Holmes, Jim (b. 1936)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 6/30/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21045

Jim Holmes may be the quintessential example of a person whose professional background prepared him to help found a successful vineyard and winery in a previously untested, and even unpromising, region. Trained as a scientist and engineer, he had a successful professional career before catching the fine-wine bug and applying his skills to the challenges presented by both grape growing and winemaking. While a research manager for Westinghouse at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, he and fellow engineer John Williams bought some unloved acreage at Red Mountain, outside of Kiona, Washington, in 1972. After drilling for water and bringing in electricity, they planted a vineyard in 1975 and founded the Kiona Winery in 1979. Their grapes were excellent, and a Red Mountain land rush was launched, with scores of additional wineries joining them. In 1991 the Kiona partners bought the promising Ciel du Cheval vineyard, and when they chose to go separate ways, Holmes took the Ciel du Cheval while Williams retained Kiona. Over the decades their vineyards in the Columbia Valley American Viticulture Area (AVA) have garnered enviable reputations for excellence, and both Holmes and Williams are considered pioneering icons within the industry.

Early Life

James J. Holmes was born at Children's Hospital in San Francisco, California, on October 10, 1936, to James and Ruby Holmes. His father was a physically fit letter carrier who hiked the hills of that city his whole career. Holmes attended Lincoln Elementary School in Redwood City, then Hawthorne Junior High in Turlock, Franklin Junior High, and Vallejo High School in Vallejo. His college studies began at Vallejo Junior College before continuing at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1958 he married Patricia Acton, and the following year began working for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. In 1961 their first son, James, was born, and in 1962 the young family moved to Seattle, where Holmes continued his studies at the University of Washington, earning a master's degree in metallurgical engineering. In time the couple would be blessed with two additional sons, Richard (b. 1964) and Patrick (b. 1975).

Holmes had his first sip of wine at about age 11 when a boyhood pal's Italian father opened a bottle of sweet concord wine to toast a football game they were watching on TV. But it was many years later that he first tasted a truly excellent wine, as he later recalled: "I was living on campus in Seattle at the time. About '62 or so. A friend came over to visit with us and we had a nice dinner and we bought a wine at a grocery store just off Montlake there. It was a Louis Martini. A pinot noir. And I thought: 'My gosh! This is different. It was 'Holy Cow,' you know?" (Holmes interview with author).

Red Mountain

After relocating to Benton County, Holmes worked as a research manager for Westinghouse at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and ended up supervising a team of 200 members. Among them was a fellow engineer and office mate, John Williams, with whom he struck up a long-term friendship. By the early 1970s Jim and Patricia Holmes and John and Ann Williams were pondering investment opportunities. "Being engineers, John and I knew we were smarter than anyone else," Holmes once said. "So we decided we would get rich by investing in the stock market. It took us six months to lose all of our money" (Perdue). They thought that maybe real estate would be a sounder venture.

Ann Williams' father had some acreage situated toward the eastern edge of the Yakima Valley, near the hamlet of Kiona, at the base of a hill known, grandiosely, as Red Mountain. It was a dusty and dry tumbleweed-covered parcel, but it was located right off Benton City's exit 96 from Interstate 92. Holmes and Williams imagined that, if nothing else, the 80-acre site could be the perfect location for the development of a shopping mall.

The partnership purchased the land in 1972 for $200 per acre. Multiple challenges lay ahead: The remote scrubland had no road access, no electrical supply, and since it wasn't within the boundaries of the region's Roza Irrigation District, no water. Holmes recalled, "At the time we were walking around out there, it was kinda like walking on the moon [laughter]. There was absolutely nothing there" (Holmes interview). John Williams described it as "a bunch of sagebrush and jackrabbits. There wasn't even a road, just a Jeep trail. You could stand on top of Red Mountain, looking over at the Horse Heavens [hills area] and there wasn't a green spot to be seen" (Kelly).

Vineyard Pioneers

Among the perks of Holmes's engineering job was the opportunity for business travel, during which he was able to take vacation time to tour the German wine country, as well as the Burgundy region of France, where he visited one of the fabled meccas of wine production -- the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Romanée-Conti has long produced some of the world's most expensive and sought-after wines, and it captured Holmes's imagination and boosted his appreciation for fine wines.

