Kennewick man starts backyard vineyard

John Williams has enjoyed grapes since his mother grew concords for jelly at his childhood home in Pasco.

He is 34 now, and this year he converted his backyard in Kennewick into a vineyard, continuing the grape-growing tradition with his wife, Rachel, and 10-year-old daughter, Renee.

"I wanted to put up a fence and have a yard where my dogs could run free," Rachel said, "but he wanted a vineyard, so I said OK, and we went ahead."

It's much more than landscaping, because the vines have nearly taken over their 5,000-square-foot backyard near West Fourth Avenue, and traffic on Highway 395 has taken notice.

"We've met a lot of random people who stop by to ask what's going on," John said.

The vineyard will offer more than the concord grapes Williams grew up with. He also planted wine varieties cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc. And where most families would have a swimming pool, a play set or lawn, Williams erected wooden posts to train his 12 rows of vines. He started his 157 grape plants in April.

"It's fun seeing the growth every day when we walk through the vineyard," Renee said.

Williams works at Chiawana High School in Pasco as a special education teaching assistant and sign language translator. He will admit tending grape vines comes with some growing pains.

"My wife thought I was over my head. She said I was crazy," he said.

So he is filling in his memories from childhood with tips from Inland Desert Nursery in Benton City, which is where he bought the plants.

"They said to trim the clusters of fruit this year and let the plants bush out," he said. "That way the vines can mature and bring in a larger harvest."

The backyard vineyard is just one phase of Williams' overhaul of the property he bought last year. The exterior was painted grass-green, and the kitchen counters were neon orange before Williams refinished the house.

"It was the ugliest house on the block when I moved here," he said.

His green thumb also transformed the rest of the landscaping, starting with the lawn, a yellow-brown patch of dead grass surrounded by a sun-bleached and dilapidated fence. Williams also is growing strawberries, blueberries, cucumbers, pumpkins and more.

When it comes to the nonstop vineyard work, the handyman gets a helping hand from his daughter.

"In the morning, my daughter and I will go through the vineyard to make sure none of the drippers are plugged," Williams said.

On Friday, they found a loose hose, which could have flooded the plants had they not fixed it.

At night they pull weeds. The work keeps Williams outside past 9 p.m. some nights.

"It takes a lot of time and a lot of learning," Williams said.

Renee seems enthralled by the growth of the stems, leaves and fruit. And Rachel also helped make an important discovery.

She took a sample of their backyard soil to Columbia High School in Burbank, where she teaches family consumer sciences. Students tested its pH and nutrient levels and discovered the soil was completely deficient of nitrogen. He addressed that prior to planting the first vines.

Williams doesn't expect his first full harvest of grapes until 2015, and he plans to produce at least 200 bottles of wine from that vintage. He will bottle the wine in his basement, which he refinished to include a small kitchen, cigar room and 100-square-foot wine cellar.

So far, he has spent about $5,000 on the vineyard and the cellar, but his expected annual expenses will be around $1,000, Williams said.

Williams won't sell the wine. He plans on keeping it for holidays, sharing with dinner guests and other special occasions.

"Someday, he might buy a plot of land and try starting a wine business," Rachel said.

-- Eric Francavilla: 582-1535; efrancavilla@tricityherald.com