If sommeliers bought as much Washington State wine as they say they like them, then the lists of most premium wine restaurants would be full of different styles from this distinctive and still fast growing US wine region. As it is there is still enormous potential for Washington to build distribution, both first with UK importers and then to the restaurant customers they supply. Ahead of the Washington State Wines tasting in London on March 10 we start a series of interviews with participating winemakers with Tyler Williams of Kiona Vineyards.
Kiona Vineyards will be one of the ‘Unsung Heroes’ taking place at the Washington State tasting in London on March 10. Winemaker Tyler Williams explains why its wines from the Red Mountain AVA are so distinctive.
Tell us about your winery and the background?
Kiona Vineyards and Winery began in 1975, when my grandfather, John Williams, and cubicle-mate and then-business partner Jim Holmes purchased a small plot of land on a dusty swath of Sagebrush in Southeastern Washington State. After drilling a well and bringing power to an otherwise arid landscape, great potential was soon realised from the wines made from Kiona’s first plantings.
With tremendous help from John’s son Scott (my father), Kiona now farms nearly 300 acres of wine grapes across five distinct estate vineyards, all of which are situated in the Red Mountain AVA (American Viticulture Area), the geographically designated 4,040-acre winegrowing appellation which Kiona Vineyards pioneered.
We are a completely family-owned and operated business, with my brother JJ leading our brand as director of operations and my father Scott managing our vineyards. I manage our cellar team and make our wine.
Each vineyard site we farm brings individual nuances to the wines we produce, but furthermore, they are an integral part of our business, holistically. We sell roughly half of the fruit we produce to about 60 boutique wineries in the Pacific Northwest and the other half is made into our own wine in our cellar. To that end, it really is true that the rising tide floats all ships, and we pride ourselves on the quality of our fruit, our region, and of Washington wines as a whole. Kiona strives to make fruit-forward, opulent wines which showcase the power and balance Red Mountain allows.
You don’t just have to take our word for it, though; ask any of the producers we work with and you’ll learn they also seek Red Mountain fruit for its complexity, texture, and distinctive minerality.
How did you personally get into wine?
I wasn’t sure wine was my path as an 18-year-old. That’s why I chose to study biology with a pre-med focus when I went to university, a path I knew could also help me long-term in wine. I suppose it was not entirely surprising to learn that I really enjoyed wine work when I held a few summertime jobs between school, working for nearby producers and learning different skill sets from what I knew at home.
I shifted my focus to wine production after I graduated with my biology degree, backpacking around the world for four years in order to chase the wine vintage and learn as much as I could from others. After working for about a dozen producers across a total of seven countries, including locations such as New Zealand, Chile, Sicily, South Africa, Bordeaux, and South Australia, I returned to my hometown in order to pursue a Master of Science in Winemaking. Since graduating with my M.S. in May of 2019, I have been at Kiona full-time managing our winemaking team and crafting delicious wines from our world-class fruit.
What range of wines do you make and is that changing?
Being in the heart of Red Mountain, I would be mistaken not to open your question with the fact that 60% of our overall acreage is Cabernet, and nearly the same figure can be used to describe the summation of Red Mountain as a whole. We love Cabernet, and we embrace it; physiologically, it performs very well on Red Mountain, and the wines reflect it.
You’ll find Cabernet Sauvignon in every tier of our brand, but it’s not to say it is our only focus. We grow 20 different cultivars, and each have their place in our overall portfolio. Naturally, as our vineyard acreage on Red Mountain has grown, so too have our wines evolved. With an increased number of blocks and an increased number of grape customers, our flexibility in vineyard management works in tandem with our flexibility in the cellar.
We curate and age a wide variety of material from different blocks, sites, and years, and use it to our advantage to offer non-vintage or small-lot offerings of the best blended barrels in our cellar. You’ll find a changing line of vertical and horizontal blending in our small-lot productions, but they will always accompany the classic wines which represent our brand, such as Lemberger, Cabernet and Chenin Blanc.
What is your approach to winemaking and what you want to convey in your wines?
From the winery perspective, our goal has always been balance and drinkability. We’re interested in producing wines that are vibrant, interesting, and delicious in their youth but that have the ability to age gracefully. Red Mountain fruit in general tends to be pretty dark, tannic, and concentrated, so you’ll hear a lot of Red Mountain producers (including us) preach restraint. Wines should be an extension of those who make them, and in that regard, like many things in my life, I seek the Goldilocks medium in many of the wines I make. They tend to be oaked, but nuanced; tannic, but plush; fruity, yet savouryAny bottle of Kiona wine is a distillation of over 40 years of winemaking experience, and we hope that the attention to detail in grapegrowing, winemaking, and blending translates into a bottle worthy of any occasion.
Have you changed the way you make your wine in the last five years?
Yes, we have changed our winemaking philosophy in small ways throughout the last several years. Since my father has been our winemaker for most of Kiona’s existence, my arrival this May particularly brought about a few key changes. We produce a lot of our wine in small 1.5-ton fermenters, and we have a lot of control over how to manipulate the pumice in these ferments. I’ve been using a combination of pump overs and punch downs based on what the wine needs and I view this as a fresh change to our winemaking, simply from having another pair of hands on deck to make decisions and monitor things with another degree of resolution.
