Fifty Years of Wine on Red Mountain


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A major milestone in the history of the Washington wine industry is coming up just around the corner. 2025 will be the 50th anniversary of the first vines going into the ground on Red Mountain. Little did partners John Williams and Jim Holmes know – nor could they imagine – that their efforts to stick some vines into such unpromising ground would ultimately turn out to be great Cabernet Sauvignon terroir. But it has.

Never mind planting in a place with no roads, no water, no infrastructure and absolutely no wine growing history. But they planted Cabernet Sauvignon of all things. This at a time when it was widely believed that if anything could grow so far north as eastern Washington it would have to be Riesling.

Imagine my joy when JJ Williams – the grandson of John, and the third generation of his family to tend these vines – sent a bottle of Old Block Cabernet from the original, ungrafted vines. His official title is General Manager for Kiona Vineyards and Winery, but his reach extends across the entire operation. That wine and several other important new releases from Kiona are profiled below, but first some perspective on Red Mountain as it has developed over the decades, from the man who literally grew up on the mountain – JJ Williams.

Kiona was founded as a winery about a decade after those first vines went into the ground. Managed by John, then his son Scott, now Scott’s son JJ and their families, the Williams’ have kept full control of the entire operation during its first 50 years. They have maintained a focus on the original vision – Bordeaux grapes and blends, consistently added more vineyards and built a visitor-friendly tasting room with panoramic views, all on Red Mountain. An excellent guide and map to each of the five vineyards can be found here.

While preparing this essay with JJ he mentioned what he refers to as the “Upper/Lower Red Mountain dichotomy” – an intriguing analysis of the AVA based upon years of exploration and growth. (Plantings now extend over the top and on to the north side, past the official AVA boundaries, as I reported May 16th on WeatherEye).

“You can draw a topographical line more or less bisecting the AVA, with sites above landing with more blue fruit and a more pronounced tannin structure (new world) and sites below the line generally showing more red fruit, pyrazine, and a more elegant structure (old world)” JJ explains.

JJ recalls that the first time he latched onto this idea was during a conversation with Master of Wine Bob Betz about a decade ago. Bob mentioned that he thought the Red Mountain AVA could actually be broken into two separate and distinct sub-AVAs.

JJ: “When you’re in the business of selling high-end fruit to high-end, discerning customers (in this case, winemakers willing/able to pay the Red Mountain premium)” says JJ, “the discussion shifts from ‘our fruit is good, you should buy it’ to ‘let’s find a way to match you to a specific block/profile that meets your needs.’ Curation and intentionality become paramount when you’re competing on quality, which is what Red Mountain’s reputation is built upon. We farm 15 different blocks of Cabernet at five different vineyards and we’re constantly tasting/blending/evaluating the wines made from each and every one. You tend to develop some ideas on similarities and profiles.”

PG:  Given that you have some of the oldest vines on the Mountain, how does that impact this theory?

JJ:  “Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, however, and I am more than willing to accept the idea that the vineyards below our ‘line’ taste different because they are older. The youngest Cabernet Sauvignon plantings at Kiona Estate and Artz date back to 1995/1997, and the oldest back to 1975. They are also largely fan-trained, which certainly is a novelty in 2024. The only Cabernet planted at Artz and Kiona on a bi-lateral cordon is Kiona North Block (Block 2 on the map). 

“That being said, I would posit that there are many wines that support my hypothesis. The Upchurch wines all have an incredible abundance of red fruit and elegance, and Ciel du Cheval wines all have that lovely, velvety, elegant profile that they’re deservedly famous for. On the flip side, the wines that I taste that really drive home that blue fruited Red Mountain muscle come from Heart of the Hill, Quintessence, Shaw, Longwinds and others.”

PG:  Does the renowned Red Mountain wind exposure, that toughens skins and builds bigger tannins, play a role here?

JJ:  “Adhering to the idea that the simplest explanation is probably the best, I think wind exposure plays a key part in what we are seeing. All of the vineyards above our line feature a southwest slope/exposure, resulting in reduced berry size. You can stand in the Kiona Estate vineyard and not see the western horizon – that is not true any place at Heart of the hill, Ranch, or Sunset Bench.”

