BENTON CITY, Wash. — Ciel du Cheval Vineyard contributes to some of the best wines ever made in Washington, and owner Jim Holmes wants outdoors enthusiasts to get a bird’s eye view of his famous neighborhood by hiking Red Mountain.
“I think we’ll bring in folks for an all-around tourism experience,” Holmes said. “They’ll take this hike and look down on the vines and then drink the wines from those vineyards. We can create a really exciting experience, different from that of any other wine region.”
The top of Red Mountain is around 1,400 feet in elevation, and the proposed trailhead would be at about 900 feet, making for an elevation gain of 500 feet. Estimates for the length of the trail range from 3 1/2 to 5 miles in length, and it won’t start as a loop hike. However, there are plans for spur trails leading to tasting rooms at wineries such as Hedges Family Estate, Tapteil Vineyard Winery and Col Solare, co-owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Italian icon Marchesi Antinori.
“The trail is not all that easy, but it’s not going to wear anybody out,” said Holmes, who religiously hikes nearby Badger Mountain. “We’re hoping to find some ways down so people won’t have to do the whole 3 1/2 miles.”
Holmes has been farming his famous vines along Sunset Road for four decades, but he doesn’t stand to benefit from such a trail nearly as much as many of his neighbors because he doesn’t operate a tasting room. That doesn’t seem to matter to him.
“It was Jim who actually went to work and knew how to get this started,” said Heather Unwin, executive director of the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area Alliance. “He’s the poster child for getting out and being active, and we have to schedule our meetings around his athletic pursuits.”
Sharon Grant, co-founder and past president of Friends of Badger Mountain, a nonprofit preservation group in the Tri-Cities, said, “This is almost a spiritual quest for Jim. It’s something that deep in his heart and soul he cares about.”
Hiking trails along the state’s smallest AVA long have been a part of the Red Mountain AVA Master Site Plan, formalized in 2007 and updated in 2012. However, ownership on Red Mountain is a checkerboard of entities such as the Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Natural Resources and the Kennewick Irrigation District. There are vineyards with clear ownership, some with foreign ownership and many operated under long-term leases.
But the question of where the trail would start has been the roadblock. That may have been resolved by Holmes.
Hikers would drive up between vineyards on Antinori Road, and the tentative trailhead and parking area would be across from Col Solare on a 1-acre parcel belonging to Dick Shaw and business partner Paul Kaltinick, who together own Quintessence Vineyards. Shaw said they’ve been working with Holmes on details surrounding the proposed trail.
“Jim’s the expert on this, and he convinced us that it would be a good thing for the community,” Shaw said. “I do think this is a good thing, and the trail across Badger is very popular.”
Quintessence Vineyards has rapidly gained a following among top winemakers and consumers for its Cabernet Sauvignon. They also are vineyard partners in Obelisco Estate with Doug Long.
“This is a special area, and we’re looking forward to having more people who want to see our country,” Shaw said. “The more people see it, the more they will want to buy Red Mountain wine. We just opened a new tasting bar in Walla Walla, so after people visit Prosser, we’d like for them to stop by Red Mountain and see the vineyards on their way to Walla Walla.”
Ryan Pennington, a Ste. Michelle Wine Estates spokesman, said, “We are certainly supportive of the idea and the routing as it’s been proposed. Anything that brings people to Red Mountain is a great thing, whether it’s for the nature or taking in the views or wine tasting. The more people who visit the region, the more they will have an appreciation for the wine aspect.”
The prospect of marketing a Red Mountain hiking trail has piqued the interest of the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau.
“What the Tri-Cities has to offer is a wine and culinary adventure that can’t be found anywhere else,” said Kris Watkins, president and CEO of the TCVCB, and member of the master site plan advisory team. “Miles of scenic trails combined with world-class wine provides visitors with an authentic experience.”
A Red Mountain hiking trail would be an alternative to spending five hours riding in a cart on a golf course while the spouse is wine touring, supporters said. The Tri-Cities is home to a thriving hiking community, thanks in large part to Friends of Badger Mountain.
“The folks at Red Mountain are going to stand out because of the concept of connecting recreation with wine tasting,” Grant said. “Any young people you talk to, they get it right away. People want to do more than just wine taste. They want to get outdoors, too.
