Red Mountain Goes Online

Roads, electricity and irrigation extended to serve landowners including wineries and vineyards

by Peter Mitham
A new pumphouse will supply water to parts of the Red Mountain AVA previously not connected to the Kennewick Irrigation District.
Benton City, Wash.—April, as T.S. Eliot famously wrote, is “the cruelest month…stirring dull roots with spring rain.” For grapegrowers on Washington’s Red Mountain, however, the month is seeing the taps turned on an $18 million irrigation system, capping an aggressive infrastructure development initiative spearheaded by local growers.

While grapes from the Red Mountain AVA have enjoyed acclaim and something of a cult following before and after official proclamation of the viticultural area in 2001, the area’s transformation in recent years is even more notable.

Growers—representing 85% of landowners—established a local improvement district to raise funds for a variety of infrastructure projects.

The initial project was Sunset Road, which serves as the spine for development up the mountain, in 2001. It was extended to Col Solare in 2007 and is once again being extended to connect with Antinori Road. Assessments on landowners also facilitated delivered electricity to local properties.

A master plan for the area’s development initially was drafted in 2007, setting the stage the Kennewick Irrigation District’s plans to upgrade irrigation infrastructure. The upgrades will provide 1.5 acre feet annually to up to 1,785 acres (or more than four times more than is currently served by groundwater), opening the possibility for additional vineyard plantings. Growers contributed to the irrigation project, but the majority was funded by the Kennewick Irrigation District.

All told, the projects represent nearly $25 million worth of investments that have set the stage for the significant vineyard expansion taking place today.

Pioneering grower Jim Holmes credits the investments as “fundamental” to the current interest in Red Mountain, a point echoed in the practical experience of Tim and Kelly Hightower of Hightower Cellars at the top of Sunset Road.

“When Kelly and I first started coming out here, Sunset Road was not paved. It was washboarded,” Tim Hightower told Wines & Vines.

Shortly after the road was paved in 2001, the Hightowers arrived. A new power substation built soon after provided more reliable electricity to the growing viticultural area.

“That’s made a great difference. It’s certainly made development up here easier,” Hightower said of the changes. “The infrastructure has been a huge help in enabling it to happen and allowing it to happen. There has definitely been a causal relationship, particularly with the water.”

Canada’s Aquilini family was among those who recognized the opportunity, purchasing 670 acres of land from the Kennewick Irrigation District at auction in November 2013. They will begin planting that acreage this month, rounding out ongoing plantings by Duckhorn, Force Majeure and others who will see planted vineyards in the relatively small AVA (it encompasses just 4,040 acres) increase from 1,500 acres to as many as 2,500 acres over the coming year. (See “Red Mountain Wine Comes Into Focus.”) 

“It’s following in lockstep right after getting the water,” Hightower said of the Aquilini development.

At the same time, improvements in infrastructure and overall capacity have drawn new wineries and tasting rooms to the AVA, giving visitors a critical mass of representative properties to discover.

“We fell in love with just what was here, what was already in place,” said Shae Frichette, co-owner at Frichette Winery. “The improvements in infrastructure…are pure bonuses for us, coming into the community.”

While the location was key, irrigation to support vibrant vineyards and roads to make access smoother are important for Frichette, which sells most of its production—set to approach 1,000 cases this year—direct from its premises.

“There are a few people that like to go off the beaten path, but we want the entire experience to be enjoyable for folks—even getting here,” Frichette said. “So with the improvements, it’s going to be easier for folks to come and enjoy our location and enjoy our wines.”

The improvements have, in turn, allowed the Red Mountain AVA Alliance to refocus from advocating for infrastructure and other elements outlined in the area’s master plan (drafted in 2007 and finalized in 2012) to raising its profile nationally and internationally.

The master plan “was the big impetus for getting this organization together,” said Heather Unwin, who joined the alliance as executive director in 2012. The group’s members “didn’t want to let that groundwork go, because it could actually start promoting travel to Red Mountain.”

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