BENTON CITY, Wash. — Like much of the Tri-Cities, one of Washingtons favorite wineries has its roots in the Manhattan Project, the U.S. governments secret program that helped usher in the Atomic Age and end World War II.
John Rector, 26, was working for DuPont in Kansas City. Because he could figure out square roots in his head, he got promoted and sent to Hanford, where DuPont was a contractor. He arrived on his Harley-Davidson and set about designing control rod material for B Reactor, the worlds first full-scale nuclear reactor. He was in the control room when it went critical for the first time in 1944.
Ever the pioneering entrepreneur, Rector went on to start a number of businesses. At one point, he bought 80 acres of sagebrush-covered land on a desolate hill above the Yakima River. Initially, he harbored an idea of building a raceway there, but he later built the Tri-City Raceway around the corner in West Richland.
His son-in-law, John Williams, eventually bought the land years later. John also was a nuclear engineer at Hanford. Then, on the advice of Walter Clore, the father of Washington wine, Williams and his buddy Jim Holmes decided to plant wine grapes in this unproven region called Red Mountain, a dusty hill with no roads, water or electricity.
That changed over the next three years. To start, the pair had a well dug. They were sure there was water below, but the well digger kept finding only rocks and dirt. They got to the point where they were running out of money. As the story goes, they had enough cash left to dig a few more feet, when finally water was found.
The first vines to go in the ground were Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Chardonnay in 1975, followed in 1976 by Chenin Blanc and Merlot.
They called their vineyard Kiona, a local Indian word that appropriately means brown hills.
Also in 1976, they planted Lemberger, an obscure Austrian red that was one of Clores favorites. It was the first commercial planting of Lemberger in the United States and arguably remains Kionas best-known wine.
John made the first wines in 1980 at Holmes house in nearby West Richland. The operation was moved to the Williams home next to the Red Mountain vineyard, where it and the tasting room remained for several years.
Williams and Holmes operated Kiona together until 1994, when Holmes took over Ciel du Cheval Vineyard across Sunset Road from Kiona. The Williams family kept its focus on the winery and the vines around it.
Scott Williams, Johns son, took over winemaking that year, and has become a significant landowner on Red Mountain. He and his wife, Vicki, bought what now is called The Ranch at the End of the Road in 1984. There they planted vines and a few cherry trees.
Through the years, Kiona has quietly built a reputation for delicious wines at fair prices. Critics obviously agree, based on the cabinet full of medals the wines have accumulated through the decades.
Several of those accolades are from the annual Wine Press Northwest Platinum Judging, a best-of-the best competition that includes only Northwest wines that have won gold medals throughout the year. In the inaugural judging in 2000, of the 125 wines entered, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Kiona was the only wine to earn a Platinum. Since then, Kiona Vineyards and Winery has earned 18 more Platinums, making it one of the all-time leaders in the history of the judging.
Today, between the estate vineyard, the Ranch at the End of the Road and the highly regarded Heart of the Hill Vineyard, the Williams family farms 236 acres of vines on Red Mountain.
That isnt the largest total on Red Mountain, but it ranks in the top five. And even though Kiona makes 15,000 cases of wine sold in 40 states, the familys largest source of income is selling grapes to other wineries.
In 1983, the federal government approved the Yakima Valley as the Pacific Northwests first American Viticultural Area, primarily on the work that John Williams did to get it approved.
Red Mountain became an official AVA in 2001. It could be argued that the Williams familys work on establishing Red Mountains reputation for wine quality is responsible for Red Mountains reputation. They even helped bring Ste. Michelle to Red Mountain by selling the wine giant the land for Col Solare winery and estate vineyard.
Now the third generation is taking over. Scott and Vickis son JJ runs the business side, from marketing to sales, and son Tyler is a budding winemaker who may join his dad in the cellar later this year.
Kiona is a winery steeped in the pioneering spirit on Red Mountain. Kiona literally plowed the road for others to follow and continues to guide the way with high-quality viticulture and winemaking over nearly five decades.
ANDY PERDUE is the wine columnist for The Seattle Times and was the founding editor of Wine Press Northwest.