Washington Wine History Interviews: Jim Holmes, Ciel du Cheval Vineyard

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 3/17/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22410

California native Jim Holmes (b. 1936) moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1959 to work as a scientist at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Eastern Washington. In 1972, he and fellow engineer John Williams bought property on Red Mountain near Benton City and began dabbling in grape farming. Before long, Holmes and Williams were making wine in a garage at Holmes's home in West Richland. In this interview conducted by HistoryLink's Jim Kershner on November 10, 2021, Holmes talks about his background, his early days on Red Mountain, and how his Ciel du Cheval became one of Washington's legendary vineyards.

"I Had Absolutely No Interest in Wine"

Jim Kershner: Tell us about your early life. Where are you from?

Jim Holmes: Well, I guess San Francisco, back and forth. I spent most of my years in Vallejo, California, just south of Napa. I went to college at Berkeley, the University of California, and specialized in material science. I went looking for a job, and there was a really great research opportunity at a place called Hanford. And they were basically in the nuclear-research business. And in those days we were a lot of young, graduate, bushy-tailed people ... We wanted to work on nuclear energy because it was going to be so cheap and so abundant, it would solve the world's energy problem. And of course it didn't quite work out that way, but we did our best.

JK: Let's back up just a little bit. When you were growing up in California and going to school, were you interested in wine at the time? 

JH: I lived in a world where wine was everywhere, not in a "everybody's drinking and getting drunk," but you know, wine at dinner. It was just there. It was basically kind of the world I lived in, it was more of a Northern Italian community. It wasn't quite the general population that you might find ...

JK: In San Francisco?

JH: In the Bay Area. And so I had absolutely no interest in wine. It was always there, it was like potatoes.

JK: And it was not on your career path at the time?

JH: Absolutely not. When I was a kid, I was a high school kid, Napa was the closest place. We traveled through Napa a lot and drove around through the vineyards. But not noticing that they were vineyards. It was just Napa. It was a place, they made wine. We had wine all the time, which was like potatoes. Like you drive through a potato field. And at 16, 17, 18, you don't look at what size the potatoes are, or what kind they are. Just potatoes. So I had absolutely no interest; not disinterest, but no reason to think wine was anything different than potatoes, until I came here.

Looking for a Decent Bottle of Wine

Holmes and his wife Patricia moved to Washington in 1959 and made their first home in Kennewick. He noticed a few wine hobbyists, most of them making dessert wines. Finding a decent bottle of wine was a challenge.

JK: So how did wine get on your radar?

JH: Got up here and bought some wine for dinner and found out there's something strange here: You can't just buy wine at the grocery store. You had to go to a liquor store. So I went to a liquor store and all I could see was a few California wines and one or two Washington wines.

JKSo were those Rieslings or what were those?

JH: In those days, they were attempts at making fine wine ... things called, we have an irrigation district up here called the Roza Irrigation District. One entrepreneur, I don't know who actually did this, had a wine that was called Vin Roza ... so we bought that and went home. It was horrible [laughs].

And immediately I thought, what the [bleep]? Excuse me, what the heck? What's this wine doing with all of us? I can't just buy a bottle of wine, a good bottle of wine to take home? I got a little more interested, and when I went back to see the old folks the next year, I thought, let's take a look around Napa. We'll see, because it's so different [than] Washington, and visited some wineries and got an interest in how many different varieties there were [but] still not having any recognition of what a quality place that was, because they didn't either. Napa in those days, the wineries were either small or hard to recognize. There were maybe nine of them there, that's all there were. We got to where we liked the one in particular; we used to love Louis Martini. We really liked that. It was really good. We'd bring it home and that was kind of our wine.

An Awakening in France and Germany

Jim and Patricia left Washington in 1964 when Holmes took a job in the aircraft industry in Southern California. They returned to the Tri-Cities two years later. Their interest in wines was still limited to California bottlings, though Holmes took note of wine-appreciation courses being offered locally. 

JH: I was interested in California wine, why are things so crappy here? But it would never, ever work out here. I was wrong; everyone was wrong. So I took some classes and met some people who were doing work at the Prosseer extension service. It started to pique my interest ... Walter Clore and his crowd had been doing a 20-year project at the time I was interested, about 1970 ... a 20-year project studying 150 different varieties to make wine out of. And they would have people come in and taste them and rate them, and they published papers. The ratings were almost always terrible. But here and there, there was one that you would say [was] a little more than adequate. So that was kind of interesting. I began to get a feeling, yeah, maybe you could do something here.

In the meantime, in my technical career I had a chance to travel the world to technical conferences and so forth. So we would go to Europe and I would get appointments at places to visit there. I toured France and Germany, and got some remarkable visits, remarkable places. There I could see vineyards and wine and people and reputations and books -- the world of wine just kind of opened up, because I could be there. The one rather extraordinary visit I had was, I wrote to Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, which was the No. 1 vineyard in Burgundy, and I said 'Would you be willing to entertain, could I come and visit?' And I signed this on my Westinghouse stationery and I signed it manager because I was a bottom-level manager. I got there and they gave me four hours with the winemaker. We tasted one of the world's great wines, La Tache, for 25 years. And I thought, why did they do that? I was happy they did it.

Well when I signed my name, manager, they thought I was the manager of Westinghouse corporate [laughs]. It was on that stationary, my local stationery, but they didn't know, either. So it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. Anyway, so by 1970 or so I was reading books, traveling, buying wines. I bought all the first growths. You could buy them then, the great wines of Rothschild, Haut Brion, whatever, you could buy those for about 10 bucks. So I had a rack of all eight first growths [laughs].

JK: Had you already bought this parcel?

JH: No, no, no.

JK: So did that come pretty soon after this?

JH: Very soon, but it wasn't because of [that]. John Williams, he was one of my research partners at Hanford, and I were sitting around one afternoon and talking about investments. We had tried to invest in the stock market and we lost terribly. Well guys who loses in the stock market, next thing they do, they go lose in real estate, so I thought let's go buy something. It turned out, his father-in-law had just purchased about 300 acres on Red Mountain and elsewhere. And he bought it for about a hundred bucks an acre. And so we asked, 'Would you sell us some of that?' And he said, 'Yeah, but you're going to have to pay me 200 bucks an acre.' We thought, that's highway robbery. But damn, we could afford it, so we bought 80 acres, which is now the Kiona vineyard. There was no thought of growing grapes at that point.

Finding Water on Red Mountain

Holmes and Williams figured their property at Red Mountain, between the Tri-Cities and the Yakima Valley, might someday be suitable for a shopping mall and provide a nice return on their investment. The site was barren, with some fences and sagebrush, and there was no irrigation. 

JK: When did you develop the property?

JH: We bought the property in 1972. The plan was not to do anything. It was going to escalate, we'd sell it, make some money. That was the plan. But just a few months after we bought it, we begin to connect the dots with what was going on at Prosser. Well, we could plant a vineyard if we had any water. We don't. Well, engineers don't think that way. They think, well, how do you get it? How do you fix it? How do you make it work? So we laid out a plan. Okay, how are we going to irrigate it? Well, we don't even have any power to pump. So we had to bring power in, literally from Benton City, had to drill a well, and that was a big world. Nobody knew where if there was water underground. 

So being engineers again, we studied the geology, what's it look like? And it looked like, hey, this world all around us, a hundred miles in any direction, maybe 150, maybe 200, was covered by these lava flows that had flowed out back 50 million years ago. Layer after layer after layer, and between each layer, there wasn't a flow, and so the soil formed, things grew and animals grew, and so maybe 20 feet of living space developed and the next flow covered it and so forth and so on. And in those layers, there was water. Nobody really knew where it came from. I had a good friend who was a Ph.D geologist from Stanford and he said, 'Well, it comes from these things, these mountains are tilted upward, and so these layers are now that were here like this and it rains and the water eventually collects. It's all fossilized water. You pump it out, it will be gone.'

And we said, 'Yeah, but that doesn't make a whole lot of sense,' but we didn't know any better. We thought probably it came from the Cascades, because these things were turned up there, too. So why not come that way? And so we drill the well through about 300 feet of soft stuff. Then we hit the first basalt layer, drilled down into that, and the well kept getting deeper and deeper and our wallets kept getting lighter and lighter. It got down about 550 feet and I said, 'We just don't have any more money to go. Let's go 25 more feet.' So we did. And we hit water.

In the Land of Billionaires

Initially, their new well provided enough water to irrigate 15 acres. They brought in underground power lines and planted grapes, including Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon, on 10 acres. They didn't really have a plan for what they would do with the grapes. Eventually, they contracted with the nearby Preston Winery, where winemaker Rob Griffin was beginning to make a name for himself. The first load of grapes went to Preston in 1978 and the resulting Cabernet was a revelation. Soon some friends bought the adjoining 80 acres on Red Mountain, which later became Ciel du Cheval vineyard. Holmes and Williams started making wines under the Kiona label in 1980. Williams moved onto the Kiona land in 1983 and Holmes made wine in his garage. Kiona bought Ciel du Cheval in 1991, and in 2001, Red Mountain was designated an American Viticultural Area. 

JK: How did you feel about that? When [the AVA] happened, was that a pretty big moment?

JH: It wasn't a moment; it was one foot ahead of the other. So everything was natural. We were here, you did something; a year later, you did something else. Somebody else came in, there wasn't many, they did something. There were the neighbors, and more neighbors came. There was never a moment where there weren't neighbors ... it was always just growth. And so when we put in the wells, we knew, we thought, it would go boom. We didn't realize how much boom would come from our friends in Canada, who tried to buy up every spare piece of land they could.

JK: Is that right?

JH: That was the Aquilinis. They owned literally everything that [the Kennewick Irrigation District] had for sale back at that time, 500 acres. They're jumping into the wine business. They own the Vancouver Canucks. They're a big hotel, restaurant world. They farm. They're about a $40 billion company, and that's our neighbors. So here we're sitting, you know, and then Microsoft millionaires, they came, the guy up there on top of the hill is a Microsoft millionaire. And so here we sit on the bottom of the hill ... billionaires here, billionaires there. It hasn't washed into us yet [laughs].

JK: So tell me how Kiona evolved. When did you split off?

JH: Well, John and I were partners for about 20 years. So when was it, '94? We kind of looked at each other and said, 'You know, we're getting kind of old, if one of us dies, the other guy's family has to run it. Maybe you won't like working with my wife or maybe I won't like working with your wife.' And so we said, 'Well, let's just separate our businesses.' We were still great friends. It wasn't one of these separations where you hate each other. We're still great friends. We vacation together. We ski together, we did everything together, still, but we separated our businesses. And so basically the spread kind of worked out where we would take either side of the deal, either one of us. And so John kind of wanted to stay over there with a winery, and stay the way we were, and I wanted to do something new. I wanted new varieties, new horizons, I want something new to happen. So I took this vineyard [Ciel du Cheval], it's only partially planted. So I got to bring in new varieties and new things and do that.

"I'm Still a Scientist"

Holmes retired from his engineering job in 1994 to focus on growing grapes at Ciel du Cheval, which encompasses 120 acres. His grapes are coveted by many of Washington's leading winemakers, and Holmes sells to about 25 of them. His son Richard runs the business side and another son, Cade, runs vineyard operations. In 2007, Jim Holmes and his wife Pat were inducted into the Washington Wine Hall of Fame. 

JK: So are you semi-retired now?

JH: I guess I'm kind of doing what I want to do. Retirement? In my basic world, I'm still a scientist, so I've been working on data that we've collected here just by accident. Again, because I was an engineer, this place is highly automated. We have automatic watering systems, the soil moisture has been recorded in a database for tens of years -- we have an immense amount of data, and we can work with that, and then see, what we can derive from that?

What I've been doing is developing relationships between soil, buying, and performance. Working with WSU, where our interests overlap. It sounds like maybe a boring thing to most people, but for me, it's terribly intriguing to take this big pile of data and start to do, what you want to call it, artificial intelligence is what it is, applying that to do this data and saying, what can we squish out that really means something ... I think I've discovered some great stuff. Not discovered, but just by applying these things to what was already there, to squeeze out that knowledge that wasn't immediately available.

Further reading: HistoryLink's biography of Jim Holmes by Peter Blecha.

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