Kiona Vineyards is a trailblazer in Washington wine, having planted what I believe to be the first grapes in what has become the Red Mountain AVA. It started with 12 acres and according to anyone that you ask, many times that number of people telling founder John Williams that he had completely lost his mind. Why would he think that planting grapes on 12 acres of sagebrush was a good idea? Well, Kiona is now on their 3rd generation and have about 250 acres under vine…..so it’s gone better than anyone, perhaps outside of John and his Ann, thought possible.
A short word on the name since, having grown up in Southern California, that sounds like a Hawaiian island to me-Kiona is the original Yakama Nation Native American name for the Red Mountain area that is literally translated to “Brown Hills”. The Red Mountain AVA designation is actually more important here than another AVA might be elsewhere, there’s only about 1400 acres under vine in the AVA. We can talk all we want about soil compositions (those are certainly important to be sure) as well as elevation and steepness of hillsides, but one thing that I think separates the Red Mountain AVA from others is that the average rainfall is only 7 inches. As happens here locally in the Bay Area near Half Moon Bay, the mountains in essence trap the clouds which would otherwise deliver rain. Seattle gets a lot of it and those folks on the other side of the mountains, don’t get much. They get even less during summer and fall, giving winemakers the ability to allow grapes to sit on the vine for as long as possible, without any real concern about rain coming along and ruining a large portion of the crop at the last minute.
So Kiona has been there quite a while, but the future is still coming for Washington wine, so they aren’t the household name that they would be, if say, those 12 acres were purchased in Napa. Of course, the wine is no worse, but the region will get there.
Kiona boasts a nice family story that almost everyone in the wine business aspires to: three generations working together, hopefully without killing each other, while living what many would call a dream life.
We wanted to feature a Chenin Blanc here for a few different reasons. First, the grape is native to the Loire Valley of France, one of the coldest growing climates in all of France. Washington isn’t cold though and the state’s success with this continues to show that there’s something a bit different about growing conditions in Washington that simply isn’t getting articulated by simple soil composition studies, or rainfall totals.
California vintners have always planted the grape, in large amounts, in the most generic vineyards around the state. A single vineyard Chenin Blanc like this? It doesn’t exist.
It’s often referred to as a workhouse variety, which really means that in the hot climate of the inland valley’s that cut down the state like a scar, the grape grows well, given enough water to produce those $5 wines that we all started drinking. The French, of course, are slightly aghast at the treatment of what they consider something of a noble variety.
A lot of the Washington folks that I’ve talked with have said that they think Chenin Blanc might end up being the white wine grape that the state is known for. Part of that is a certain mindset that comes from having to compete with so many regions in regard to Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet based blends on the red wine side, wouldn’t it be nice to have something a bit less complicated on the white wine side….at least from a marketing perspective?
Many wine regions have struggled with the transition from unknown and underappreciated to established and few have found a single red and a single white wine grape that they can be known for, without question. After all, travel to the Rhone Valley of France and tell me, what the white wine grape of choice? They’re 300+ years in and haven’t figured it out yet.
Washington though is onto something here and prices could easily jump for these low production versions of Chenin Blanc, if they can figure out the marketing. All the classic appeal is here, there’s plenty of acidity, but there is also a ton of fruit aroma that isn’t necessarily apparent in other white wine grapes around the state.