Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Red Mountain AVA Alliance: From a Stick to a Canopy

On August 16, during the Auction of Washington Wines event week, the Red Mountain AVA Alliance hosted media and wine industry representatives at the Delille Cellars Carriage House Tasting Room in Woodinville. Attendees were able to taste wines from over a dozen wineries who source from Red Mountain, some of which are located in Woodinville, like Delille and Brian Carter Cellars, and some of which are located on Red Mountain itself, like Cooper Wine Company, Col Solare, and Hightower Cellars

Col Solare's bell tower rises above the vineyards on Red Mountain.  
Photo Courtesy of Boxwood

The reputation of Washington’s smallest AVA precedes itself. As Red Mountain AVA Alliance President Ed Shaw of Portrait Cellars put it, “We don’t really need to promote the place because it almost promotes itself.” But even with overwhelming positive press, high grape prices, and too many 90+ point wines to keep track of, Red Mountain still has logistical challenges - and that’s where the Alliance comes in.

Heather Unwin, Executive Director of the Red Mountain AVA Alliance, explained it this way: “The Alliance is a group of stakeholders from Red Mountain, and the goal is to be able to act as one voice for many.” The stakeholders include vineyard owners, winery owners, winemakers who don’t actually make wine on Red Mountain but source grapes from there, and some residents of the area too, all of whom are directly affected by the wine-related development and the additional infrastructure necessary to support this quickly-growing wine region.

In fact, it was infrastructure that instigated the creation of the Red Mountain AVA Alliance in the first place. Some basic necessities - like roads - have, for decades, only come to fruition in areas of Washington because of interested parties forming Local Improvement Districts, or LIDs. 

“A lot of the money that is used to make things happen out there is pulled from the pockets of the winemakers and the vineyard owners and the landowners,” explained Unwin. Without enough population to require some of these projects, rural wine grape-growing areas remain exactly that - rural.  

With the recent passage of the the Kennewick Irrigation District water rights to Red Mountain - a deal that members of the Red Mountain AVA Alliance worked tirelessly on for years - 1,795 acres of land that was previously unable to be irrigated will soon be able to be planted with grapes. Red Mountain is only 4,040 acres; currently about 1,300 acres are under vine.

“So this is basically the doubling of what you can do on Red Mountain, but also remember, it’s only 4,040 that’s it,” Unwin said with seriousness. “We have really valuable land for really valuable grapes, so we do have to be mindful of being really good stewards for that land.”

But admittedly, you still do need the trucks to harvest grapes. And trucks need roads.

“If we’re going to be able to put in 1,700 new acres, things have to change a little bit simply because there’s going to be more things needed to support those additional businesses.” Unwin said that the interest of lawmakers and legislators in the Red Mountain area has really heated up recently as the importance of the wine industry in Washington's economy - and Red Mountain specifically - cannot be overstated.

“We’ll get a lot more vineyards now, and more wineries hopefully...more roads, more infrastructure, without ruining it,” said Alliance President Ed Shaw, regarding the new irrigation capabilities on Red Mountain. “We want it to be a sea of vines, that’s our vision. Not a strip mall with t-shirt shops.” 

“We’re unique because we’re so small," Shaw continued. "Everybody’s family, we help each other out. Friends and neighbors. We borrow equipment from each other,” Shaw explained. He planted his first vineyards at Portrait Cellars in 1997. “It really is a special place,” he told me of Red Mountain.

Sometimes the Red Mountain “family” borrows winery equipment, but it also pulls together as one to market the entire region. 

Hightower Cellars features a lovely patio for wine tasting and taking in the views.  
Photo Courtesy of Boxwood
“It’s been fun building a business with my husband, but when we moved to Red’s like a family. You don’t just market your own business, you market all of the wineries,” said Kelly Hightower of Hightower Cellars. Being part of the Red Mountain AVA Alliance can put some smaller wineries on a larger stage. 