“Besides, every community has golf, and a lot of communities have wineries,” Grant added. “You might have to pay to rent golf clubs, but as long you have a pair of hiking shoes, you can get out. You could even bicycle Antinori Road and then hike.”
Appealing to the millennial generation is something the Red Mountain site plan counts on. The report, created with the Benton County Commission, projects that by 2025 there will be 233,000 wine-oriented visitors and 815,500 winery visits each year on Red Mountain. Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville reported about 300,000 visitors in 2010 — making it one of the state’s top tourist attractions.
“This is going to be a very discreet trail and will appeal to people who want to be outdoors and get a sense of what the Ice Age floods did on Red Mountain,” Unwin said. “People will get a deeper appreciation for why this land is special.”
Years ago, there were hopes the state would develop a hiking trail on Red Mountain, but funding cuts dashed any plans. And there are several big steps ahead before this latest effort is realized.
“We don’t have a mayor of Red Mountain, so we have to collaborate, and if you want quality, quality takes time,” Unwin said. “People seem to accept that.”
Holmes, however, might be the mayor pro-tem, and his council on the trail project includes Larry Pearson of Tapteil, Tom Hedges of Hedges Family Estate and Sarah Goedhart, Hedges’ winemaking daughter and co-owner of Ambassador Wines of Washington.
“It’s taken Jim, who is a substantial part of Red Mountain and such a respected voice, to keep this going within the AVA,” Pearson said. “Jim has been the one to keep his finger on it and keep pushing it along and made the overtures to Dick Shaw. Otherwise, you just have groups from the outside who keep pushing but have no physical connection other than saying, ‘I wish we could hike there.’ ”
Holmes said, “Putting a trail on private land is very, very difficult.”
Wineries in the Tri-Cities have been friends with Grant and the hiking community for years. Kiona Vineyards, across from Ciel du Cheval, has played host to the Friends of Badger Mountain annual meeting for the past three years. Before that, it was Goose Ridge Vineyards, which has plantings at the base of Badger Mountain. And Grant brings foot traffic to tasting rooms with a series of events she calls “Hike Wine Dine.”
“There are people who all seem to be in agreement and want this trail,” Grant said. “How long will it take? It would be great if we could say by the end of 2015 we might be able to start building a trail.”
Negotiations with all the landowners are tentative, but there are other questions surrounding the trail, which won’t open to motorized vehicles.
“How is it going to be administered? Who will maintain it and deal with the litter?” Unwin said. “The stakeholders deserve to have all those things clearly outlined before they give their blessing.”
Next comes the route planning, followed by fundraising for the parking area and trail construction by The Friends of Badger Mountain.
“If it wasn’t for Friends of Badger Mountain, it would be a lot further off,” Unwin said. “They do have the expertise, a proven track record and they have the data that helps answer an awful lot of questions. And they’ve got this big vision.”
The Friends of Badger Mountain was formed in 2003 by a group of hikers to preserve habitat in the Tri-Cities. In the past decade, they’ve raised more than $750,000 to acquire 647 acres on Badger Mountain, then ceded the property to Benton County. They created a network of four trails and recently began to build a fifth — all on Badger Mountain.
“Their big dream is called the Ridges to Rivers Trail, a set of hiking trails from Badger to Red with Candy Mountain in between,” Holmes said. “So Red Mountain is embedded in that dream. There’s a lot of people in support of it, and it’s generated a lot of local enthusiasm.”
And Holmes’ role extends beyond the negotiations with his neighbors on Red Mountain. The former nuclear engineer also helps Friends of Badger Mountain by making presentations to service organizations and businesses in the Columbia Valley.
“I’ve spoken to about 10 different groups,” Holmes said. “I managed a pretty large resource group at Hanford, and you had to do a lot of explaining yourself to people. I got trained in it, so it’s no big deal at all.”
Besides, sharing the history of growing grapes on Red Mountain and experiencing the outdoors goes a long way in defining Holmes’ life. He figures he made 100 trips up Badger Mountain in 2012.
“Hiking is great exercise,” Holmes said. “I’m an old guy — 77 — but I still get around quite a bit. I spend a lot of time skiing and farming, so I stay pretty active.”
For more information on Hike, Wine, Dine events contact Sharon Grant-Ghan at email@example.com or check the website: friendsofbadger.org
-- Eric Degerman is the president and CEO of Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.