It’s a bright morning on Red Mountain, where three generations of the Williams winemaking family are gathered in their tasting room. The space is elegant and elemental. All stone, steel, wood, and windows.
Outside, vineyards trail off into the distance in undulating rows. John Williams (’61 Mat. Sci.), the patriarch, adjusts his well-worn WSU hat. His son, Scott Williams (’80 Ag. Eng.), scans the view with an easy grin. The business, he says, is about the present as well as the future. That includes this very building. “This was built to be a 100-year building,” he says.
A true legacy, the Coug family knows, is like a good wine: it takes time. That legacy, like this building, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Scott mentions the Italian winemaking Antinori family, operating for twenty-six generations. With Chateau Ste. Michelle, the Antinori family established Col Solare, a winery and vineyard that abuts the Williams’s property on Red Mountain. Their legacy, Scott says, “was an impetus for us thinking of the long term.”
His son, Tyler Williams (’19 Vit.), a third-generation vintner, spent four years backpacking around the world and making wine in seven countries on both sides of the equator before coming home to Washington, where his family owns Kiona Vineyards and Winery. Instead of settling into the family business, though, the Gonzaga grad went back to school, enrolling in WSU’s viticulture and enology graduate program in 2017.
“Tyler had the ability to take over winemaking for Kiona without getting a master’s,” says his father. “But I wanted him to get exposed to the research process.”
Tyler will be joining his older brother, JJ Williams, Kiona’s director of operations, in the family trade. Possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of the industry, region, and the business, he’s quick to point out Kiona’s many ties to WSU. “Four of our employees are, or have been in the graduate program,” he says. “Five, if you count Tyler.”
At WSU, Tyler was able to ground his worldly experience in science under the direction of his major professor, Jim Harbertson, and Thomas Henick-Kling, professor of enology and director of WSU’s Viticulture and Enology Program. “I felt very encouraged by the faculty here,” he says. “And I have learned some fine corners of wine science that I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to.”
Exposure to research is exactly what he got, as evidenced by his graduate work. “We’re assessing which types of acids are available to winemakers, and at which pH level their addition to a wine results in significant differences in that wine’s microbial profile,” he says.
That cutting-edge research is a dramatic leap forward from the conventional thinking back in 1975 when his grandfather John established Kiona Vineyards on Red Mountain.
Regarded as a pioneer in the state’s wine industry, John grew up in Richland, where his father worked at Hanford during World War II. After graduating from WSU in physical metallurgy, he too took a job at the nuclear reservation, working as an engineer. At Hanford, he shared an office with Jim Holmes, a Vallejo, California, native and wine enthusiast. The two of them hatched a plan to start a vineyard, and then put the idea into motion.
The incubator of wine science at the time was WSU’s experimental station in Prosser, and its resident expert was Walter Clore, Washington’s grandfather of wine. “We used to talk to Dr. Clore quite often, and we could call him up anytime we had a question,” John remembers.
Even though the science seemed sound, people still thought they were crazy. Risking nearly everything, he planted nine acres of grapes in equal parts Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Riesling. His was the first vineyard on Red Mountain, now an officially recognized American Viticultural Area. From the very beginning, he envisioned it being a family operation, with his son poised to take over one day.
“I was a junior in high school when we planted that first block of grapes,” Scott says. He remembers working after school in the vineyard, rolling wire, and planting on weekends. “I’m probably the only guy still alive out here who remembers pulling sagebrush with a chain and tractor, and not a bulldozer.”
After graduating from WSU in agricultural engineering, Scott returned to Red Mountain in the early 1980s. Even then, success wasn’t guaranteed, and money was tight. “One paycheck went to planting grapes,” he recalls. “The other went to putting food on the table.”
In the end, hard work, education, and resolve have paid off. Considered one of Washington’s finest and more prolific wine producers, Kiona is also renowned as a grape grower for about 60 other wineries in the Northwest.
That success has garnered broad recognition. John is a Legend of Washington Wine Hall of Fame inductee, and Scott was named 2019 Honorary Grower of the Year by Auction of Washington Wines.
With Tyler’s recent graduation, the Kiona torch has officially been passed down. “We’re solidly into the third generation,” Scott says.
And who knows? Maybe they’ll be around as long as the Italian family. “It’s kind of fun to think about.”