Three generations of the Williams family have presided over the growth of Kiona Vineyards into one of Washington's leading growers and wineries. The venture began with an investment by John Williams (b. 1937) in Red Mountain real estate, followed by the planting of the first vines in 1975, and later expanded to an include a winery run principally by John's son Scott Williams (b. 1958). In this interview conducted by HistoryLink's Jim Kershner on March 24, 2022, father and son discuss the early days of Kiona Vineyards and its revelatory Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
An Investment at Red Mountain
In 1972, John Williams and his friend Jim Holmes — both engineers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation — bought 80 acres of sagebrush land at the foot of Red Mountain, outside of Benton City. At first, Holmes thought it might make a good location for a shopping mall. However, Williams had an inkling that it might make a good spot to grow fruit — and not just any fruit. He thought it might make a good vineyard, even though at the time Washington barely had a wine industry at all, and growing fine wine grapes in Washington was still unproven. The plot would become the nucleus of Williams's Kiona Vineyards, which grew into one of the most prestigious vineyards in the state.
Jim Kershner: So what made you think that growing grapes out here would work?
John Williams: Well, I knew that if you know the sand and the soils that are up here and what kind of grapes there, this has the sandy soils here are very ... They're sandy loam soils. 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. Fact is, when I mentioned to somebody at work that I was going to plant some grapevines, they say, "What? You going to put in Concords?" And I said, "oh no, no, no." And we put wine grapes. They said, "Wine grapes?"
Holmes, Williams, and his son Scott Williams planted the first vines at Kiona Vineyards in 1975. The Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in particular turned out to be of excellent quality – a surprise considering Washington was still considered suitable mainly for white wines. They sold their grapes to several up-and-coming wineries, who used them to make some of Washington's first acclaimed Cabernets.
Scott Williams: Well, in Walla Walla, we had Leonetti and Woodward Canyon. And we sold some to Paul Thomas at the time, and Quilceda Creek and Preston Cellars over in Pasco. And they were one of the early pioneers, and at that time they had Rob Griffin as their winemaker. And so essentially -- you were asking about red grapes -- there were red grapes being grown. Sagemoor had some and Mike Sauer below. Red Willow had some and Pond Hill and Sunnyside, the Richmond family had grapes up there. And it was just a matter of, most places that were growing grapes at that time, they were sort of sidelines on a major farming operation.
JK: I see. Okay.
SW: 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, but what happened was, because we were pumping water deep from the ground in a well, and we didn't have a lot of water, basically we didn't have the ability to overwater. And we were also in this sandy, kind of harsh environment that is pretty conducive to high-quality red grapes. And so, essentially, most of the places they 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 all got the wine ready at about the same time. It's like, 'that's pretty good. What did we have?' That's from John and Jim's wonderful Red Mountain winery out here at Kiona Vineyards. And, from there, the neighbors ... started planting grapes and it was sort of serendipity.
A Do-It-Yourself Operation
When the Williams family first planted the Kiona Vineyards and started making wine, Scott Williams dreamed that they might end up like the family in the old prime-time soap opera Falcon Crest, where they would "drive around in their Mercedes" and everyone "would get rich and quit their day jobs." It wasn't quite like that. Through the 1980s, Kiona Vineyards was still a do-it-yourself operation with the tasting room in the basement of John and Ann William's house. Making wine was hard work and done on a shoestring.
SW: By the 19 mid-eighties or so we had a crush pad down at the end of the vineyard and we would crush the grapes down there. And we had this monstrous, old truck that my dad bought at an auction for 500 bucks, with a 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.
Kiona Vineyards epitomizes the term "family winery," and in the early decades the winery not only dominated the Williamses' family life – it dominated their home. John and Ann's house at the vineyard was "full of everything except us, living," as John jokingly put it. Scott Williams describes the situation in the 1980s and 1990s:
SW: So, I do want to tell you too, and this is ... My mother is an angel. At one time we had her garage, which probably has never had a car in it, full of wine barrels; there were about 300 barrels in there and we had the tasting room and the bottling line in the basement. And there were about 200 barrels down there.
JK: This was in the house over here?
Vicky Williams: In the house.
JK: So you had a tasting room in there?
SW: Yeah, in the back, and a bottling line. And the back bedroom was the office, and the spare bedrooms had stuff from UPS coming in and shipping going out. And they had a bathroom and about a half a bedroom out of a 10,000-square-foot house. All the rest of it was winery.
Interrupted by the Pandemic
It soon became obvious, said Scott, that they needed "a place to house it rather than in your parents' basement." In 2007, the Williamses built a spectacular tasting room and production facility overlooking the vineyard. It became a popular destination for wine tourists, who were now flocking to Washington's wine country. Then, in 2020, came COVID-19, which meant wine tourism came to a halt for a time.
SW: Because of COVID we had to shut down. And the model used to be people would just come in and they'd line up at the bar and we'd have four or five people pouring wine and we'd try and engage them, but if it was busy, it was hard. In fact, sometimes we had so many people in here we'd set up a bar here, one over here. So there's people running all over here drinking wine. And, after COVID, basically you had to become a restaurant. And so it was sit-down seating with a certain amount of space. And that greatly reduced the number of people that you could run through here. But what's happened is people don't try and rush to all these different wineries because they know they can't go just line up at the tasting rooms ... So they make an appointment and they take the time to spend an hour and they get served at where they're sitting and interaction with the staff. And they have a, for the most part, much more interesting and memorable experience, and they buy more wine.
Further reading: HistoryLink's biography of John and Scott Williams by Jim Kershner.