extraction of Red Mountain,” says Alex Ryan, Duckhorn’s president and CEO.
Others in Napa Valley have taken notice of Red Mountain, too. Todd Alexander, formerly winemaker at cult Napa winery Bryant Family, recently joined Force Majeure (pictured) as general manager and winemaker.
“I just saw the potential,” says Alexander. Star Napa Valley consultants Helen Keplinger and Bob Gallagher have signed on to consult on winemaking and viticulture.
The most riveting change, however, comes from the Vancouver-based Aquilini Investment Group, which purchased 670 acres of land on and around Red Mountain in 2013.
“Our plan is to establish a winery and a vineyard that can compete with the world’s best,” says Barry Olivier, president of Aquilini Brands. Olivier says that aggressive planting would commence this spring.
Still, for all of its success, Red Mountain remains a largely agrarian region, with only 14 wineries located on the mountain itself. Many more source Red Mountain grapes, however. The area also lacks nearby restaurants and top-flight accommodations, outside of the Tri-Cities approximately 20 miles away.
“We all want more people to come here, but the thing we always struggle with is we don’t have a lot of amenities,” says Charlie Hoppes of Fidelitas Winery. “It’s an issue.”
Still, to Scott Williams, the thought that Red Mountain would be a tourist destination at all amazes him.
“When I think back to when we started, the idea anyone would come to Benton City on vacation to taste wine was just so mind boggling as to be ludicrous,” says Scott. “Yet, that’s exactly what happens now.”
As Red Mountain takes its place on the world stage, Holmes is modest about all that has been accomplished over the last 40 years, especially considering the long odds.
“I’d like to say we were that good, but we were just lucky,” says Holmes. “But it’s turned out to be a pretty special place in the world.”
Recommended Red Mountain Wines
Force Majeure 2011 Collaboration Series I Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red Wine; $60, 94 points. Ben Smith makes this Bordeaux-style blend. Dark fruit flavors pick up hints of smoke, underbrush and leather. Ripe tannins support a long finish. Drink 2018–30. Cellar Selection.
Gorman 2012 The Pixie Syrah; $45, 94 points. A blend of Klipsun and Ciel du Cheval vineyards, this wine brings brooding notes of bramble, blueberry, mineral, herbs and potpourri. The palate-coating flavors are dense and rich, leading to a long finish.
Kiona Winery Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon; $65, 93 points. This flagship wine show-cases the first vineyard on Red Mountain. Subtle, slightly grainy, grassy nuances combine with red-fruit flavors that are soft and delicate, yet substantial. There’s a light dusting of cinnamon, a whiff of smoke and
an overriding elegance. Editors’ Choice.
Doyenne 2013 Roussanne; $38, 93 points. This stunner delivers notes of nut oil, fresh-off-the-tree peaches and mouthwatering apricots. It’s rich, with a rounded feel and abundant sweet fruit flavors that linger. A state benchmark for the variety. Editors’ Choice.
Andrew Will 2011 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red Wine; $55, 93 points. Half Merlot and half Cabernet Franc, this minerally, tightly wound blend offers lovely whiffs of coffee grounds, wild berries and currant supported by stiff acids and sculpted tannins. Cellar Selection.
Fidelitas 2012 Quintessence Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; $60, 93 points. This is aromatically brooding, with notes of dark coffee, vanilla, dark cherry, herbs and chocolate. The polished black-fruit flavors are rich, yet light on their feet, with the tannins combed to a fine sheen and mouthwatering acids. Best from 2020–27. Cellar Selection.
Seven Hills 2012 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red Wine; $45, 93 points. This wine is half Cabernet Sauvignon and just over a quarter Merlot, with the balance Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The oak allows the rich, layered notes of plum, herbs, licorice, toast and coffee to shine, supported by a firm scaffolding of tannins. Best after 2018. Cellar Selection.
Cadence 2011 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red Wine; $45, 93 points. This blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot offers brooding notes of herbs, black currant, mineral and flowers. Its firm tannins and lively acids merit time in the cellar. Best after 2018, but will be well worth the wait. Cellar Selection.
Col Solare 2011 Red Wine; $75, 92 points. Principally Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, this wine offers red and black fruit, high-toned herbs, chocolate and barrel spices. It shows elegance and power. Best from 2018–23. Cellar Selection.
Betz Family Winery 2012 La Côte Rousse Syrah; $55, 92 points. This is an aromatically appealing wine that brings aromas of blue fruit, BBQ briquettes, herbs, mineral and assorted spices. The fruit flavors are lithe, yet intense, with a squeeze of tannins that lead to a supremely long finish.
Mark Ryan 2012 Wild Eyed Syrah; $48, 92 points. Hailing from Ciel du Cheval and Force Majeure vineyards, this aromatic wine offers notes of pomegranate, dried leaves, mocha and crushed flowers. It’s luxuriously creamy in feel, with abundant red fruit flavors.
DeLille 2012 Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon; $67, 92 points. A blend of four vineyards, this wine is aromatically reserved, with notes of café au lait, black currant, dusty chocolate and fresh herbs. The fruit flavors are concentrated and rich, with firm tannins. Best after 2017. Cellar Selection.
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