Resourceful and rugged like the appellation they helped conquer, the Williams clan of Kiona Vineyards is three generations strong—and counting
Broad vistas are a dime a dozen in Washington wine country, but inside Kiona’s tasting room an imposing glass wall frames a slice of the view in such stunning fashion that many stop in their tracks. During much of the year, visitors behold a green carpet rolling away from the deck, which abruptly yields to an expanse of undulating flaxen hills. That carpet contains the oldest vines on Red Mountain. Beyond the tasting bar, another large window shows off many of the vineyard’s younger neighbors to the north, a patchwork quilt of green and brown.
But it wasn’t always like this—only a few years ago one might not have even found Kiona but for the sandwich board signs assuring guests they were in the right place. In those days, a sliding glass door afforded entry into the tasting room, situated majestically in the basement of the Williams’ modest home. One strained to glimpse a few vines beyond the driveway and car.
Drilling for Dreams
Passionate people can do amazing things on a shoestring budget. Kiona’s founding patriarch John Williams did not make a small fortune in the wine industry by starting with a big one. He started Kiona on an engineer’s income. Williams was a metallurgist working at Hanford and shared an office with Jim Holmes, who now owns the highly regarded Ciel de Cheval Vineyard nearby. Back then though, Holmes was simply an engineer from Vallejo.
“When I graduated from school, I was just a beer drinking WSU kid,” admits John, “then I met Jim and helped him drink his collection of wine, and they were all these big wines from Napa.”
The two attended Washington Grape Society meetings, and fiddled with making their own wines. Eventually they became involved with WSU’s Prosser Station, where the late Dr. Walter Clore was working out what vinifera grapes could be planted where. Researchers by nature, the pair figured the Red Mountain area would be a good spot to grow grapes, and in 1972 they bought the 80-acre piece of land where Kiona now stands.
This was in spite of the fact that no one was farming anything there at that time and they had no farming experience. Their research indicated that water should be 540 feet below the surface, and they had just enough money to drill to that depth. The driller didn’t believe it. “Every time we told him there was water at 540 feet he’d roll his eyes,” recalls John. When they got to that depth without hitting water, the driller asked what they wanted to do. Williams gamely replied, “I guess we’d better go a little bit deeper.” It turned out to be at 550 feet.
One might wonder how grapes got planted if the money was spent just to get water flowing. Banks would not give them a loan. “They’d tell us, ‘you guys aren’t farmers, why would we lend you any money?’” recounts John.
The solution: “Child slave labor,” says John’s son Scott, who is now the vineyard manager and winemaker. They saved money by constructing trellises from the smallest poles possible, using scrounged wire anchored by scrounged concrete blocks.
They planted young vines, cuttings just a few months old from Sagemoor Farms. Research indicated that not all of them would take. “We planted two sticks per hole,” recalls Scott, “so there’d be a 50% chance that at least one would grow. Well, the reality is that if one didn’t grow for some reason, they both didn’t grow, and in other places they both grew.” They spent the following summer digging up and relocating plants. “Back then they didn’t have grow tubes, either. We planted these tender little vines out there in the middle of the desert, and the rabbits just thought that was great. They’d eat the top of them, and instead of turning into a vine they’d grow into a bush. We actually had to put a chicken-wire fence around the whole block.”
John christened the winery and vineyard “Kiona,” a local Native American word meaning “brown hills.” Their lone patch of green survived and eventually thrived as they learned grape farming on-the-job.
A couple of years after founding the Betz Family Winery, Bob Betz began sourcing Kiona fruit. He’d been in the industry long enough to know the Williams’ had learned well. “It’s that really long term experience that leads to knowledge of how to handle individual vintages,” says Betz. He recalls a disagreement over how to farm some of his rows. “So we experimented. We did a couple of rows my way, and a couple of rows his way. And honestly, I preferred the results of his rows.”
John kept his day job as an engineer to fund steady expansion of the winery. In 1994, he and good friend Jim Holmes amicably divided their partnership.
Scott and his wife Vicky purchased land to plant more vineyards. The aptly named Ranch At The End Of The Road is an estate vineyard a mile north on Sunset Road. Vicky worked as a registered nurse to pay for the land while the family subsisted on Scott’s income. They also own the nearby Heart of the Hill Vineyard, which they began planting to vines in 2005.
Kiona uses the majority of its estate fruit for its own wines, although they also sell to quite a number of wineries. Some long term customers like Betz pay extra to have their own rows and to have their fruit hand picked, and Scott also offers those amenities to their well known neighbor, Col Solare. The land for Col Solare’s estate winery and vineyard, adjacent to Kiona’s Heart Of The Hill Vineyard, was purchased from the Williams family.
Winemaker Marcus Notaro says Col Solare first purchased Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah from Kiona in 2005. “The Cabernet from Heart Of The Hill has a lot of intensity,” he says. “It’s very rich and has a lot of black fruit/black cherry character. It’s very powerful. You think of Red Mountain Cabernet as being fairly intense, having a lot of rich, ripe tannins, and that is the exact descriptor for the Cabernet that comes from that site.” Notaro also appreciates the Williams’ willingness to go the extra mile for fussy winemakers. “All the work that Scott does in the blocks that he manages for us is mostly done by hand; leaf pulling, color thinning, final pruning.”
Three Active Generations
Although child slave labor is no longer used at Kiona, the tradition of employing grown offspring continues. Scott’s son, JJ, now handles the marketing at Kiona. This is no small task. Kiona wine is distributed in 42 states, and JJ started the wine club from scratch, since the two elder Williams’ were simply too busy to do it.
Scott has enjoyed planting some less common varietals like Roussanne and Mourvèdre, and with the rise of the club has begun vinifying them as special bottlings for members. JJ’s involvement makes Kiona perhaps the only winery in the state with three generations working in it.
Scott emphasizes his son’s role in leading the winery into the next generation. “JJ has a different skill set. He’s got this shiny business and marketing degree. Whereas he (pointing a thumb at patriarch John Williams) is just an engineer, and I’m just a farmer. But in order to go forward, we need somebody who knows how to run a business. I can replace myself from a viticulturist or winemaking point of view, but I can’t replace somebody that has a vested interest in running the family business like JJ has.”
Family support has long been a key component for success. Assistant winemaker Glen Fukuyama joined the winery two decades ago, and in 2008 he wed Carrie Williams (daughter of John and Ann).
What started as a gamble on a shoestring budget nearly four decades ago by a couple stalwart engineers has been built into a thriving, sustainable winery by three generations of the Williams family—and counting.
Written by Tuck Russell