Under a sunny morning sky, it’s easy to spot Teresa and Jeff Owen in the parking lot of Kiona Vineyards. They’re sitting on an old-fashioned buckboard-style wagon behind two majestic North American spotted draft horses. We’re all here on Red Mountain for a wagon ride through the vineyards with the Owens’ company, Red Mountain Trails. (They also offer cycling tours and horseback rides.) Moments later, the wagon jolts forward, and JJ Williams of Kiona and Richard Holmes of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard and Côtes de Ciel winery, both my companions on this tour, dive into talking about Red Mountain’s history, the storied vineyards that yield some of the state’s best wine grapes and how this American Viticultural Area (AVA) is evolving. Williams and Holmes are apt guides—both are members of families that planted the first vineyards on Red Mountain.
Red Mountain is the state’s smallest and most intensely planted AVA. The first vineyard—one of Kiona’s—dates back to the 1970s, when most of the land was covered in sagebrush. Now, row upon row of vines turn the hills green in summer, and a blaze of yellow in the fall.
An hour later, when our vineyard history lesson ends, I head off to explore some of Red Mountain’s 11 tasting rooms. I start, literally, at the end of the road, where winemaking duo Kelly and Tim Hightower are behind the counter of their modern tasting room. They’re eager to talk about their wines and how they came to Red Mountain after starting Hightower Cellars in Woodinville in 1997, buying 15 acres here in 2002. As I look around, I spot a frame holding a divining rod. Tim explains that they discovered it after they bought the property and learned that it was used to find water here.
Horse-drawn wagon rides are available through Red Mountain Trails. Photo by Breshears Professional Photography
As I continue my Red Mountain explora-tion, I stop at a few more tasting rooms: Hedges Family Estate, where second-generation winemaker Sarah Goedhart has chickens running through vineyard rows—consuming cutworms as they go—and brews teas to use as insecticides, all part of her commitment to biodynamic and organic winemaking.
Inside the modern tasting room at Fidelitas Wines’ estate vineyard, I chat with longtime winemaker Charlie Hoppes, who owns Fidelitas and makes wines for neighboring Hamilton Cellars. Hoppes exemplifies the generous nature of so many on this mountain; he is also mentor to Greg Frichette, one of the newer winemakers on Red Mountain at his eponymous winery, which he owns with his wife, Shae.
Hedges Family Estate’s gorgeous grounds. Photo by Kim Fetrow
I have to pace myself on this tour. So many of the bottles of deep reds for which this AVA is known are only available in the tasting rooms, to wine club members or on restaurant menus. It’s hard to resist the urge to take them home, and I find my trunk filling up.
It’s late afternoon when I head to Richland to check into The Lodge at Columbia Point, a 2-year-old property on the Columbia River that is upping the local accommodations game. Steps from the lobby entrance, in an expansive living room overlooking the river, I’m invited to join a tasting; they happen every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Manager Wendy Higgins later explains that dozens of wineries from around the state each pour for hotel guests ($10, nonguests can also visit and taste) a couple of times a year. Which wineries? Every one of the 82 guest rooms is named for a winery participating in the program.
The next morning, after a hearty (complimentary) buffet breakfast in the hotel’s Drumheller’s restaurant, I head out under another blue sky to walk along the river. Cyclists pass me along the way, and the water is busy with boaters, including those in kayaks and on paddleboards (rentals are nearby). I think about heading out for a hike in the Badger Mountain Centennial Preserve, southwest of town, or visiting the Hanford site of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a park consisting of three historic sites that were key to the development of the atomic bomb. But the clock is ticking, and it’s time to head home. As I point my car toward Interstate 82, I know it’s not just the wine that will bring me back here again.
Part of the tasting room at Upchurch Vineyard in Benton City. Photo courtesy of Upchurch Vineyard
TO GET THERE
Red Mountain is about a three-and-a-half-hour drive southeast of Seattle; Richland is about 15 minutes farther.
Why we like it: Under an almost-always blue sky, the vineyards are a striking addition to an otherwise brown landscape; nearby Richland offers hotel, restaurant and entertainment options.
Main attraction: Some of the state’s best winemakers have tasting rooms on Red Mountain, including Chris Upchurch of Upchurch Vineyard, and Charlie Hoppes of Fidelitas Wines and Hamilton Cellars.
Don’t miss: Go through the vineyards on horseback or by wagon with Red Mountain Trails, or take a bike ride on the nearby 23-mile paved Sacagawea Heritage Trail, which hugs the banks of the Columbia River.