When John Williams and Jim Holmes took their first trip up to Red Mountain in the early 1970s, there was nothing but hardscrabble landscape. “It was a bunch of sagebrush and jackrabbits. There wasn’t even a road, just a Jeep trail,” recalled John, who along with his friend and fellow research engineer, Holmes, planted the famous AVA’s first vineyard in 1975. “You could stand on top of Red Mountain, looking over at the Horse Heavens and there wasn’t a green spot to be seen.”
Some 30-plus years later, the area is a patchwork of iconic vineyards, producing highly sought-after fruit. But it took true visionaries to imagine that scenario in the early days.
The Williams family – the first three-generation grape-growing and winemaking dynasty in Washington state – were originally drawn into the industry by an invitation to do viticulture and winemaking trials for Dr. Walter Clore and Washington State University.
“We got a pretty good start there,” said John. “But there had been soil samples taken in the 1930s by the Bureau of Reclamation, around the time the Grand Coulee Dam was built.”
When they planted the first 10 acres of Cabernet sauvignon, Riesling and Chardonnay – after digging a 550-foot well “Jim’s wife, Patty, used to say they were putting their investments in a hole in the ground,” Scott said -- there were only six wineries in the state, and by the time the winery was bonded in 1980, that number had more than doubled.
The first vintage was produced in Jim Holmes’ garage, where Scott jokingly described the crew of extended family as “slave labor.”
“We used basket presses with ratchets back then, and we’d have to round up kids strong enough to turn them,” he said, chuckling at the memory.
Eventually, more vines were planted, with the last lots of the 65-acre vineyard going in the ground in 1995. “We realized it takes a lot of money to plant grapes, and every time we’d go to the bank for a loan, they’d tell us we didn’t know anything about growing grapes. We didn’t know anything about making wine. It was a real bootstrap operation,” John said. “But that also meant that we didn’t owe any money.”
From the beginning, part of the mission involved dumping wine that wasn’t deemed good enough. “There was a lot of bad wine out there in the early days, and putting out an inferior product was death,” John said.
Did they dump much?
“We just gave it to Dad’s friends, they’ll drink anything,” Scott joked.
The family dynamics that sometimes caused sparks to fly have mellowed through the years. “Years ago, I worked for my father-in-law, and told him I either had to quit or end up hating him, so I learned from that lesson,” John said.
Scott said they’ve always agreed on the winery’s focus, to let the fruit shine in the wines. And when Scott’s son, J.J. expressed an interest in coming to work for Kiona, he was encouraged to go in a slightly different direction. He earned a business and marketing degree at Gonzaga, and spent a couple years being mentored by Lorne Jacobson of Kelnan Wine Management before coming to work for the winery full time.
“He came into the office, put his feet up and said, get ready, change is coming,” Scott said. “It was really déjà vu all over again.”
J.J. raised the winery’s profile through social networking and by launching a wine club, featuring limited releases available only to members. The result has been that this value-oriented winery has found new fans and prompted loyal followers to take a fresh look.
“We’ve had the advantage of not being beholden to anybody, so we can react fairly quickly to quirks in the market,” Scott said.
Much of their success could be attributed to what they didn’t do, though.
“In those early days, a lot of the early grape growing efforts were sidebars of other operations, growing potatoes or wheat or corn where the agricultural philosophy was maximum inputs and maximum yields. It doesn’t work that way with grapes,” said Scott. “Out here in the desert, we were kind of forced into moderated deficit irrigation from the start and that worked to our advantage.”
Scott and his wife, Vicky, started another vineyard on Red Mountain and eventually sold some of that land to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and the Antinori family for Col Solare. “They had the muscle to get an irrigation project going that we share,” Scott said.
One distinction Kiona shares with no other producer is Lemberger King. “We love that grape. It’s delicious and it practically makes itself,” John said. “It thrives even in extreme cold. We sell more than 3,000 cases of it a year.”
Why is the German red so hard to market?
“Because it’s called Lemberger,” Scott said.
The father, son and, now, grandson are optimistic about the future of this once-barren spot. “After we sold the land that became Col Solare, I remember going onto the Antinori Web site and reading that the family had been making wine for 26 generations. I think that’s something to aspire to,” Scott said.