RED MOUNTAIN is brown, and by no stretch of the imagination is it a mountain. But let’s be honest: “Brown hill” is not particularly sexy, nor does it sound like wine country.

By local standards, this brown hill that turns red each spring, when the cheatgrass changes color, is no less mountainlike than any of the other nearby brown hills. Viticulturally speaking, it could be called Green Mountain, because it is swathed in green grapevines. Based on the fact that more than 90% of these vines are growing red wine grapes, maybe “Red Mountain” is fitting. With the Yakima River winding around this little hill before merging with the mighty Columbia River, and with the persistently blue skies of Washington wine country helping to make Red Mountain one of the consistently warmest spots east of the Cascades, everyone wants to be here, using grapes from Washington’s most-hallowed grape-growing ground.

The Backstory: How a wine writer traversed from Rainier to Red Mountain

Red Mountain wasn’t much more than sand and sagebrush when the first vines took root in the mid-1970s.

Now some of Washington’s best winemakers covet Red Mountain’s grapes. Winemakers from the state’s oldest winery, and among Europe’s oldest, make wine here. Recently, California’s Napa Valley discovered Red Mountain and found it more affordable than their Eden north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the fruit and resulting wines up to their lofty standards.

Arguably, Red Mountain is to Washington what Napa Valley is to California.

JJ Williams of Kiona Vineyards points toward the Yakima River, at right, which is in view from Artz Vineyard, below, one in a portfolio of vineyards Kiona owns in the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area near Benton City. Red Mountain itself is at right. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
JJ Williams of Kiona Vineyards points toward the Yakima River, at right, which is in view from Artz Vineyard, below, one in a portfolio of vineyards Kiona owns in the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area near Benton City. Red Mountain itself is at right. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

RED MOUNTAIN is a 4,040-acre bench on the eastern edge of the Yakima Valley, an agricultural mecca formed on the north by the Rattlesnake Hills and to the south by the Horse Heaven Hills, a stretch of agricultural region distinguished by one brown hill after another. The soil here is deep and sandy, created 10,000 years ago by the Ice Age Floods, a series of outburst floods created by Glacial Lake Missoula, a body of water created by an ice dam in northern Idaho that formed a lake in western Montana thought to be the size of modern-day Lake Erie. The floods (estimated to number as many as 80) shaped the landscape of Washington wine country, creating conditions for growing world-class wine grapes, including on Red Mountain.

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Back in 1976, Washington didn’t look like wine country. Unlike today’s 1,000 wineries and 60,000 acres of vineyards, Washington was just getting started, with a handful of wineries and a few acres of grapes. Nobody could envision what was to come, either statewide or on Red Mountain.

Chief among those early experimenters was John Williams, who planted the first grapes here in 1976, and later founded Kiona Vineyards. When Williams and fellow nuclear engineer Jim Holmes decided to plant a few grapes, there were no roads, no buildings, no water and no electricity here. A photo of the pair looks like a scene from a Spaghetti Western movie set.

Back in 1975, married couple John and Ann Williams, along with others, planted many of the grapes seen in the background at what is now Kiona Vineyards in the Red Mountain AVA. Retired now and in their 80s, the couple toasts with a 2016 Kiona Sangiovese. Their son Scott, who has been running Kiona while acquiring more vineyards on Red Mountain, also gets a lot of help from his sons, JJ and Tyler. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Back in 1975, married couple John and Ann Williams, along with others, planted many of the grapes seen in the background at what is now Kiona Vineyards in the Red Mountain AVA. Retired now and in their 80s, the couple toasts with a 2016 Kiona Sangiovese. Their son Scott, who has been running Kiona while acquiring more vineyards on Red Mountain, also gets a lot of help from his sons, JJ and Tyler. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Williams grew up in Richland. His father worked construction at Hanford during the Manhattan Project of World War II. Williams met his wife, Anne, and moved to Pullman, where he earned an engineering degree at Washington State University, before moving back to Richland, taking a job at Hanford in 1972 at General Electric, as a metallurgist. There he met fellow engineer Holmes, who grew up in California. The two become friends while Williams helped Holmes drink his cellar of California wines. This inspired the two to plant a vineyard, figuring if they grew grapes, they could have an endless supply of wine. They bought a few acres, at $200 per acre (today, premium vineyard land costs 120 times that). They talked other engineers into joining them, figuring to share the cost of bringing electricity to the ridge.

