Red Mountain: Great Grapes Growing in this Tiny Washington AVA

By posted on August 10, 2019 10:54PM
Hightower Cellars View of Red Mountain

Red Mountain is Making a Name for Itself

When we think of great domestic wines, most of us think about Napa Valley, Sonoma, Willamette, Finger Lakes, the up and coming Texas Hill Country, and other well-known areas.

Those in the know have added Red Mountain AVA  to this coveted list. Since first being developed in the 1970s, Red Mountain has been slowly building a solid reputation for the outstanding quality of its grapes and wines.

Located in the desert of southeastern Washington State, Red Mountain has ideal growing conditions for certain grapes, especially cabernet. This tiny AVA is the smallest, at 4,040 acres, as well as one of the warmest and driest AVAs in Washington.

Wine Tasting at Red Mountain
Wine Tasting at Red Mountain

Red Mountain Climate

The unique geography of Red Mountain was formed by the massive Missoula floods that occurred at the end of the last ice age. With water volumes equal to 60 Amazons Rivers, these torrential floods swept around the east and west edges of Red Mountain, leaving behind sediments in an irregular pattern. Through the years, wind-blown loess has piled on top to form a unique soil.

With its southwest facing slopes, Red Mountain is one of the warmest and sunniest AVAs in the state. The geography also makes for a consistent breeze, which help prevent frost and also helps to regulate mildew and fungus. The hot days and cool nights during growing season help the grapes retain the acid levels within the grapes.

Red Mountain in Washington State
Red Mountain in Washington State

The Red in Red Mountain does not come, as many people would think, from the color of the soils making up the mountain. The red coloring actually comes from the dark springtime hue of the cheatgrass found throughout the area.

At sundown, the cheatgrass glimmers different shades of red as the sun slowly sets, changing the angles and reflections of the landscape minute by minute, in a nightly show of colors, shapes, and textures.

It’s a Family Affair

Many of the wineries and vineyards in the Red Mountain AVA are family owned and operated. Husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and close friends work together, sharing their personal and professional lives with each other in this small tight-knit community. Families with names like Williams, Holmes, Hedges, Hightower, Hoppes, and Johnson are just a few of the families that make up the heart of Red Mountain.

Red Mountain Winemakers
Red Mountain Winemakers

Hightower Cellars

Kelly and Tim Hightower are a delightful couple who own and run Hightower Cellars. Their website notes that making truly great wine is not rocket science. The Hightowers say, “Get the best grapes and don’t screw them up.”

Kelly and Tim Hightower at Hightower Vineyards Red Mountain
Kelly and Tim Hightower at Hightower Vineyards

As the story goes, Kelly and Tim started Hightower Cellars under shady circumstances. The couple first met when they were both working at Columbia Winery in nearby Woodinville. As they both learned about wine making and made contacts in the industry, they also met each other and fell in love. As they were formulating their plans to create their own winery, they would meet under the tall trees nearby to make phone calls and discuss strategies. Thus, Hightower Cellars was created under “shady circumstances.”

Kelly and Tim originally started making their wine in Woodinville, using mostly Red Mountain grapes. When they had the opportunity to buy 15 acres in Red Mountain in 2002, they quickly set to work restoring the old barn into a wine making facility, planting the new vineyards, and building a tasting room.

Today, Kelly and Tim grow 10 acres of Bordeaux varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. Even Jackie Hightower, Tim’s mom, is part of the team, where they also farm 2 acres of Syrah, Viognier, and Grenache for her.

It is Not All Fun, Games and Drinking Wine

It hasn’t been easy. They are both actively involved in every step in the process. From planting, maintaining and harvesting the vineyards, to fermenting and bottling, you will find Kelly and Tim. Even Riley, the family dog, helps by supervising Tim as he operates the forklift and performs other daily chores. In addition, the couple manages the cozy tasting room and the marketing and sales operations.

Tim and Riley on the Forklift at Hightower Cellars Red Mountain
Tim and Riley on the Forklift (Photo courtesy of Richard Duval Images)

As Kelly likes to say, “I have never worked so hard, but never had so much fun. The wine business is challenging on many levels – there are so many aspects to it. At its roots (pun intended), it is an agricultural product with science, art and lots of social interactions blended in to make it a unique and interesting way to live life.”

