The Gold Rush on Red Mountain

BENTON CITY – In a tour of Washington wine country, the world’s buyers knew the Red Mountain region for its premium red wines. They stood atop the state’s smallest winemaking district and drank in the view: acres of vineyards, dotted with homes, wineries – and mounds of brown dirt.

Already home to about a dozen wineries, several more are under construction, including a high-profile partnership between the Northwest’s largest wine company and a leading Italian wine family. As many as 40 wineries could be producing wine here in the next decade.

The boom, while welcome, raises concerns about how much development the 4,040-acre Red Mountain appellation can support, prompting industry leaders to begin drafting a plan to limit growth while still allowing potential for restaurants, motels and recreational opportunities.

Red Mountain may be brown now, but it could soon be dollar-bill green for those who buy into the vision for the rural, sagebrush-covered hill.

“We think if we’re successful, and we have every reason to believe so, that we could see anywhere up to 1 million visitors a year on the hill,” said Jim Holmes, a longtime grape grower who harvests 120 acres annually from his Ciel du Cheval Vineyard.

Situated in the lower Yakima Valley, Red Mountain has become known for its red wines: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet frank, syrah, sangiovese, lemberger and malbec. The federal government recognized it as the state’s fifth wine appellation, or grape-growing region, in 2001.

Whether it can become a thriving tourism draw remains to be seen.

Washington state’s wine industry has exploded in the past two decades, from fewer than 20 wineries in 1981 to more than 360 today. The state is home to more than 30,000 acres of wine grapes, and the industry is worth close to $3 billion to the state’s economy.

On Red Mountain, just 710 acres are planted, but the state has offered several parcels of land for lease to growers and vintners, spurring new development.

Others are pursuing opportunities on the hill on their own.

In 1993, Keith and ReNae Pilgrim began developing their vineyard and winery, Terra Blanca, which now produces nearly 30,000 cases annually. The couple recently completed construction of a new 50,000-square-foot facility that includes a tasting room, banquet and conference rooms, kitchens and barrel storage. Still in the works is an amphitheater for summer concerts.

The number of visitors has increased 150 percent since the new building opened in February, said Pilgrim, who grew up near California’s Napa Valley.

County planning officials already limited subdivision development on the hill in the mid-1990s, reducing the number of homes that could be built on prime wine land.

“If Napa had not had a strong vision, Napa would be a housing bedroom community for San Francisco and there would be no vineyards,” Pilgrim said. “I’m a strong believer in channeling growth in special areas, and not just letting it happen.”

A conceptual plan for Red Mountain, completed for Benton County in March, outlines areas for potential development that might accentuate a wine enthusiast’s visit. Ideas include a wine village with restaurants, limited lodging, an interpretive center and wine shop. Hiking and biking trails have also been mentioned.

The next step is to create a master development plan, including a more detailed economic and feasibility study. The state appropriated $200,000 toward the plan, which should be finished later this year.

Of the roughly 4,000 acres, only about half are plantable, said Adam Fyall, community development coordinator for Benton County. At the same time, Red Mountain is working land, so any plan must accommodate farmers as well as wine visitors.

“As a broad brush theme, we would like to see an agrarian landscape there. It just might be an agrarian landscape that has a few more Cadillacs,” Fyall said.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the largest wine company in the Northwest, is teaming with Europe’s famed Antinori family to open a new $6 million winery on Red Mountain. The partners created Col Solare, a popular red wine blend, in 1995.

The Antinori family has been making wine in Italy for 26 generations.

“We’re looking forward to the day when we do get restaurants and little inns and spas there,” said Ted Baseler, Ste. Michelle president and chief executive officer. “Historically, in wine country, it starts with the vineyard, then the wineries, then the amenities.”

The plan really represents a vehicle to link winemakers with tourism developers, said Scott Williams, winemaker for Kiona Vineyards and Winery.

Williams’ father, John, founded the winery in 1980 with Holmes after planting the region’s first vineyards. Now, Kiona is building a new 20,000-square-foot barrel cellar and tasting room.

“There’s lots of small wineries. That’s where the tourism and visitation is important. Those wineries aren’t big enough really to get on a store shelf,” Williams said.

There’s no question wine connoisseurs have bought into the quality of the wine. Red Mountain has been winning top national awards in wine tastings for years. And more than 60 wine buyers and distributors visited Washington wine country, including Red Mountain, last month as part of a tour organized by the Washington Wine Commission.

According to the conceptual plan, an estimated 175,000 wine enthusiasts will visit Red Mountain annually by the year 2025 – a nearly nine-fold increase over the current level.

Holmes believes the tourism potential is even greater. He eventually split from Kiona to pursue grape growing on his own and remains one of only two growers on the hill who haven’t built wineries.

“Red Mountain has become a discovered place,” Holmes said. “A place where people enjoy being, where they can taste these world-class wines – it couldn’t get better than that,” Holmes said.

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