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No Longer a Secret, Red Mountain Earns Its Place In the Spotlight

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.

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,” says Holmes 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 Dick Boushey, a grower who now manages vineyards comprising hundreds of acres in the Red Mountain area.

The area’s lack of infrastructure only reinforced those doubts.

Dirt road in Red Mountain with vines and scrub brush
Photo by Kim Fetrow, Courtesy Red Mountain AVA Alliance

“There was no water, no power, no roads,” says Holmes. “Strangely enough, we decided we’d go ahead and do it anyway.”

In 1975, Williams and Holmes planted a 12-acre parcel to RieslingChardonnay, and even Cabernet Sauvignon, which they planted because they liked it, not because they thought it would succeed.

“No one thought red wine grapes had a chance in those days,” says Holmes. Most areas of Washington were believed 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, an Indigenous name for the region that translates to “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, the founder of Betz Family Winery. Over 95 percent of the appellation’s 2,382 planted acres are now dedicated to red varieties.

Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties take the lead, followed by Syrah. There are also smatterings of successful white varieties, including RoussanneSauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc.

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.”

Red grapes in harvest bin in Red Mountain vineyard
Photo by Kim Fetrow, Courtesy Red Mountain AVA Alliance

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, which is 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 ruddy height, 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.”

Red grapes on vine in the midday sun, Red Mountain
Photo by Kim Fetrow, Courtesy Red Mountain AVA Alliance

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, 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 John’s son Scott Williams, whose family owns 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.

Red Mountain soil being cupped in hands
Photo by Kim Fetrow, Courtesy Red Mountain AVA Alliance

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, former 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 belongs to Napa Valley icon Duckhorn Vineyards, which planted 18 acres in 2013 and released its first Red Mountain-designated Cabernet Sauvignon under the Canvasback label in fall 2014.

“We like the elegant ruggedness, the subtlety and the extraction of Red Mountain,” says Alex Ryan, Duckhorn’s president, CEO and chairman.

Others in Napa Valley have taken notice of Red Mountain, too. Todd Alexander, formerly winemaker at cult Napa winery Bryant Family,  joined Force Majeure as general manager and winemaker in 2014.

“I just saw the potential,” says Alexander.

A recent project called WeatherEye Vineyard explores the boundaries of that potential, planting up and over the top of the mountain. The early results have been stunning.

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. The company has since planted an astonishing 547 acres, with 90 more planned for 2022.

“The Aquilini family traveled to the world’s top growing regions but always found themselves gravitating back to Red Mountain,” says Aquilini Wines CEO Robert Chin. “We believe Red Mountain’s climate and soils can create wines that rival the world’s best.”

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.”

Red Mountain vineyard at sunset
Photo by Kim Fetrow, Courtesy Red Mountain AVA Alliance

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 45 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.”

Red Mountain Wine Recommendations

Aquilini 2018 Family Blend Red (Red Mountain); $70. In less than a decade, Aquilini has become one of the most significant players on Red Mountain… SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Betz Family 2018 Heart of the Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Mountain); $120. The aromas intrigue, with notes of bay leaf, raspberry compote and cherry, showing dazzling purity… SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Cadence 2018 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red (Red Mountain); $45. This wine, which will be the winery’s last from this vineyard as it focuses on estate wines going forward, is a true Bordeaux-style blend… SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

DeLille 2018 Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Mountain); $75. The pillars of this wine are top sites Ciel du Cheval (39%), Grand Ciel (30%), Upchurch (21%) and Klipsun (10%)… SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Gorman 2019 Old Scratch Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Mountain); $32. The aromas draw you into the glass, with notes of soil, the blackest of cherries and flower… SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Januik 2018 Merlot (Red Mountain); $35. Merlot is a star in Washington, and this is another terrific example… SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Klipsun 2018 Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Mountain); $150. Fruit for this wine comes from one of the appellation’s oldest and most venerated vineyards… SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Liminal 2019 High Canyon Series WeatherEye Vineyard Syrah (Red Mountain); $80. The second vintage from a new site, this is a wine that immediately impresses, with aromas of huckleberry, marionberry… SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Quilceda Creek 2018 Galitzine Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Mountain); $200. This is almost all Cabernet from the winery’s vineyard in this tiny appellation, with a pinch from Mach One in the Horse Heaven Hills… SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW