John Williams (b. 1937) and Scott Williams (b. 1958) are the father-son team behind Kiona Vineyards, the pioneer winery on Red Mountain, near Benton City. John was a Hanford engineer in 1972 when he and his business partner Jim Holmes bought the original 80-acre plot. It was nothing but sagebrush and snakes, but they dug a well and planted the first vines on Red Mountain in 1975, with help from Scott, his siblings, the Holmes kids, and any high school friends they could recruit. It turned out to be an ideal spot to grow first-quality red wine grapes, sought after by many prestigious wineries. By 1980 they were growing grapes for their own winery, Kiona Vineyards. Their whites and reds gained acclaim, and soon Red Mountain in general and Kiona in particular became known for outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyards tripled in size, and in 2007, the Williamses opened a spectacular new tasting room and production facility. As of 2022, three generations of the Williams family continue to grow and make fine wines.
From Warsaw to Washington
John Williams was born in Warsaw, Missouri, on November 28, 1937. His father was a gunsmith at Remington Arms. When John was about 5 years old, the Atomic Energy Commission recruited his father for a job at the Hanford Engineer Works, later to be known as the Hanford Nuclear Site and Hanford Nuclear Reservation. "We moved into a site on Thayer Drive [in Richland] and there wasn't a blade of grass in this town," said Williams. "It was dirt, solid dirt" (Kershner interview).
But he grew up to love the area. He and his father spent weekends hunting ducks on the Yakima River. He graduated from Richland High School in 1956, married his wife Ann Williams in 1957, and enrolled at Washington State University, studying material sciences, metallurgy and metallurgical engineering. When he graduated, he had offers for jobs back east, but the couple had grown attached to Central Washington. "So I came back to Richland and got a job at Hanford in the material sciences department there," he said (Kershner Interview).
Wine was certainly not on his radar in the 1960s. "There wasn't even any wine in Washington to speak of … I was just a beer-drinking WSU kid," he said (Interview). Yet he soon made friends with Jim Holmes, a research manager at Westinghouse, one of Williams' office mates on the Hanford site. This was a friendship that would shape both of their lives.
Holmes had grown up in Vallejo, California, and while in college had discovered fine wines from pioneering California wineries such as Louis Martini. Holmes opened a few of his bottles and tried them out on his friend. "I tasted some of those and I really thought that was pretty good stuff," said Williams (Kershner interview). The Holmes and Williams families hit it off and started taking trips to California together. "We went down there and went to some wineries – and I started liking wine pretty well," said Williams (Kershner interview).
Investment on Red Mountain
At first, these two friends decided to go in together on stock-market investments. It took them six months to lose most of their investment, by Holmes' estimation. So they started thinking about partnering in some real estate properties. In 1972 they purchased an 80-acre plot from Ann's father, near the tiny village of Kiona, which rhymes with "I own a," outside of Benton City, at the base of Red Mountain. No one knows exactly why it was named Red Mountain – it's really a modest hill, more brown than red. Williams called it "a bunch of sagebrush and jackrabbits. There wasn't even a road, just a Jeep trail. You could stand on top of Red Mountain, looking over at the Horse Heavens [hills area] and there wasn't a green spot to be seen" (Blecha).
At first, Holmes did not have grapes in mind. He had the notion that the acreage might someday be a good location for a shopping mall. However, this idea was far-fetched for many reasons. The plot had poor road access, no electricity, and no water. Williams thought this plot might have a more practical use: a vineyard. This appeared almost equally far-fetched, since the words "Washington" and "wine" still didn't go together. Yet Williams had heard that some farmers had started growing wine grapes with some success farther up the Yakima Valley. Williams himself owned another plot along the Yakima River and had already "dinked around" with some grapevines amongst the alfalfa (Kershner interview).
Williams had confidence that a vineyard would thrive, because the Yakima Valley was ideal for many other fruits. "I knew the sand and the soils that are up here ... they're sandy loam," said Williams. "In the Yakima Valley, you can grow all kinds of fruit here – it doesn't matter what you do. The soils in this valley are very conducive to fruit and grapes. And, in fact, there were a lot of Concord grapes in the Yakima Valley" (Kershner interview).