They needed water to make the venture work. It took a year to get a water permit, and the two engineers figured it was about 550 feet down, so they hired a guy to dig the well. He got down about 500 feet with no luck. Williams and Holmes checked their wallets, then told the guy to keep digging, and soon after he hit the aquifer.

WHEN THEY STARTED, there was no wine industry. In 1975, they began planting grapes: cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and riesling. Walter Clore, recognized by the Washington State Legislature as the “Father of Washington Wine,” studied wine at WSU in the 1930s. Clore, raised by the president of an Oklahoma temperance union, dreamed of a Washington wine industry and the brown hills of the Columbia Valley covered with grapes. He suggested in the 1970s that Williams and Holmes plant an obscure red grape from Austria called lemberger. Clore thought it could do well in Washington; he thought it could be Washington’s version of zinfandel.

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Clore’s dream for lemberger greatness in Washington never came true, but Williams and his family still grow the grape variety and make wine. It’s become Kiona’s calling card, and is their most famous wine.

Williams and some of his fellow nuclear engineers began pulling out sagebrush to plant grapes on Red Mountain. Williams and Holmes started Kiona in the late 1970s, making their first wine in a garage in town, learning winemaking from textbooks and asking other winemakers, many of whom were buying fruit from Kiona. Kiona’s grapes started winning medals at wine competitions throughout the West — a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by others. The fame of Red Mountain began.

The Williams family built a house on its property, and the basement became Kiona’s first tasting room. It was small, cramped and cozy, fitting in well with the surrounding emerging wine industry. Williams’ son, Scott, returned home after earning an agriculture degree at WSU. After working for other wineries around the valley, he took over winemaking at Kiona.

Scott now owns several vineyards on the ridge, as well as a cherry orchard. He owns half of the winery, and his son, Tyler, is poised to take charge of the cellar, having recently earned his master’s degree in the viticulture and enology program at WSU. Tyler’s brother, JJ, runs operations, sales and marketing for Kiona, making Red Mountain’s pioneering winery a true three-generation operation. The roots run deep in Red Mountain’s sandy soils.

Winemaker Charlie Hoppes noses his 2016 Quintessence cabernet sauvignon at his Fidélitas tasting room. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Winemaker Charlie Hoppes noses his 2016 Quintessence cabernet sauvignon at his Fidélitas tasting room. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

CHARLIE HOPPES clearly remembers his first time on Red Mountain. Kiona was staging a lemberger festival, and Hoppes went. At the time (the 1990s), he was the red winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle. As he tasted the wines, he looked across the ridge and began to dream of the opportunity to carve out his corner of Red Mountain for his own slice of the American dream. He was blown away by the structure of Kiona’s cabs. He could envision growing grapes and making wine here. Someday.

He liked the fact that it was so warm, mostly on a south-facing slope, with dusty, sandy soils that gobbled up any precipitation so quickly that nothing would grow without help from irrigation.

Red Mountain wines are famously tannic, with big structure. Hoppes attributes this to a constant wind that whistles past the ridge, a condition that tends to toughen the grapes’ skins, the source of tannins.

Hoppes remembers his first time on the mountain well, as his second daughter was born that day.

Hoppes’ dream became reality in two decades. He purchased 10 acres in 2006, built a tasting room in 2007 and planted a vineyard in 2008. He called the winery Fidélitas and since has focused his efforts on making all his wines from Red Mountain grapes. His first vintage of Fidélitas was 2000, while he was the winemaker at Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla.

Hoppes’ early fascination with Red Mountain cab remains today. He crafts six cabs per vintage, all using grapes from Red Mountain vineyards. Land is important here because there’s not much of it, so Hoppes makes his wines in an old beer distributor building in Richland, not wanting to waste any good grape-growing land on a building.

RED MOUNTAIN was recognized by the federal government as an official American Viticultural Area (an AVA is our equivalent to Europe’s wine appellation system) in 2001, thanks to the hard work of Tom Hedges, owner/founder of Hedges Family Estate.

