With a 50th anniversary in view and a third generation firmly in control Red Mountain’s Kiona Vineyards can easily lay claim to being one of Washington’s most important pioneers. And though more than 60 wineries compete for Kiona grapes, for many consumers the namesake winery remains under the radar and is usually left off the myriad end-of-year ‘Top 100″ lists that sprout like mushrooms in December.
I recently chatted about this with General Manager JJ Williams, who handles the sales and marketing while his brother Tyler holds the winemaking reins. We talked about the history, the wines, the power of scores and why/how they take “a different approach” to the making and selling of wine at Kiona.
Quick history: Patriarch John Williams partnered with his work buddy Jim Holmes to plant the first grapes on Red Mountain back in 1975. A book could (and should) be written about the growth and development of this all-star AVA, but I’ll refer you to Kiona’s website for details.
Fast forward to 2022. Kiona owns and farms five different sites (272 acres under vine) on Red Mountain and sells grapes to more than 60 wineries. Their personal production is around 30,000 cases and includes a varied mix of white and red, dry and sweet, varietal and blended wines, all estate-grown. Tyler Williams took over the winemaking from his father Scott in 2019, so the changes he brings to the red wines are just now beginning to appear.
My limited exposure to recent vintages of Kiona already seems to show a pretty clear distinction from the wines I remember from a decade or more ago. In keeping with current winemaking trends I expect that rather high alcohol numbers on the current red wine releases will trend down, as they have at many wineries around the state. An email from JJ confirms this impression.
JJ: “Historically the winery got among the last picks of the vintage from Kiona (the vineyard), since we generally would triage our contract customer’s pick preferences and targets above our own. It would drive me crazy when people/writers/industry people would say something along the lines of ‘Kiona grows for a bunch of wineries, but keeps the best fruit for themselves’ insinuating somehow we were nerfing what our grape customers were getting.
“Since Tyler came aboard, one of the first things he emphasized was increasing our picking capability/bandwidth, and treating Kiona (the winery) as a grape customer on its own. This is a win-win solution; we are still able to deliver the fruit our customers want, while the winery gets to have a say in what gets picked and when. We’re only a couple vintages in at this point, but if you graphed harvest Brix of the fruit we’re bringing in and the corresponding alcohols of the products made with that fruit, there’s a downward trend.”
PG: Despite the 15% and higher alcohol numbers all of the current reds that I list below are balanced and rich, with excellent tannin management. The challenge ahead is to keep the power and aging potential while picking at lower brix.
Our conversation next turned to the importance of scores, as I have been chewing on how and whether (or not) to score wines ever since I left Wine Enthusiast and started my website a year ago. I have no grudge against the practice – I scored many thousands of wines while writing for the magazine. But I thought it might separate me from the pack of score-obsessed reviewers to focus on extended tastings in controlled conditions with limited numbers of carefully-chosen wines.
I asked JJ for his evaluation of my decision in light of the industry’s continuing reliance on promoting numbers.
JJ: “Getting your wine in front of the distributor is why scores are important. I’m running a winery now where our scores range 89 to 93. Not high enough to really move the needle from the consumers’ perspective like a 96 does. But if I’m courting a distributor in Georgia or wherever every conversation comes down to ‘give me the price list and what are the scores?’ That’s frustrating but it’s what they need to cut through the noise.”
PG: Not really a surprise, given all the years scores have dominated the business side of wine sales. But it begs the question – with score inflation an undeniable fact, and with wineries and distributors and retailers choosing to promote the highest number given by whomever in order to sell their wine, what’s the real value of scores? Years ago a Parker score meant something because you knew the man’s palate and there was little real competition. You could agree or disagree, but at least you could dial in his particular preferences and go from there. Today scores come out of left field from myriad websites, blogs, publications, newsletters and wine competitions. Who bothers to sort out one source from another, or assign a higher value to the source rather than the number? No one as far as I can tell. If I were a winery I’d do the same thing. Check all the reviews and scores for any given wine, pick the highest number, and use that.
JJ: “Scores are a ‘gatekeeper topic’. People will lean on a score from publication ‘A’ or a 98 and Double Gold from a competition that you paid $800 to enter. So you pick the highest number and let ‘er rip.”
Then there is the difficulty of obtaining any reviews at all.
JJ: “We have a good story [at Kiona], but there’s a lot of compelling wines from compelling regions and with compelling packaging that we’re competing with. It’s difficult for wineries to get reviews. Some publications charge; some have limited times for submission windows; some reviews are published so late that the wine is already gone by the time the review appears.”
PG: It’s no secret that many wineries are struggling, even those with gold-plated credentials and stories to match. Costs for everything from corks to glass to grapes to wages are climbing. The wine market is beyond saturated. A handful of big companies control supermarket aisles and distribution channels. Many Millennials and younger drinkers from the alphabet generations seem more interested in spirits, beer, mocktails, cannabis and abstinence than pounding down their grandfather’s overpriced, over-oaked Cabernet.