Concord grapes made excellent juice, jam, and jelly, but not fine wines. But Williams figured that if the soil was good for Concords, it might work for other grapes as well. He knew that Washington State University professor Walter J. Clore had published groundbreaking documents suggesting that wine grapes could be grown successfully in the region. Yet this was still mostly theoretical – there was no Washington wine industry to speak of in the early 1970s. "Fact is, when I mentioned to somebody at work that I was going to plant some grapevines, they said, 'What? You going to put in Concords?' And I said, oh, no, no, no … [we're putting in] wine grapes. They said, 'Wine grapes?'" (Kershner interview).
Digging Deep for Water
The first challenge was water. The land was bone-dry and covered with sagebrush and jackrabbits. No irrigation water would be available on Red Mountain until many decades later. So Williams and Holmes, with their engineering expertise, researched the situation and concluded that there was water on their plot, but it was about 550 feet down. In 1974, they hired a well-driller who was skeptical about the whole idea, He remained that way through most of the drilling. "The guy says, 'Well, I am at 540 and I haven't hit water.' And I said, "You better drill another 10 foot or something. You go ahead and drill farther. It's there someplace.' And anyway, he drilled down. Next morning, we came out and he had hit water. He says, 'You boys did know where that water was'" (Kershner interview).
This well water made their entire vineyard idea feasible. But they still had to build a road into the plot, which was not easy. "The road was so bad at the start," said John's son, Scott Williams (b. 1958), who was in high school at the time, "It was really just a path through the desert. There were these soft dunes made of ultra-fine dust that you'd have to build up speed to bust through, or else you'd get stuck. So we'd gun it and each time we'd hit another dust dune, it would send up a giant plume. It got everywhere; it came in through the vents in the car. It was like throwing flour in someone's face, except dirt" (Kiona Vineyards website). They also had to bring in electricity, all the way from Benton City. It cost them $30,000, which seemed like a fortune.
By 1975, everything was ready. They set to work planting 10 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Riesling. The two white varieties were not a stretch – the accepted wisdom at the time was that Washington's climate was suited to white wines. The Cabernet was a leap into the void. But Williams and Holmes had a hunch, backed by Clore's research, that fine red varietals just might work.
Planting is hot, dry work, and Scott recruited a bunch of his Richland High School classmates to help. "There must have been a recent gnat hatch, because on one really hot Saturday afternoon there was a giant swarm," said Scott. "They would fly into your nose and mouth and it was hard to see. Everybody wanted to go home but I told them that we had to finish. They started to sing 'Chain Gang' by Sam Cooke. I felt bad after that, so I sent them all home" (Kiona Vineyards website). Bugs weren't the only problem. The sand and dust permeated everything, "Essentially, every time you touch the desert and take out the sagebrush and the natural fauna that holds the sand, it starts to blow away," said Scott (Kershner interview).
The next year, 1976, they planted a few more varietals: Lemberger, Chenin Blanc, and Merlot. By 1977, they had 15.6 acres planted in grapes. They had to wait one more year to find out if all of that hard work had paid off. In 1978, Williams and Holmes sold their first crop of Cabernet grapes to Preston Cellars. Preston's winemaker Rob Griffin, like most others in the wine industry, believed that Washington's red wine potential was limited. "My opinion on this point was permanently changed in 1978 with the opportunity to crush the first crop from Kiona Vineyard on Red Mountain," said Griffin, later of Barnard Griffin Winery. "The depth of color and fruit intensity was definitely a revelation as to the potential for Washington Merlots and Cabernets. The fruit yielded wines of tremendous depth and intensity, real diamonds in the rough and a foreshadow of great things to come" (Kiona Vineyards website).
Over the next several years, Kiona Vineyards, as it was now called, began selling red wine grapes to some of the other pioneering wineries in the region: Leonetti Cellar, Woodward Canyon, and Quilceda Creek, along with Preston Cellars. A few other red wine growers were operating by then, but most of them, "were sidelines on a major farming operation," said Scott Williams (Kershner interview). "They weren't really started, most of them, as, 'Okay, we're going to clear desert and make a vineyard.' So we were kind of unique in that way" (Kershner interview).