PG:  Finally, I was gobsmacked by your Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon. Here’s an example where I insist that knowing in advance what is being tasted has a major impact (positive impact) on my impressions. Toss that bottle into a massive blind wine tasting competition and it could easily get overlooked. Its real strengths are its subtlety and elegance. Your thoughts?

JJ:  “Almost every vine planted in our pioneering 1975 block is still alive and kicking today. The plants are remarkably resilient, having made it this far. All of them are fan-trained, and all of them have leaf roll – a reality of old vines – the cuttings were not certified in those days. The leaf roll puts a downward pressure on the amount of fruit that we can ripen fully – as long as you can charge enough for the fruit (and wines made with said fruit), there’s no reason to rip them out. In this case, nobody else has the oldest vines on Red Mountain, and the wines the block produces are of noteworthy quality so as to justify the high price brought on by diminished yields.”

PG:  For much more background and a walk through Washington wine history click on the Kiona link.


Kiona 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon – In the enviable position of having five estate vineyards on Red Mountain, Kiona’s regular Cabernet is a pure expression of the AVA, using grapes from all five sites and blending in small amounts of Cab Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot for extra complexity. Aromatic, balanced and seductive, this exceptional wine saw almost half new oak, yet it seems restrained at the moment. Mixed purple fruits, a savory seam and polished, ripe tannins are featured, and the wine does reward aggressive aeration with a broadened palate. 4489 cases; 14.9%; $36 (Red Mountain) 93/100

Kiona NV Fortuna III Red – The winery calls this a Red Mountain interpretation of a South American style. It’s a blend of roughly equal percentages of Carmenère, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon with nicely ripened black fruits, all estate grown and sourced from multiple vintages, This is a toasty, textured, dark-fruited wine with dense, ripe, polished, grainy tannins. Showing great depth and length, its Argentine echoes make it powerful, packed and steak-ready. 14.7%; $45 (Red Mountain) 94/100

Kiona 2021 Red Mountain Reserve – A blend of two thirds Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot and 8% Cab Franc, this principally pulls grapes from the estate’s ‘Ranch at the End of the Road’ and ‘Heart of the Hill’ vineyards. It’s supple and balanced, with the sort of dusty tannins often noted in the wines of Napa’s Rutherford Bench. The word classic comes to mind – not just for the Bordeaux blend but also for the Red Mountain style – firm, polished, powerful, dense and packed with black fruits and notes of black olive, coffee grounds, cocoa powder and cut tobacco. This was a hot vintage, yet the winemaking team at Kiona has kept this in a tight corridor of optimal ripeness, and following aging 22 months in three fifths new French oak there are no jagged edges. Should evolve beautifully over the next 20+ years. 304 cases; 14.5%; $65 (Red Mountain) 95/100

(The actual label does not have the wine stain but don’t you think it looks great there!)

Kiona 2021 Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon – Astonishing 100% Cab from the original vines planted on Red Mountain in 1975. The word pioneering doesn’t begin to capture the difficult work that John Williams and Jim Holmes did when first planting this site. There were no roads, no water, no wells, no infrastructure of any kind. And yet a half century later we have the privilege of drinking this wine. Dense, detailed, dusty and dark, this captures the essence of Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon which in many respects has become the iconic style of wine for the entire state. A wine to sit with and ponder, it’s built with layers of black fruits, black coffee, tobacco, toast and baker’s chocolate. I’d imagine someone will sit down with this bottle in another half century and look back a hundred years on this iconic vineyard. 229 cases; 15%; $85 (Red Mountain) 96/100

Purchase these wines and more here.

Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt has been covering the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1980s. From 2002 to 2012 he wrote a weekly wine column for the Seattle Times and authored two critically-acclaimed editions of ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’ (UC Berkeley Press). He served as the Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine from 1998 until 2022. Early on he was an original staff member of both the Seattle Weekly and KZAM-FM. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie in Waitsburg (pop. 1204), a farm community about 20 miles NE of Walla Walla. When not tasting and writing about wine he writes songs, plays guitar and sings in his band the DavePaul5 ( Follow his writing at PaulG on Wine,, and in the Waitsburg Times.



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