Winemaker Sarah Hedges Goedhart holds a glass of Hedges Family Estate’s 2016 red blend. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Winemaker Sarah Hedges Goedhart holds a glass of Hedges Family Estate’s 2016 red blend. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Hedges grew up nearby, graduating from Richland High School before getting into international marketing, a career that took him to Argentina and Canada, where he brokered produce. In 1989, he created Hedges as an export product to Sweden. Before long, he had created a global wine operation that reached across the United States and around the globe. In 1990, he bought land on Red Mountain and planted grapes. With his French-born wife, Anne-Marie, they built a château architecturally inspired by Bordeaux; it was one of the first grand buildings to pop out of Red Mountain’s sagebrush.

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The Hedges’ daughter grew up in an environment that valued good wine, good food and good culture. Sarah Hedges Goedhart, born in Argentina, headed south from Washington for school, landing in San Diego. She moved to Santa Barbara, where she made wine for a few years, and then Sonoma County before returning to Red Mountain in 2006. She worked alongside her Uncle Pete until he retired as the Hedges winemaker in 2015, when she took over as head winemaker. She has since overseen the conversion of Hedges to an organic and biodynamic operation.

Goedhart’s winemaking experience up and down the West Coast gives her a perspective on Red Mountain’s unique place in the wine world. She talks easily about Red Mountain’s heat, resulting in purity of fruit and famous structure, which creates an annual struggle to rein in the region’s big tannins and allow the fruit to shine. She sees that difference in Red Mountain and Northern California, particularly with Red Mountain wines having no issues in ripeness, and featuring full fruitiness and structure. Goedhart uses blending (in the Bordeaux tradition) to soften tannins and add complexity to the resulting wines, which reveal grace behind fine-grained tannins.

Col Solare vineyard manager Dick Boushey, left, and crew boss Adelmira Navarro inspect a row of cabernet sauvignon grapes that will be picked soon. They’re looking for possible pests. Boushey says one of the biggest parts of his job is worrying, but he has a lot of confidence in his picking crew’s experience. “They’re my eyes.” (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Col Solare vineyard manager Dick Boushey, left, and crew boss Adelmira Navarro inspect a row of cabernet sauvignon grapes that will be picked soon. They’re looking for possible pests. Boushey says one of the biggest parts of his job is worrying, but he has a lot of confidence in his picking crew’s experience. “They’re my eyes.” (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

NOBODY BRINGS as much of a global perspective to Washington wine as Bob Betz. After a long career at Chateau Ste. Michelle, earning the prestigious Master of Wine degree and building his Betz Family Winery in Redmond into a cult producer before selling the operation in 2011, he began serving as a consultant for the Betz winery and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. With most of the Betz winery’s fruit coming from Red Mountain, and because of his work with Ste. Michelle’s Col Solare, he has a unique perspective on Red Mountain grapes.

He likens the area as something between Napa Valley and Bordeaux in terms of fruit quality, structure and longevity. He has long admired Red Mountain as among Washington’s top regions. And he believes that like Burgundy, Red Mountain could be divided into smaller AVAs as younger winemakers and growers explore and define the bench.

Betz also says Red Mountain can be a catalyst for change for the entire Washington wine industry. The wine world is discovering Red Mountain, with new ideas coming from California and Europe that could enrich and ultimately change Washington. Among the big players now on Red Mountain are Antinori (a partner with Ste. Michelle in Col Solare) from Tuscany; Napa-based Duckhorn Vineyards, which owns Canvasback, which makes Red Mountain cab and owns a vineyard on Red Mountain; and the Aquilini family, which owns the National Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks as well as some Italian wine operations. The Aquilinis bought and planted several hundred acres of vines on Red Mountain. They’re in the process of creating their own brand and building a winery. All of these companies were attracted to Red Mountain for its quality wines and long-term potential.

Like everything ag-related in Eastern Washington, what has held back Red Mountain is water. Not enough comes from the sky to sustain the vines. In 2011, the brown ridge had patches of green, but the promise of its greatness was tied to water, as everything is east of the Cascades. That year, the Kennewick Irrigation District created a new irrigation district for Red Mountain, transferring water rights from the Columbia River to the Yakima River.

This brought water to the brown ridge, and the red cheatgrass and sagebrush quickly were replaced by grapevines, which supplied winemakers, from Washington and beyond, with some of the best wine grapes in the country.