It was 1979 and Jim Holmes was pleasantly surprised – maybe even a little shocked -- when he sampled the very first wine made by fellow Groundbreaker Rob Griffin at Preston Winery from grapes he and grown with his partner John Williams at Kiona, the first vineyard planted on Red Mountain.
“It was the most wonderful feeling. We said, hey, this actually tastes something like Cabernet Sauvignon, not something from outer space. We were hoping for something that people wouldn’t spit out and it turned out to be much better than that,” he recalled.
Holmes – who now owns Ciel du Cheval vineyards – was an engineer doing research at Hanford in those days, and grape growing was a hobby. He and Williams planted the original 80 acres using an antique 1940s-era John Deere M tractor and the sweat equity of friends and family. “I’d like to say we had this vision and knew what we were doing, but that would be a lie,” he said, chuckling.
In the beginning, these fledgling growers planted cuttings – a practice that’s now considered outdated. “We put two sticks in each hole in the ground and some of them came up, others didn’t,” he said.
They also used a trellising technique based on a tradition established in the then-Soviet Republic of Georgia, designed to protect the vines from bitter winter cold, a practice they later abandoned. “We learned so much by trial and error,” he said.
One of the most dramatic changes made over time is in the approach to irrigation in that high desert area.
“Twenty five years ago, the county extension service put out an irrigation guide that said you needed 30 inches of water a year to grow grapes. If you take a ruler and measure that and then imagine how much water that is over the entire vineyard, well, that’s a great big swimming pool,” Holmes said.
He cited some “terrific research sponsored by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates” as a real game changer: “The research found that, oh my gosh, you could grow grapes with between 8 and 12 inches of water and have a higher quality product, too.”
With every successful harvest, the partners were encouraged to add and expand. In 1991, they purchased Ciel du Cheval – also planted in 1975 – and when Holmes retired from Hanford, the partners amicably parted and Holmes took sole ownership of that vineyard in 1994. Since then, it has nearly doubled in size and Holmes now sells to 25 vintners, including the first producer to feature the vineyard on his label, Chris Camarda’s Andrew Will.
“In the 1980s, you didn’t see many vineyard designated wines,” Holmes said. “Everything just got blended together. But after Chris put it on Andrew Will’s label in 1989 and that wine got a great deal of attention, then the vineyard started getting a lot of attention.”
A new project launched by Holmes’ son, Richard, will bring a new level of attention to Ciel, as he collaborates with veteran winemaker Charlie Hoppes to make wines from designated blocks within the vineyard, and also focus on making wines from single, select clones. “That’s going to be completely e-commerce,” said Holmes of the new venture. “After he graduated from UW, he went and worked in the dot com world and now he’s back, just in time.”
While Holmes isn’t yet ready to retire from grape growing, he has shifted his focus to tracking the vineyards using high tech equipment to monitor and record moisture and nutrient levels.
“Yes, there are spread sheets and databases, but it’s more an adventure than a scientific job might be,” he said. “The record keeping is a means to an end, a way of satisfying our curiosity and solving mysteries.”
There’s no mystery about the continued allure of Red Mountain, an AVA where more than 1,300 acres is currently planted and Holmes predicts another 1,000 when the new irrigation district is established.
“We certainly never expected it, but it’s very validating,” he said.