Part Two of our series about Washington's viticultural areas. Photo: Red Mountain sunset from Kiona Vineyards
There's no official ranking of vineyard quality in North America, but if there were, Red Mountain would surely be Washington's Grand Cru. That said, it's neither "red" nor a "mountain" at all. Rather, as Paul Gregutt describes it in his encyclopedic Washington Wines and Wineries, it "rises like a brownish lump of unbaked bread" at the eastern end of the Yakima Valley.
What it has, like all great vineyard sites, is that elusive combination of location, topography, soil and exposure known as terroir. Beneath a layer of wind-blown topsoil lie strata of granite, rock, clay and minerals, sculpted by glacial floods and whipped by strong winds. Vines planted here struggle to produce; the grapes ripen at a smaller size, half what a berry would weigh in Napa, with intense mineral flavors. Cabernet sauvignon from Kiona, one of Red Mountain's oldest vineyards, have won multiple Wine of the Year awards for Quilceda Creek, and Quilceda has responded by planting 17 acres of its own vines on Red Mountain's slopes.
The undisputed "king of the mountain" is the Hedges Family Estate; Tom and Anne-Marie Hedges have even built a modern chateau on their property. Nearby is acreage that Pietro Antinori, the Italian wine superstar, has bought in partnership with Chateau Ste. Michelle known as Col Solare. The AVA's pioneers, Kiona and Klipsun Vineyards, are in evidence, as are Grand Reve, Artz and Grand Ciel., along with half a dozen smaller wineries and grape-growing operations.
The biggest of the newcomers is a 400-acre development managed by Doug Long (of Obelisco Vineyards) and a group of investors. The reason for the increased interest: water rights. The Department of Natural Resources, which controls these state lands, sank several deep-water wells over the last five years, and is making the water available to grape growers on Red Mountain in addition to the orchardists and farmers further up the valley.
On the horizon, an Italian-style village, the Piazza, on the 400 acres managed by Obelisco's partners, that will include space for restaurants, shops and lodging. Designed by Joe Chauncey of Boxwood Architects, the state's foremost wine-country designer, the project is on hold until the economy recovers. Though it hasn't met with universal support, it would be a long-overdue destination resort for the east end of the valley so city folk can make their way to the vineyards of Red Mountain and visit some of Washington's best cabernet sauvingon and merlot vineyards "on the hoof," as long as they don't disturb its fragile agricultural community.
Note: My series on Washington AVAs appears regularly in Edible Seattle.