“If Tim (Hightower) and I came over here to the west side of the state by ourselves we couldn’t get all these people here, but the chance to try 16 wonderful Red Mountain can draw people in,” Hightower explained.

However, the Red Mountain AVA Alliance is a collection of businesses that, despite their neighborly attitudes, are still competitors in one way or another. The Alliance is committed to helping the Red Mountain wineries succeed in their own endeavors. "We are deeply respectful of the fact that every business has its own business plan,” Unwin said. Red Mountain wineries come in many sizes, business structures, and marketing styles. The one commonality on Red Mountain, though? 

“Everyone is completely in love with their land. Everyone cares so deeply about what they’re doing to it now, and what’s going to happen to it,” said Unwin.

The land and the place are really what it’s all about. Wine critics, enthusiasts, and makers all agree that Red Mountain’s terroir and geography are what sets it apart from growing regions across the country. 

“Of all the wine regions, world class wine growing regions, to have something that’s entirely sloped into the southwest and to give us that much sun exposure, that kind of aspect to the sun. You just get the most beautiful, long growing days," said Wendi Warner, Guest Services Manager at Col Solare. "We have every potential natural benefit, it’s just a really remarkable place,” Warner noted.

Col Solare's winemaker, Marcus Notaro, has been sourcing grapes from other sites around Red Mountain in past years and will continue to do so until the estate fruit is ready. Col Solare's 2009 vintage will be their first release including some estate grown fruit; the vineyards were only planted in 2007. 

"You can’t do that in most places. It takes five plus years to have fruit that’s mature enough to actually be worthy of even putting in a wine. So that’s what I’m excited about, Col Solare’s vineyard and Red Mountain because it’s producing that quickly, such great quality,” Warner said.

The younger vineyards on Red Mountain are surprising even their vineyard managers and winemakers, but it's not as though this quality wasn't expected to happen eventually. 

"Year after year, this small region is the superstar, even in troubling vintages. Celebrated wineries have staked their reputation on grapes from Red Mountain," said Jay Soloff, Founding Co-Partner of Delille Cellars - a winery that has done just that. 

Chris Upchurch, Soloff's business partner and Executive Winemaker at Delille, sees the success of Red Mountain wines as inevitable. 

“The models are all there. I’ve traveled all over the see the progression, everywhere. And in the end, it’s the terroir of single plots. It all comes down to getting the most out of the grape. If you have the goal of doing something really pure in Red Mountain, you’re probably successful. My job, really, is 80% done before I get it (the fruit). The other 20% is getting the most out of it," Upchurch said. "Really, my job is more reactive than anything.”

He makes it sound deceptively simple, but Upchurch recognizes the cycle. "
You know, at some point you figure out whatever you’re doing is for the next guy. A lot of vineyards that I use, someone before me figured out,” he admitted. “It’s amazing how long it takes. You watch your kids grow up just watching the vineyard come up." 

Just then Upchurch interrupted himself. "Have you met my daughter?" he asked as a young woman walked up to us. 

“This is one of those," Upchurch said. "Here," he gestures with his hand at his knee, "to here," he places his hand on her shoulder, "in developing the vineyard."

"From a stick to a canopy," Unwin said. Just like Red Mountain.

Learn more about the board and participating wineries and vineyards on the Red Mountain AVA Alliance website. The Alliance will be hosting the Red Mountain Block Party on September 29, 2012. For more information check out this article in the Washington Tasting Room and follow the Red Mountain AVA Alliance on Facebook.


Fabulous piece! I have often wondered how emerging AVA's would collaborate as competitors for a united purpose. It will be further interesting to see if best practices, quality assurance and "brand" consistency begin to be discussed in a regulatory fashion i.e. European Regions.

Thanks for sharing!

Thank you for your comment! It was a very enjoyable article to research and write. Everyone on Red Mountain is so gracious and nice to talk to. Cheers!

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