Kiona: From a Ten Acre Vineyard to a Thriving Operation in Red Mountain
Since its establishment in 1975, Kiona Vineyards has come a long way. What started as a ten acre vineyard in the desert, pioneered by John and Ann Williams and their friends Jim and Pat Holmes, has now grown into a thriving operation that contributes significantly to the development of the Red Mountain AVA.
In the first 25 years, Kiona saw itself as an estate vineyard within the Yakima Valley, steadily expanding its acreage under vine. In the last two decades, Kiona has pivoted from being primarily an estate winery to a vineyard operation that supplies fruit to more than 60 wineries, establishing major partnerships within Red Mountain at large. The move has made it an integral part of the supply chain– as the region continues to succeed so does Kiona.
Within Red Mountain, Kiona benefits from the exceptional terroir found in this region. The vineyards thrive in the sandy loess soils, which are nourished by the high winds, southwest slope, and low precipitation that characterize the area. The slope provides excellent drainage while the high elevation offers cooler temperatures that help the grapes retain their natural acidity. The abundant sunshine also allows grapes to ripen fully and develop intense flavors and aromas.
The third-generation stewards of the business, brothers JJ and Tyler Williams, are firmly rooted in the winery’s legacy, but they have also brought a fresh perspective to the table. Tyler, the winemaker, has a wealth of experience making wine all over the world and has introduced a new viticultural approach that emphasizes picking a touch earlier and being more gentle with the extraction and elevage. Kiona has also become one of the “beta growers” for the new Sustainable WA standard. All 272 plus planted acres now fall under the program, emphasizing the winery’s commitment to responsible farming practices.
Kiona is making a name for itself by producing a unique and memorable wine, Lemberger. While the grape may not be well-known to the average wine drinker, it has a special significance to the region and to Kiona’s history. Dr. Walter Clore, known as the “Father of Washington Wine” for his pioneering work in the industry, conducted field trials in the 1960s to determine the commercial viability of Vitis Vinifera in Washington. Lemberger proved to be the standout grape, as it was easy to grow, cold-hardy, and produced appealing wine that didn’t require excessive oak. Dr. Clore even dubbed it “Washington’s Zinfandel” and believed it could become the region’s definitive grape.
Lemberger is particularly distinctive because it is grown in a region that is much hotter than the grape’s growing conditions. The winery’s version has gained a cult following among those in the know and helps Kiona stand out in a crowded market. The Williams have even considered planting more Lemberger in the future due to its popularity.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the backbone of their business, representing almost 60% of their acreage. What sets their estate Cabernet Sauvignon apart is the unique character of Red Mountain. It’s planted across all five of their estate vineyards– it is fascinating to see how the grape changes in such a small geographical distance. With the ability to match grape customers with Cabernet Sauvignon blocks based on preference or style. Some blocks have a redder fruit profile with less tannin, while others are burlier and bigger with a bluer fruit profile.
They also make a Chenin Blanc, which is rare in Washington. Kiona was one of the first wineries to produce the variety commercially in the state. Chenin Blanc performs exceptionally well in Washington state, producing ripe and luxurious wines. However due to the demand for Cabernet Sauvignon, wines like Chenin Blanc are not as profitable to grow, but offer a unique and valuable addition to their portfolio. The winery’s labor intensive winemaking practices further elevate Chenin Blanc’s complexity.
The challenges and rewards of producing small-batch wines are a matter of perspective. While Kiona’s yearly production of 25-30k cases may be considered big for some wineries, it is still significantly smaller than what you would find on the average grocery store shelf. JJ notes, “If you’re comparing our variable costs to big wineries that we compete against out in the national three-tier system our purchasing power certainly means we’re paying more for bottles, corks, labels, capsules, freight, etc. So that’s a bummer.” In terms of rewards, their business works because the land and operation is already paid for– they could not afford to start the winery and vineyard in today’s market.
At Kiona, with their nationally distributed wines, the winery has a specific endpoint in mind when it comes to food pairings. They envision their wines as high-end glass pours in local corner bistros that have independently operated, seasonal menus and outdoor seating. They are not the $9 house pour, nor the $35 glass pour, but rather they are the $17 glass pour that compliments the fare of a nice, sit-down, two-hour lunch kind of spot. Keeping this in mind when making product planning and blending decisions, guides their portfolio in consistent and compelling ways.
Red Mountain is a unique and special place in the Pacific Northwest wine scene. While the region may not have the flashiness of a tourist hot spot, its agrarian roots and focus on maximizing the impacts of its vineyards make it a major wine attraction. “There’s an irony in that I used to get ribbed at school for living in the sticks–now those same ‘sticks’ are often referred to as a world class wine destination,” said JJ.
The wines featured in the Wine Recommendations section were provided by the winery for the purpose of review. The selection and tasting of these wines were independently conducted. No compensation or incentives were provided for inclusion in the story. As always, the top priority is to provide readers with informative reporting.
2018 Red Mountain Reserve- composed of a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 4% Petit Sirah, 3.5% Cabernet Franc, and 3.5% Malbec, this wine is a symphony of flavors that perfectly complement one another. Upon the first sip, your palate is greeted by a full-bodied richness that delivers a warming sensation with a finish that lingers on the tongue. It’s the perfect pairing for a hearty meal, with flavors that dance across your taste buds, including ripe cherry, blackberry, and a touch of dark chocolate as well as subtle nuances of tobacco.
2018 Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon- wrought from the Red Mountain’s unique terroir, yields a symphony of flavors that seduces the senses. With a fine-grain tannin structure, unleashing a chorus of pure red and dark fruit that lingers on the palate.
2021 Red Mountain Lemberger- delicate cherry, succulent blackberry, and juicy plum dance together in a seamless fusion, while whispers of herb and sage add depth and complexity to the ensemble. With a subtle earthy character that balances perfectly with its vibrant acidity, resulting in a refreshingly lively finish.
2019 Red Mountain Merlot- the wine showcases a captivating blend of juicy red cherries and delectable plums that delicately envelop the senses. The smooth texture of the wine impeccably balances with the fruity notes, while a subtle undercurrent of spice adds a layer of complexity to the palate. While the wine exudes a dominant and powerful persona, it also offers an air of sophistication through its polished refinement and substantial structure.
2019 Red Mountain Malbec- luscious and velvety tannin profile, lending itself to a smooth and sophisticated drinking experience. Bursting with flavors of dark plums, blackberries, and black cherries. This is the first time the vintage is a 100% single-vineyard estate offering.
2022 Columbia Valley Chenin Blanc- crisp and refreshing wine that boasts notes of tart green apple, succulent pear, juicy honeydew melon, zesty lemon, and a hint of subtle sweetness. Its clean finish is complemented by a lively acidity that adds a delightful vibrancy to the overall drinking experience.