Doesn't look like all that much, does it? But if you're a grape, this is where you want to grow. If you're a wine grower, this is where you want to plant. If you're a wine maker, these are the grapes you want.
Like all great vineyard sites, Red Mountain, at the eastern end of the Yakima Valley, has 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. The land is neither "red" nor a "mountain," but vines planted on this modest hillside struggle to produce; the grapes ripen at a smaller size, half what a berry would weigh in Napa, with intense mineral flavors. Covering only 4,000 acres, it's the smallest AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the state, but it's Washington's most famous site.
What makes Red Mountain so inhospitable despite these natural advantages is a lack of water. Its currently planted vineyards are all irrigated; the state's Department of Natural Resources provides water from deep wells to grape growers like Kiona Vineyards; many of the grapes end up in Quilceda Creek's cabernet sauvignon, the first Washington wine awarded a perfect score of 100 points by wine guru Robert Parker.
So you can imagine the suspense when the Kennewick Irrigation District decided to sell 670 acres of land it has owned for 70 years--over 500 of those acres inside the Red Mountain AVA boundaries--at a public auction, a total of 31 parcels of land that had never been farmed.
Individuals who attended Saturday's event with cashier's checks in their pockets included owners of existing wineries in Washington as well as out-of-state vineyards. But when the dust settled, it was an Canadian investor, Aquilini Investment Group, that bought every last parcel.
Based in Vancouver, BC, Aquilini paid $8.3 million, $12,400 an acre. It will cost roughly $20,000 an acre to plant vineyards, which won't be productive until their third year.
The closest competitor was Alex Ryan, chief executive of Duckhorn Vineayrds in St. Helena, Calif., who isn't exactly going home empty-handed. He reportedly picked up a substantial parcel that's outside the AVA boundaries where Duckhorn will grow grapes for a new line of Washington cabernet sauvignon. The Kennewick Irrigation District is planning to expand water delivery in the coming years at a cost of roughly $11,000 an acre.
Aquilini was founded by Luigi Aquilini half a century ago and is currently directed by Francesco Aquilini. (He's also the owner of the Vancouver Canucks.) A company spokesman claimed that it had not intended to participate in the auction until last week, but it's no stranger to Washington agriculture.
It owns Aquilini Dairy, an 1,100-acre, 670-head dairy farm in Sunnyside, a supplier to the Darigold cooperative. It also is developing about 1,000 acres of blueberries and 1,500 acres of cranberries in the state.
The big question, of course, is whether Aquilini bought the land as an investment, or whether it intends to get into the wine business. They may know about cows, they may know about berries, but they're novices at grapes. The losing bidders showered the Aquilini representative with business cards, hoping that he might sell off the odd parcel or two. Scott Williams, the general manager of Kiona, whose parents planted the first grapes on what is today the Ciel du Cheval vineyard, saw his final bid bested by the Canadians. He told Great Northwest Wine's Andy Perdue that a piece-meal resale is probably the Aquilini plan. We shall see. Watch this space.