Which is why I salute the Williams family for carving out a path that both honors their history and protects their future. Their wines are good, sometimes great, and quality is definitely on an upward curve. Their business is grounded in the very ground they own. As they point out on their website, “there are no third party banks or outside investors influencing our decisions. We take ownership of our product from the first berry to the finished bottle. Kiona exists because we made it, meaning our wine carries a pure-bred pedigree that spans generations and speaks volumes.”
These are honest, authentic, sturdy wines offered at very fair market-friendly prices. I’ve spent several days with some of the current releases. All may be purchased directly here.
Kiona 2021 Sage Advice White Wine
This 58% Roussanne/21% Viognier/21% Chenin Blanc blend is sourced from three different estate vineyards (Ranch, Artz & Kiona). Though an earlier version used Bordeaux blanc as a model, this new iteration walks a tightrope between Rhône and Loire styles, pushing out fruit skin and flesh, barrel toast and a firm tannic foundation. 130 cases; 14.2%; $32 (Red Mountain)
Kiona 2021 Sangiovese
This is light and aromatic, not done in the over-ripe Cabernet style often found in domestic Sangios. In the blend are 3% each Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. It’s subtle, a bit mute right after being opened, and even on day two it’s a delicate wine that rewards extra attention. Balsa, strawberries, dried roses and other details come to mind. It’s most enjoyable alone or with a light entrée. 14%; $32 (Red Mountain)
Kiona 2018 Ranch Red
Part of the winery’s Vineyard Series, whose goal is to have a high-end designated wine from each estate vineyard, this is all from the Ranch at the End of the Road, the third site ever planted on Red Mountain. It’s mostly Cabernet with 5% Petit Verdot and 2.5% Zinfandel. The emphasis is on the savory side of Cabernet; the tannins are astringent, ripe and balanced, and the long finish adds notes of licorice, black tea, black olive and smoke. Drink now through 2030s. 261 cases; 15.5%; $85 (Red Mountain)
Kiona 2018 Carmenère
From vines planted in 2008, the aromas bring scents of toasted coconut, followed by classic varietal plum and herb and stem flavors with a touch of green tannins. It’s a low acid variety, with good focus, tight tannins, and that lingering touch of toast. The label is worth a closer look – the green represents the flavors of the grape, the shape of the vineyard (tetramino – meaning four adjoining squares) is shown on the label front; the vineyard blocks are detailed on the back and an EKG symbol represents the Heart of the Hill vineyard. 196 cases; 15%; $60 (Red Mountain)
Kiona 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
With multiple vineyard sites covering over 200 acres on Red Mountain, Kiona is in a unique position to offer estate wines that are also meaningful blends from this high profile but small AVA. As the alcohol below indicates there’s no problem as far as ripeness, though in pursuit of maximum sugars this wine sacrifices a bit of the grape’s earthy green flavors in pursuit of a bountiful mix of berries and cherries. The tannins are smooth and lightly chocolatey. 4343 cases; 15.6%; $32 (Red Mountain)
Kiona 2018 Red Mountain Reserve
This is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon with a half dozen other varieties filling out the remaining 30%. It’s the best of a potent 2018 lineup from Kiona, and it is aimed at showing what is special and particular to Red Mountain reds. This complex wine marries ripe berry/cherry/cassis fruit with smooth tannins dusted with cocoa and coffee grounds. It’s ready to go and may be enjoyed immediately and then re-tasted over the next five to ten years. Not that it can’t age longer, but that’s a surefire drinking window. 709 cases; 15%; $65 (Red Mountain)
Kiona 2018 Malbec
Malbec as a varietal wine is an outlier but bottles such as this should push it further into the spotlight. All estate-grown, this is a well-ripened wine that loads the palate with rich flavors of cassis, black cherry, licorice, black tea and cocoa nibs. There’s a touch of bourbon barrel and the alcohol is unabashedly high in the best old-school style. A small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon from the original 1975 block is mixed in the final blend. 372 cases; 15.3%; $40 (Red Mountain)
NOTE: The wines I recommend have been tasted over many hours and days in peer groups and are selected for excellence. I have chosen to eliminate numerical scores from this website. Only recommended wines are shown, no negative reviews. My notes are posted with minimum delays and links to the winery website, so you may purchase recommended wines directly from the producer before they are sold out. I take no commission, accept no advertising, and charge no fees for wines reviewed.
I have been buying Kiona Lemberger ever since they first appeared in some Seattle grocery. And I have stopped at the winery in the old days to buy a case two or three times. It is a really find example of a delicious wine made from a not very common grape. Just like my Swiss grandfather Herman said: make wine from what you can grow well, and it will help set your table. Actually our family farm is on the east side of the Willamette River and so grandfather just made good cider when he moved to Oregon. But Kiona’s Lemberger has always been delicious, when first purchased or when cellared for a few years.
That’s funny, while reading this I was thinking about their Lemberger, too. Which I like a lot.
It seems to me the last time I bought a bottle, at our neighborhood wine store in Wallingford, the label had changed, and not really for the better, J J Williams if you’re reading this.
I was a little surprised that JJ did not choose to show me the Lemberger. It was my own choice not to bring the topic up during our visit. My best guess – he’d like to move on. Lemberger will always have its fans, but there is no good reason to expect your winery reputation to be built upon such an obscure (and rustic) grape.