We are continually striving towards improving our wines in whatever way we can, and often this boils down to nuances in texture and ageing. We experiment with new coopers and extraction techniques quite a bit and in my eyes, it is what makes winemaking so fun.
What are your key export markets and why?
Exportation has historically been a small part of our business. We are actively selling wine in 2020 in Japan and Denmark. We have an importation relationship in Hong Kong, but that has been dramatically undercut by tariffs and trade fighting, which is unfortunate. We see the UK as a prime candidate for international sales growth; it’s a city on the world-stage with millions of visitors per year, the people/culture are largely responsible for modern global wine trade, and there are not a lot of Washington producers currently in the space.
What are your fastest growing markets?
Our fastest growing markets are domestic: California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and here in Washington. So much of the equation is finding the right distribution partner, and we have been fortunate to have many such partners across the country and world. This trip represents our first “active” effort to find Kiona partner in the UK.
What is the perception you get of Washington wines when working in your key export market?
Genuine surprise at the quality. Washington wines, including those produced on Red Mountain, are intrinsically balanced and have a high degree of drinkability. They’re easy to like, easy to drink, and easy to cellar; all of these traits are trade and consumer friendly. We have a “boots on the ground, hands in the dirt” down-to-earth reputation that I think fits well with how the wines show.
What are the areas you as a winery have to work on more to get the message across about what you do?
As a premium grape producer on Red Mountain, something we have strived for is to create excitement over our vineyards and the quality of the wines they produce. This is true both in the context of our own wines, and also in that of the wines made from producers who purchase our fruit. In the last several years, we have really stepped up our vineyard branding, and now that we own five distinct estate vineyards on Red Mountain (Kiona Estate, Ranch at the End of the Road, Heart of the Hill, Artz, and Sunset Bench), we hope to continue this trend and push our business as a whole (rather than just our wines) for both our grape customers and our wines.
You may see one of our vineyard names on the front label of another producer, such as our Heart of the Hill Vineyard, which was just awarded “2019 Best Washington Vineyard of the Year” by Seattle Magazine. It is further the case that any given bottle of Kiona wine is a culmination of judicious blending, often vineyard-by-vineyard, and this attention to detail in the blending capacity the structure of our business allows us to fulfill our name and showcase our vineyards at the same time. After all, we are Kiona Vineyards and Winery. We aim to promote our vineyards, our wines, and Red Mountain as a whole, and we are still working on telling people how much time and effort goes into our farming and why our vineyards are special.
What do you think Washington needs to do in general?
Washington is a fairly new wine region in the world of wine. There is no question, however, that Washington State’s wine quality is among the best in the world, and we are still growing. I won’t say we need to specialise in a certain cultivar or come up with some identity for the world to expect. I believe Washington wines are varied, interesting, textured, and aromatic, and the range of wines Washington makes is perhaps the biggest factor that makes our region so exciting. Rather, I think Washington needs to reach broader markets for the average wine drinker around the world, and just because we are a “new” wine region, it should not exclude us in the conversation of quality world wine.
Why are you taking part in the tasting in London?
London is a fantastic opportunity, to follow up on my answer above. We are excited to share our wines in the London market because we believe that our portfolio will resonate with wine drinkers abroad for their balance, drinkability, power, and elegance. Personally, I love food and the dining scene in London should make anyone excited. We are thrilled to introduce ourselves to a new market at a time when new wine options might be on the table for the British, and at a location and culture that we believe will marry beautifully with our wines.
Who do you hope comes to taste your wines?
Anyone who loves wine! But seriously, we are looking for restaurant buyers, importers, distributors, or anyone who genuinely wants to learn about wine. We are a mid-size winery and we are primarily searching for an importer who understands our size-of-scale, the fact that we are a completely family-owned and operated business, and that our wines represent three generations of winemaking and land stewardship in what is perhaps Washington State’s most acclaimed AVA.
Why taste your wines over anyone else’s?
Our wines punch above their weight. They are fruit-forward, delicious, and ready to drink immediately, but are made with a nod to cellaring potential if people enjoy collecting wines. We are THE original pioneers of the Red Mountain AVA, and our wines reflect the dedication to our craft after over four decades of farming and winemaking. Plus, our crowd-pleasing favourites, such as Lemberger and Chenin Blanc, can be found nowhere else on Red Mountain, making Kiona Vineyards’ wines an easy choice to round out any lineup.
Family-owned and operated wine producers with estate acreage (in the tradition of the classical fine wines of western Europe) is a New World rarity. In a world full of corporate “brands” and sourced/bulked/manipulated wine that’s packaged/blended/market tested to compete on a mass-retail big box shelf, there’s still a place for wines with purpose and geographical typicity. And it so happens that our geographical region—Red Mountain—is increasingly mentioned alongside the world’s best.
What else are you planning on doing in London?
It would be a sad mistake to travel to London and not experience some great eats. I’m planning to hang around for several days after the tastings to sit down with the nice Brits I’ll be meeting there to eat and taste some wines around town. I won’t be done sharing our wines within the tastings so I’m open to meeting wine buyers to share more of my family’s story making wine on Red Mountain and (of course) taste some of our upcoming wines.
Washington State Wines Tasting March 10
The Unsung Heroes of American Wine is how Washington State Wine is billing its generic tasting on March 10. It all takes place between 10.30am – 5.30pm at The Hansom, Kings Cross Renaissance Hotel, London, NW1 2AR. To register click here.