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Outgoing Red Mountain AVA Alliance director looks back at stunning growth
Though Heather Unwin was executive director of the Red Mountain AVA Alliance for just three-and-a-half years, it was during what will likely be looked upon as the most important period of development in Washington’s smallest American Viticultural Area.
Unwin, who announced last week that she was leaving the Red Mountain AVA Alliance to pursue expanded consulting and teaching opportunities, oversaw massive changes on the 4,040-acre bench in the eastern Yakima Valley.
“In 2012, I don’t think anybody had a clue that things were going to change as quickly as they did,” Unwin told Great Northwest Wine. “The growth had been fairly slow up until a couple of years ago. I don’t think anyone would have predicted this.”
Changing face of Red Mountain
During her tenure:
- In 2012, Michael Corliss, owner of Corliss Estates in Walla Walla, purchased about 175 acres of land and vineyards previously owned by Blackwood Canyon owner Mike Moore, who died in 2011. In 2007, Corliss had purchased Red Mountain Vineyard. In all, Corliss owns about 350 acres of Red Mountain vineyards.
The Kennewick Irrigation District auctioned off 670 acres of land in and adjacent to the Red Mountain AVA boundaries. The November 2013 auction came to a dramatic conclusion when the Aquilini Investment Group in Vancouver, British Columbia – which wasn’t in the grape or wine business – outbid nearly two-dozen other suitors for all 31 parcels up for bid.
- The KID installed an irrigation system that brought much-needed water this spring to Red Mountain.
- Duckhorn Vineyards came to Washington in 2013. The longtime high-end Napa Valley wine company created Canvasback, a label that focuses exclusively on Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain. The first release – the Canvasback 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon – sold out more than 2,000 cases in a matter of weeks.
- In 2014, Duckhorn planted 18.5 acres of red Bordeaux varieties at its estate vineyard near Col Solare with the assistance of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
- In 2014, Hamilton Cellars purchased land on Sunset Road and planted 9 acres of red Bordeaux varieties.
- Grape grower and winery owner Dick Shaw has planted hundreds of acres of vines at his Quintessence Vineyard on the southern end of the Red Mountain AVA in the past three years.
- This spring, the Aquilinis have been in the process of planting 540 acres of wine grapes – primarily Cabernet Sauvignon – on their Red Mountain properties.
- This spring, Fidelitas Wines planted about 10 acres of vineyards along Sunset Road.
- This spring, Gamache Vineyards planted about 5 acres of vineyards next to Fidelitas.
- Dick Boushey, who planted the Fidelitas, Gamache and Hamilton vineyards, now manages 10 vineyards on Red Mountain.
- Mike Rinker, a home winemaker in nearby Kennewick, Wash., produced the top amateur wine in the world using grapes from Red Mountain.
- DeLille Cellars’ 2011 Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon – made from four Red Mountain vineyards – was The Seattle Times’ 2014 Wine of the Year.
- The Red Mountain Block Party brought hundreds of wine lovers to the AVA three years in a row between 2012 and 2014.
- This spring was the 40th anniversary of the first vines planted on Red Mountain, at Kiona Vineyards.
- Last year, Red Mountain was a finalist for Wine Enthusiast magazine’s wine region of the year.
Red Mountain priorities
Unwin said that when she was hired, the focus was on the Red Mountain master site plan, a document created by Benton County that would help direct development on the ridge.
“The master plan was the priority,” she said. “What would Red Mountain look like going forward? How would we exercise some control over what could be developed?”
Three-and-a-half years ago, everybody was taking the long view, Unwin said. The stakeholders were looking out 10, 20, even 50 years.
“It’s funny to think about that,” she said. “Duckhorn wasn’t even on the radar in early 2012.”
Nor was Aquilini. Unwin, who worked for CompuServe in the mid-’90s, likens the explosive growth on Red Mountain to Silicon Valley.
“This was change on a tech scale, not necessarily on an agriculture scale,” she said.
Prior to taking over the Red Mountain AVA Alliance executive director job, Unwin worked at Terra Blanca Winery on Red Mountain for more than four years, so she was well aware of the AVA’s potential going in.
Today, the AVA Alliance has about two-dozen members, primarily on Red Mountain and in the Seattle area. But in reality, the membership stretches from San Francisco (Duckhorn) to New York (Bacchus Capital Management, part-owner of DeLille Cellars).
“One of my members described it as an octopus,” she said. “The scope and reach of Red Mountain stretches way outside the AVA borders.”
Moving forward, Unwin will continue to teach classes for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Her focus has been on sparkling wines. She’s also teaching online certificate classes for Washington State University, as well as for Walla Walla Community College and Yakima Valley Community College.
Looking back at her time on Red Mountain, Unwin smiles with good memories.
“I think it’s one of the coolest, most exciting wine stories to tell the world.”