Also, what seemed like a disadvantage – scarce water – proved to be a crucial advantage. "Because we were pumping water deep from the ground in a well … basically we didn't have the ability to over-water," said Scott Williams. "And we were also in this sandy, harsh environment that is pretty conducive to high-quality red grapes. And so, essentially, most of the places that were growing red grapes, they were getting overwatered and over-input, so they wouldn't get ripe and they would have green bell pepper flavors. And, in 1983, when we were selling most of our grapes to these different operations … [they were] like, 'That's pretty good. What would that be? That's from John and Jim's wonderful Red Mountain winery out here at Kiona Vineyards'" (Kershner interview).
Wine World Takes Notice
Wineries including Leonetti Cellar and Woodward Canyon were beginning to earn national accolades for their Cabernets. The wine world took notice that many of their grapes were coming from Red Mountain. "All of a sudden, you have these grapes that everybody thinks are wonderful," said Scott (Kershner interview).
Williams and Holmes expanded their vineyard to about 18 acres – which turned out to be more grapes than the market demanded, so they decided to make their own wine, under the Kiona Vineyards label. The first vintage was in 1980. In 1982, The Seattle Times printed its first mention of Kiona Vineyards, singling out the Lemberger. The Times said Kiona "may be the only winery in the country producing a wine from the Lemberger grape ... It is a rich, robust red not unlike a California Zinfandel" (Stockley).
Meanwhile, Scott Williams had experienced a change of heart about winemaking. Back when he and his high school pals had been clearing sagebrush, he had decided, "I don't want to do this for a living" (Kershner interview). "Jim (Holmes) wanted me to go down to Davis [UC-Davis] and take their winemaking school," said Scott. "But from my perspective, there wasn't ever any money [in it] … So it just didn't seem like a viable option" (Kershner interview).
Instead, he went to Washington State University and earned a degree in agricultural engineering, not necessarily with an eye toward working in vineyards. Yet after he graduated, he started working at a vineyard operation near Finley, "because that was something that I knew how to do" (Kershner interview). Kiona Vineyards, meanwhile, was growing beyond a hobby. "Basically, this operation got to the point where Jim and dad couldn't quit their jobs," said Scott. "It just wasn't an option. They needed a little more horsepower than what they could muster on weekends with volunteers. And so they enticed me to come to work. 'And maybe someday it'll all be yours'" (Kershner interview).
At the time, Scott didn't see that word "all" as amounting to much. In 1982, Kiona Vineyards was still a shoestring operation. "The wine was being made in a two-car garage in West Richland, Jim's house -- which never had a car in it," said Scott. "It was built to make wine. There wasn't anything out here [at the vineyard site] except my mom and dad's house, which they started in '82 or so and finished in '83. There were no support buildings at all. I was the only employee. The winemaking was being done under Jim's direction, so I physically did most of it" (Kershner interview).
By the mid-1980s they had built a crush pad down at the end of the vineyard. The rest of the operation was still of the do-it-yourself variety. "We had this monstrous old truck that my dad bought at an auction for 500 bucks," said Scott. "1,500-gallon tank mounted on it. And we'd fill that with juice and drive it into Jim's house and pump it into a tank and make wine. And when we were doing reds, I had a basket press and we would haul that over there and they had a little electric forklift that I'd haul over there. And then we'd bring the grapes over there and we'd crush them and press them and haul that stuff back. It was pretty crazy. It really was" (Kershner interview).
Scott married his wife Vicky in 1984 and they moved into a singlewide mobile home. Vicky was a nurse and made good money, which was helpful because the vineyard was still a financially marginal business. "So, mom and dad could eat, because he had an [engineering] job," explained Scott. "And that created an opening for me, because he didn't have enough time to take care of this [the vineyard]. So I came to take care of this. And I could eat, because she [Vicky] had a job" (Kershner interview). It was a true family winery. Scott and Vicky's sons, JJ and Tyler, remembered walking home from the school bus stop to "go hang out in the tasting room, where we would see folks tasting wine, [who] had driven by us on our walk" (Kiona Vineyards website).
