Red Mountain Appellation of Washington State Wine Country
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Archived Feature

Red Mountain People... their star ascends
by Susan O'Hara

Wines Northwest Editor's note:  Red Mountain Appellation was Washington State's smallest viticultural appellation when it was federally authorized on April 3, 2001.  It is a 4,040-acre area in the southeastern portion of Yakima Valley AVA.  Six hundred acres were planted to vineyards that have developed over the past 30+ years to earn their owners top dollar for the premium grapes grown there.  (1,199 vineyard acres currently are planted; as of August 2015.)  Labels (designating these Red Mountain vineyards) create high consumer demand and satisfaction.  I wrote this piece after enjoying the company of a small group of the people at Hedges Red Mountain Winery and Vineyards -- people who met with me to talk about their desert-land investment that is now one of Washington's federally authorized American Viticultural Areas.  We sipped our wine, produced from nearby vineyards, and the story of the Red Mountain AVA's beginnings unfolded.  Red Mountain People comes out of that casual conversation back in 2000, when appellation status was only a hope; today it is a reality. 

      "It was pure luck," concludes Fred Artz, manager of the now renowned Klipsun Vineyard located in the Red Mountain Appellation of Washington authorized in 2001.Willow Creek Vineyards

     "We don't even know why we did it," confirms Jim Holmes, owner and founder of Ciel du Cheval Vineyards on Red Mountain.  "Basically, it was an investment."

     The Jim Holmes family and the John Williams family (owners of Kiona Vineyards) first bought 80 acres of land in the Red Mountain region and planted 10 acres to grapes in 1975. 
Kiona Vineyards, Red Mountain

     "John and I had worked together in the stock market and tried to get rich that way... we lost a lot of money," Holmes chuckles.  "When you lose money in the stock market, the next thing you try to do is lose money in real estate.  We could do that as well as anybody else, we figured.  So we bought 80 acres of worthless desert out here in 1972.  There was absolutely nothing out here then.  In fact, we had a hard time finding the spot.  We used a couple of telephone poles to navigate back to the spot."  

        Williams and Holmes began to explore the area and first found the "Experimental Station" doing work with growing wine grapes in Prosser, under the direction of Dr. Walter Clore.  Results from some of Dr. Clore's experimental viticulture had just been published.

        "Hey, we're only 10 miles away," Holmes remembers the two future wine industry members concluded.  "We can do this. We thought we would grow grapes just for fun, and maybe haul them to Seattle and sell them to home winemakers.  We had no idea there were really worthy wineries that would use these grapes."

        The first ten acres of Red Mountain land were planted on what is now Kiona Vineyards, owned by the Williams family. 

        "Just about the time we planted our 10 acres in 1975, we met this guy that had a tractor dealership," explains Holmes, "a guy named Bill Preston that started a winery just because that's what he wanted to do.  He wasn't any smarter than we were; we had grapes and no winery; he had a winery and no grapes.  So guess what?  We had a fit for a while."

        Preston Winery in Pasco produced the first wines from the Red Mountain region.  It was soon obvious there was something different about this land.

        "The first and most notable thing about the place was the Cabernet," notes Holmes.  "It came off as a big surprise!"

        What to plant was "just a mindless separation of 10 acres into thirds," says Holmes.  "We divided the 10 acres into thirds, and decided what to plant based on what we saw already growing (Riesling) and what we liked (Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon)."  Another three acres across the road were planted at the same time.

        Holmes alerted friends when an 80-acre parcel came up for sale. The land was purchased and is now owned by Holmes himself.  That land is now the famed Ciel Du Cheval vineyards.

        Next to succumb to the desert allure of the Red Mountain area was the Gelles family.  As friends of the Williams and Holmes families, David and Patricia Gelles were bound to catch the winegrowing fever.  Patricia Gelles remembers the night it happened.

        "One evening, Jim (Holmes) said, 'You know there's some land available out there.'  That was in December of 1981," she explains.  "We had been helping plant the vineyards out there for several years, and we happened to have some cash available when Jim suggested the land purchase.

        "We bought it in 1982, dug a well in '83, and planted in '84 and '85... and on and on and on into 1998.  We have about 240 acres now with about 120 acres currently planted on the flat."

        The Gelleses hired a young man to help plant their first vineyards.  Fred Artz now manages the 120-acre Klipsun Vineyards property, in addition to owning a vineyard himself.

        "It's kind of nice to get in on the ground floor of a new industry," reflects Gelles. "When we began (the project), we thought maybe we would put in a winery at between three and five years.  But the more we learned about the business, the less interested we were.  We're not going to do it.  There's enough competition out there.  We grow grapes very well, and that's what we're going to stick with."

        The dominant grape varieties currently planted to the Red Mountain Appellation are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. 

Current Red Mountain Wineries
(in 2000 when this article was originally published)
See list of wineries as of 2015

  • Hedges Family Estate

  • Hightower

  • Kiona Vineyards Winery

  • Oakwood Cellars

  • Seth Ryan Winery

  • Taptiel Winery

  • Terra Blanca Vintners

Each winery owns land or vineyards within the appellation, and Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun and Artz vineyards grow and sell grapes to wineries throughout Washington and a few in Oregon.

The VineyardsRed Mountain is home to many of the state’s most prestigious grape growers such as Klipsun Vineyards, Ciel de Cheval Vineyards, Hedges Vineyards, Red Mountain Vineyards (RMV), Kiona Vineyards, Artz Vineyards, and Tapteil Vineyards. These vineyards sell their fruit to some of the state’s most celebrated wineries such as Bookwalter, Barnard Griffin, Soos Creek Cellars, Quilceda Creek, Andrew Will, Woodward Canyon, L'Ecole No41, DeLille Cellars, Matthews Cellars, McCrea Cellars, Apex, Bridgman, Waterbrook, Seven Hills Winery, and Canoe Ridge.  

The TerroirRed Mountain, Yakima and Walla Walla appellations are all contained within the Columbia Valley, which stretches from around Wapato to Milton-Freewater and crosses the Columbia River into Oregon.  While  Red Mountain AVA lies within the southeastern area of the Yakima Valley Appellation boundaries, it has a distinct microclimate. 

The Appellation:  The Red Mountain AVA is Washington’s smallest. The region is approximately 3,600 acres with approximately 600 acres currently planted. The name Red Mountain can be misleading for two reasons.  First, it does not refer to the color of the mountain's soil, but rather, some say, to a native grass with a red hue.  Secondly, Red Mountain, for those with other mountains in mind, might be a disappointment, since its elevation ranges from only 500 to 1,500 feet.  Even so, among the rolling hills of eastern Washington's desert, Red Mountain's sloping hillside is a prominent landmark, storing radiant heat for the growing vines of the valley floor. The Yakima River flows nearby, helping moderate climate extremes, as do so many major rivers in wine country regions throughout the world. 

    Some say Red Mountain Appellation has it all:  slope, exposure, weather conditions, good air drainage, large swings between day and night temperatures, six wineries within a few miles, plenty of undeveloped land, gravelly soil with high calcium carbonate content and high pH (high alkalinity), both contributing flavor to grapes grown here.  Sloping lands beneath the broad Red Mountain lie at the southeast end of the Yakima Valley, overlooking Benton City, where annual rainfall is only about six inches, and supplemental irrigation is usually provided a few months into the growing season.  Wines made from Red Mountain fruit express the terroir with great strength and richness, while demonstrating exceptional balance of fruit, acidity, and tannin.  

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Last revised:  09/09/2016