Red Mountain viewed from the south
Red Mountain from within the AVA and one of the earlier vineyards
Red Mountain AVA (American Viticultural Area) is a hot (both commercially and climatically) vineyard area east of Benton City. The hot summer weather, windiness, south facing aspect and a mix of ice-age flood soils mantled with windblown silts and volcanic ash produce grapes that are much desired and acclaimed by wine makers and drinkers.
The first small vineyard was put in during the 1970s. A few more were added in the 1980s and early 1990s. By 1996 Red Mountain was gaining a reputation for excellent wine grapes. The extent of vineyard plantings in 1996 prior to the AVA designation is shown in this Google Earth image with the future AVA approximately outlined.
The Red Mountain AVA was designated in 2001 as a means to distinguish it from the broader Columbia Valley and Yakima Valley. Since that time there have been a variety of sites that have since carved out distinct AVAs of various sizes and peculiarities of climate and soils.
Since 1996, shown above, and since the designation of the Red Mountain AVA, the extent of vineyards has expanded considerably.
To the west (left in image above) of Red Mountain AVA is the Yakima River which flows from west to east and then makes a sharp turn to the north where it flows along and below the west of the AVA. Benton City is within the bend. Prior to the vineyard plantings, Red Mountain was mostly scrub steppe land that had been heavily grazed and had a fair covering of cheat grass, an invasive poor nutrition grass which takes on a red hue in late May after it dries out.
The water to irrigate the vineyards has been for the most part via wells. But a big expansion of vineyards is coming. The Kennewick Irrigation District (KID) is working on a $20 million dollar project to irrigate 1,700 acres within and adjacent to the AVA (KIDRM_Proposed_Irrigation_System_Map111212.pdf). The water will be from the Yakima River via a pump station under construction at the southwest end of the AVA. Most of the wells will be replaced by the pump system.
KID obtained the water through a complex formula of reduced water usage as formerly irrigated ground in the District was converted to less water intensive uses, conservation and a bit of legal action that was settled with agreements with Washington State Department of Ecology as well as the Yakima Nation.
The costs of the project were fronted by a State of Washington Program for water in the Columbia Basin, but KID will pay the costs back via fees and payments from water irrigators that use the system. In addition KID currently owns many of the tracts of land that will be served by the water and is holding an auction to sell many of those parcels on Saturday, November 23 via auction. The auction will be a big test to see if this scheme is going to pay both for the KID and for vineyards on Red Mountain. It also a chance for would be wine grape growers to get in on the hot Red Mountain AVA.