In the early years, Kiona won awards for its whites, including Riesling and Chenin Blanc, but also a few for its Lemberger and a Merlot rose. By the last half of the 1980s, Kiona Vineyards wine was earning national attention for its reds. In 1987, a Kiona Cabernet scored higher than several high-pedigree Bordeaux in a New York blind tasting. In 1989, Wine Spectator magazine praised Kiona's excellent Cabernets and Merlots, along with the Lemberger. In 1990, Kiona's 1987 Merlot won the Best of the Northwest award during a tasting at Ray's Boathouse in Seattle.
By 1987, Kiona Vineyards had 24.5 acres in production. Other vineyards had sprung up at the base of Red Mountain area, but development was gradual, mostly because of the scarcity of water. In 1991, Kiona bought the Ciel du Cheval vineyard, right across the road. The 1994 edition of Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine, a wine industry bible, shows Kiona as one of only two vineyards in what would later be known as the Red Mountain appellation.
1994 saw a significant change for Kiona Vineyards. The Williams and Holmes partnership split up – amicably – with the Williams family taking over full ownership of the Kiona Vineyards Winery, and the Holmes family taking full ownership of the Ciel du Cheval vineyard. Holmes described it like this: "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 ... And so we said, 'Well, let's just separate our businesses.' We were still great friends" (Kershner interview with Holmes).
Another significant change came in 2001, when Red Mountain was designated as its own American Viticultural Area (AVA). Kiona Vineyards had shown the way and now Red Mountain resembled a rolling sea of vineyards and wineries. That year, The Seattle Times said the "grapes from its slopes ... are widely considered the best in Washington" (Green). Wine tourists, as well, had taken notice. "Fifteen years ago, the idea that anyone from the Seattle area would come over here for a weekend or vacation to taste wine would have been almost ludicrous," Scott Williams said in 1998. "Now it's happening all the time" (Broom).
Over the next two decades, Kiona Vineyards expanded dramatically in two ways. The vineyard plantings became vastly larger, up to 111 acres by 2007. The most astonishing transformation, however, came in the Kiona tasting-room experience. For more than 20 years, the tasting room had been in the basement of John and Ann's house, which was cluttered with numerous barrels and other apparatus. "I mean, the house was full of everything except us, living," said John (Kershner interview).
"You need a place to house it -- rather than your parents' basement," said Scott (Kershner interview). John and Ann Williams happened to know an internationally known Portland architect named Joachim Grube (b. 1932), who, to their surprise, was eager to design a new Kiona Vineyards tasting room and production facility. The spectacular new winged building, with a veranda overlooking the vineyards, opened in 2007. It immediately became a sought-after spot for tours coming from Columbia River cruise ships and for other wine tourists. That year, John and Ann Williams were inducted into the Legends of Washington Hall of Fame at the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser. Fittingly, Jim and Pat Holmes were inducted at the same time.
Since then, Kiona's vine acreage has continued to grow, up to 280 acres as of 2022. About 65 percent is devoted to the grape for which Red Mountain has become famous, Cabernet Sauvignon. The remainder is planted in many varietals, including Riesling, Chardonnay, Viognier, Syrah, Merlot, Mourvèdre, and Malbec among others. Kiona also continues to produce two of its earliest varietals, Lemberger and Chenin Blanc, although Scott has mixed feelings about those. "Over the years, I've kind of joked that it shows you what rocket-science marketers we are, because we can't make two varieties in less favor," said Scott (Kershner interview). Yet those Kiona wines continue to have a small but faithful fan base. Their sweet, honey-like Chenin Blanc ice wines and late-harvest wines are particularly sought-after.
As of 2022, John and Ann Williams are mostly retired, and Scott and Vicky Williams have stepped back a bit. Scott now describes himself as the "ex-GM and fix-it guy" (Kershner interview). Kiona Vineyards is no longer the two-family winery of its origins, but it is still most emphatically a family winery. Other members of the Williams family have come of age and taken over the main roles at Kiona. JJ Williams is now general manager. Tyler Williams became the winemaker in 2019. The family is justifiably proud of its family legacy. "As far as we know, we're the only three-generation winery in Washington right now," said Scott. "There's probably a couple of others that'll be there pretty soon" (Kershner interview).
Scott noted that the Antinori family of Italy, which partnered with the Col Solare winery just up the road, boasts 26 generations of family ownership. "So when we saw that, it was like, well, that's kind of a cool idea," said Scott (Kershner interview). For the Williams family, that's a goal worth striving for.