I used to say that I found Washington State wines overripe, over-extracted, and lacking structure. I used to avoid Washington State wines like they were White Zinfandels. I used to be a fool.
My first real exposure to everything I didn’t know about Washington State wines started in the Red Mountain AVA. I traveled to this magical place as a pre-event excursion prior to the Wine Blogger Conference held this past September. The Red Mountain AVA is located in Benton City Washington near the Washington and Oregon border. Benton City is a three hour drive from Seattle and if you keep driving east another hour will bring you to Walla Walla Washington.
To set the stage, the Red Mountain AVA is described as being the smallest, warmest wine-grape growing region in Washington. It has a unique combination of diverse geology, gentle south slope, consistent winds and notable heat profile. If you are fortunate enough to visit this AVA you will hear two phrases over and over again from grape growers and wine makers alike, the Five Pillars of Red Mountain, and the Missoula floods.
The Five Pillars of Red Mountain are the following: a Southwest facing slope, a warm growing season, low rainfall, AVA specific spoils (Warden, Hezel and Scootney), and consistent winds that create a warm airflow, keeping the clusters small and bugs and mold to a minimum.
The Missoula floods refers to the repeated ice-age flooding of Glacial Lake Missoula over 10,000 years ago. These floods deposited nutrient rich top soils with high alkalinity and calcium carbonate over sand, silt, and gravel. Perfect for growing grapes.
Our hour long drive from Walla Walla to our hotel, The Lodge at Columbia Point, flew by as we watched the high desert and wheat fields give way to apple orchards and vineyards. Once we arrived, we checked in and had a nice Champagne reception and gift bag thanks to the Red Mountain AVA Alliance.
With the lingering taste of champagne in our mouths we piled back on the bus to ride to Kiona Vineyards and Winery. Vineyard and Winery because while they do make their own wine, they also sell grapes to more than 60 other wineries. In 1975, John Williams planted the first vineyard on what was to become the Red Mountain AVA. John’s grandson JJ Williams was our host and provided a history of the area that could only be told by someone who grew up in the shadows of the vines growing on this mountain.
JJ shared the above mentioned 5 Pillars of the Red Mountain and spoke of the Missoula floods and their impact on the region. He then turned our attention to the vineyard. He pointed out the original block of vines his Grandfather planted and explained how additional water rights over the years has allowed additional vineyards to be planted and how water was one of the limiting factors to vineyard growth on Red Mountain. The Red Mountain AVA receives around seven inches of rainfall a year and relies on irrigation to make up the rest of the required water the vines need.
What followed was one of the most interesting blind tastings I had been a part of. We sat down in front of eight glasses of red wine, two rows of four. The pairing was front to back. None of this is what I found interesting. What I found interesting was four of the wines were Red Mountain AVA wines, and four were wines from the major wine regions of the world rated 93 points or better by Parker, Wine Spectator, or the like. JJ’s instructions were simple. “Taste the wine, and the wine behind it, and tell me Red Mountain wine doesn’t belong in the conversation of World class wines. I’m not saying that Red Mountain AVA wines are the very best wines in the world, but that they should be included in the conversation.”
I did the first, I did the second, but I couldn’t do the third because Red Mountain wines DO deserve to be in the conversation of the very best wines Worldwide. Well played JJ Williams, well played indeed. Not every Red Mountain wine was my favorite in each pairing, but the difference between the wines in every case was slim to none.
Below is the list of the Red Mountain AVA wines we tried. I’m not going to list the wines they were matched up against because that doesn’t matter. If you are super interested email me and I can share the list.
Hedges Family Estate 2015 100% Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. $40
Col Solare Winery 2015 100% Cabernet Sauvignon $75
Fidelitas 2015 Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon $75
Hightower Cellars 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon $40
If you have been as foolish as I have been about Washington wines then you really need to get some of this exciting wine from the Red Mountain.