Tim commented, “Working so hard to develop such a fantastic place has been very gratifying in itself, but the icing on the cake came when the Antinori family decided to buy land here, followed by Duckhorn from Napa – it was external confirmation of what we Red Mountainites have thought for years.”

Kelly and Tim Hightower at Red Mountain
Kelly and Tim Hightower

Kelly and Tim know the stars of their wines are the powerful, concentrated grapes grown on Red Mountain. Like the couple that makes these wonderful wines, the beverages made from these fruits have great character that’s naturally beautiful and free of pretense. In the case of Hightower Cellars, Kelly and Tim are as much a part of the final product as the grapes and the unique terroir of Red Mountain.

Like so many of the wineries and vineyards on Red Mountain, Kelly and Tim are a story of family, love, and a passion for making the best wines possible. Once you meet Kelly and Tim and experience Hightower Cellars, you’ll see first-hand what makes Red Mountain so special.

Early Development of Red Mountain

Originally land was cheap in this area. Since there was so little rainfall it wasn’t viable for growing crops without irrigation, and it wasn’t really close to any large population centers. So early grape growers, like the Williams, the Holmes and the Hedges, got quite a bargain.

Of course, it was a lot of hard work to clear the sagebrush and bring in water to make the land useable. Since beginning in the mid 1970’s, grape growers have cleared, irrigated, and planted over 2,400 acres of vineyards, making Red Mountain one of the most densely planted AVAs in the state.

Lodging, Dining and Shopping in the Tri-Cities

Although there are no hotels on Red Mountain itself, the nearby towns of Benton City and the three cities that make up the Tri-Cities area, Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick have many lodging and dining options.

Columbia Lodge Red Mountain
Columbia Lodge

The Lodge at Columbia Point in Richland is one great choice. Just 15 minutes from the vineyards and wineries of Red Mountain, The Lodge is conveniently located near Highway 182 on the scenic Columbia River. Large, comfortable rooms with balconies overlooking the river, a great restaurant and bar, and other nearby restaurants make The Lodge at Columbia Point an ideal location for seeing Red Mountain.

In addition to the excellent Drumheller’s Food and Drink and The Vine, the hotel bar, there are several great dining options close by on the river. Lulu’s is a favorite among many visitors, with its outstanding Lulu White Salad, Fish and Chips, and a wide variety of other popular dishes and craft beers. Anthony’s and Bud’s Broiler are other popular eateries.

Red Mountain Trails
Red Mountain Trails

For those wanting to add some physical activities during their stay, guests can check out a bicycle at the hotel and bike some of the many scenic trails in the area. Or hop on Red Mountain Trails wagon and let the horses do the work, taking you for a fun ride through the beautiful vineyards.

The Columbia Point Golf Course, designed by renowned golf architect James J. Engh, is a great place to get in your 18 holes. Built on the picturesque rolling hills along the Columbia River, this beautiful course just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Just a five minute walk from the Lodge, Columbia Point Golf Course is the perfect place to practice your swing and grab a bite and a beer afterwards.

Columbia Point Golf Course Red Mountain Washington
Columbia Point Golf Course

With so many great choices, Red Mountain offers visitors so many options. Picturesque vineyards, wonderful wines, great golf courses, biking, boating and water activities on the Columbia River, and the friendliest faces in Washington state.

Red Mountain is waiting for you.

Sunset Toasts at Red Mountain
Sunset Toasts at Red Mountain

Many thanks to the Red Mountain AVA for their hospitality hosting the author on tours of the vineyards and wineries, wine tastings, meals, the wagon ride on Red Mountain Trails, interviews, and informative presentations.

Scott Kendall is a freelance travel writer who has lived in The Woodlands, Texas for the last 25 years. He has travelled extensively throughout the US and has made several trips to Europe, spending much of that time in Germany and Italy. Outside of the continental US he has travelled to Guam, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Bahamas and Canada. Scott has been married to a wonderful woman, Julie, for almost 30 years, and is the proud father of two great sons. Scott has had a long career teaching special education and coaching tennis after his military service as a Navy Officer, and is excited about the current chapter in his life as a freelance travel writer.

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