Red Mountain Wine Comes Into Focus

Buyers from 2013 land grab make progress with vineyard development

by Peter Mitham
Veteran vineyard manager Dick Boushey says he is pleased with the growth of new vines planted in the Red Mountain AVA. Photo by Dan Ostergard
Benton City, Wash.—One year ago, a flurry of land deals turned a spotlight on the Red Mountain AVA in southern Washington state. In the area known for producing quality grapes for red wines, the deals began to resemble a land rush, with buyers seemingly lined up to grow the grapes that would define Washington state (see “B.C. Group Wins Washington Land” and “Canvasback Takes Flight”). 

In some respects, reality has matched perceptions.

With another record harvest in the tank, vintners such as Ste. Michelle Wine EstatesCol Solare, Duckhorn’s Canvasback, and Charlie Hoppes’ Fidelitas properties are focusing on Red Mountain-designated wines. While the appellation is the state’s smallest, the vintners believe its wines can stand on their own, apart from the broader Columbia Valley AVA and other subappellations.

“We’ve identified a very specific vision of having Red Mountain be recognized as one of the great Cabernet Sauvignon appellations of the world,” said Ryan Pennington of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which this week released its first-ever Red Mountain-designated vintage of its flagship Col Solare Red Blend.

As Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ representative on the Red Mountain AVA Alliance, Pennington said the alliance as a whole is preparing to undertake greater promotion of its wines on the heels of a revised strategic plan (see “Red Mountain Development Heats Up”). 

The marketing plan includes ongoing efforts to attract visitors to Red Mountain and also to educate those who can’t make it to the AVA.

“As groups like Duckhorn make their claim and say, ‘OK, we’re going to come up here.’…It’s not just a Washington story anymore. It’s putting Red Mountain on a real national playing field,” said Heather Unwin, the alliance’s executive director.

Growing vineyard production has helped raise the profile, too, as new plantings have boosted the amount of local fruit being harvested—and the amount of juice pouring into wine bottles eligible for a Red Mountain designation.

“Folks are pushing out more,” Unwin said. Cabernet Sauvignon “is one of those things that people look at to define certain wine regions, and Red Mountain’s got it.” 

Making a name for the area
Speaking shortly after Duckhorn’s purchase of a 20-acre parcel on Red Mountain in December 2013, veteran vineyard manager Dick Boushey said Washington state had generally lacked brands with enough wines to build a national identity, but he hinted that growing production could also leave fruit looking for a home if newcomers hadn’t done their homework.

This is where Duckhorn, which released 2,500 cases of its Red Mountain-grown Canvasback Cabernet Sauvignon to the market this fall, could help.

And according to Duckhorn president and CEO Alex Ryan, the market has responded favorably.

“It’s been well received,” he told Wines & Vines. “Our accounts like it. They like the fact we’re doing it, they like the style, they like the price point.…There’s a delicacy and elegance, with complexity, which is very difficult to achieve. And that’s the theme of the wine that I believe Washington is doing well in—and especially Red Mountain.”

Duckhorn planted its Red Mountain vineyard this past spring with Boushey’s guidance, allocating 80% of planted acreage to Cabernet Sauvignon and the remainder to Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Consistent growth this year paved a good foundation for an initial harvest in 2016.

“I was happy with the way it turned out,” Ryan said. “No issues there.…We’re on schedule.”

So, too, is Canada’s Aquilini family, which has spent the past year assembling its team and getting to know a property it acquired from the Kennewick Irrigation District.

Surveying the land
Kevin Pogue of Walla Walla, Wash., dug 300 pits on the property this year, and the results were reviewed with viticulturists Ryan Johnston, Nathan Baty from Vinifera Advisors LLC in Bodega, Calif., and winemaker Philippe Melka.

“We’re really trying to do everything right,” said Barry Olivier, president of Aquilini Brands, who is charged with developing an identity for the family’s Red Mountain project. “We’ve been attempting to conclude which are the absolute best parcels for cultivating with a top-quality estate model in mind.”

Planting will begin when the Kennewick Irrigation District turns on the taps for its Red Mountain project in April 2015.

Approximately 500 acres will be planted largely to Bordeaux cultivars (primarily Cabernet Sauvignon), with smaller portions planted to Rhone varieties including Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre.

No stranger to the business of fine wine, Olivier has also worked on developing brands of olive oil, bottled water and vodka coolers for Aquilini. The family’s Red Mountain property will stand on its merits, he said, independent of the family’s holdings in the Horse Heaven Hills (where it also will undertake planting in spring 2015, with an expansion of 300 acres of vines).

“My business plan is all about Red Mountain,” Olivier said. “I really believe there’s an opportunity to be a great Red Mountain estate, and I don’t want to dilute that by taking some grapes from Horse Heaven, some from Walla Walla.”

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