It also caused him to begin rethinking those 80 sunny acres near Kiona, as did a publication issued by Washington State University professor emeritus Walter J. Clore (1911-2003), who headed the school's Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center at Prosser. It was 1974 when Clore -- who would later be recognized as the "Father of Washington Wine" -- published a report documenting his 20 years of research on vines, wines, and soil types around the state. "That paper basically informed John and me: 'My god! We could possibly grow wine grapes out here and make wines that are reasonably accessible'" to the general public (Holmes interview).

No one had imagined that a vineyard could successfully be planted in this forsaken landscape. The land consisted of calcareous loamy soil with a little sand, as noted in a 1930s Bureau of Reclamation study conducted when the Grand Coulee Dam construction project was underway. It was relatively bleak soil but could, as the French knew, be excellent for growing grapes, which happen to prefer a stressful environment.

In 1974 the partners had a well-drilling service come to test their site for water access. It was a hard slog, but finally, at a depth of 560 feet, they hit the aquifer -- the first deep-water well drilled in that area. With that success, they bulldozed an access road into the property and tackled their next problem. The nearest electrical power was located three miles away at Benton City. To hook into that supply, they had to upgrade a power cable across a bridge over the Yakima River, then dig a trench to run underground wire the entire way up to their property.

In 1975 -- when there were just six wineries in Washington -- the team created an initial vineyard of 10 acres planted to Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Riesling. But when harvest time came in the fall, it turned out their plan was rather half-baked. As Holmes recalled, "Now, there was nobody to buy our grapes. But we had this wonderful idea that we'd fill up the back of a pickup and take them to Seattle and sell 'em to home winemakers. There was a lot of grapes at that time going from California to Seattle for home winemakers. I guess 80 tons or more. And we thought, 'Well, we'll just compete with those guys!' Of course 10 acres of grapes puts out about 40 tons. And a pickup carries about half a ton. It wasn't well thought out" [laughter] (Holmes interview).

Lessons were learned, and by 1977 Holmes and Williams had found a local buyer -- Bill Preston, a Pasco-based tractor dealer who had built Preston Wine Cellars in 1976 and hired University of California-Davis enology graduate Rob Griffin as winemaker. It was heartening when Griffin reported back that the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the Red Mountain site were just about as good as it gets.

The vineyard was expanded with plantings of Merlot, Lemberger, and Chenin Blanc, and soon grew to 26 acres. Its success snowballed from there. For the next few years they sold off the grape crops to various Washington wineries, and the high quality of the fruit began garnering further attention. In 1979 the partners took the next big step, founding a new state-bonded entity, Kiona Vineyards Winery, in Holmes's garage in West Richland.

A Unique Approach

Kiona Vineyards tried different approaches with his vines, including varietal selection and mode of vineyard trellising. In addition to planting the popular varietals mentioned above, the Kiona team took a gamble, following the advice of Dr. Clore, who had long recommended that vineyards in this area be planted to Lemberger. It's not a particularly popular red grape -- mainly bottled in an obscure part of Germany -- but Clore believed it would take well to the Red Mountain area's particular soil type and general terroir. Best of all, it is known for withstanding brutally cold winters. Four acres of the Kiona vineyards were planted to Lemberger -- the "oldest commercial acreage of the grape in the state," which made Kiona "the first winery to release Lemberger as a varietal wine" (Meredith, 162).

Another unique aspect to viticulture was the choice to use fan-training technique on their plantings. Instead of having every vine trunk exist as individual stand-alone plantings, fan-training allows several trunks to rise from a central crown at the base, then spread up and outward in a fan-shaped form along wire trellises. Seldom used at other wineries, the appearance is intriguing, and according to Holmes and Williams, quite functional. They believe that it allows better sunlight exposure to the vines, cuts down on mildew problems, and causes the fruit to ripen earlier.

In the fall of 1980 Holmes crushed the Lemberger and Chenin Blanc harvest in his garage in West Richland, where he eventually installed fermentation tanks that could hold 12,000 gallons. In 1982 the 1981 Chenin Blanc won Kiona its first awards. Upon its first commercial release in 1983, the partners' Lemberger began to gain a following, no doubt in part due to the novelty factor. As the years went on the Lemberger became a signature specialty for Kiona, as did the winery's Chenin Blanc and oak-barreled Chardonnay. Over time the 30-acre vineyards would also contain plantings of such whites as Riesling, Muscat Canelli, and Gewürtztraminer, and reds like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Kiona became "one of Washington's leading Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards" (Meredith, 178), and supplied its in-demand fruit to other wineries, some of which won awards for their products. Among them were Amity Vineyards (Amity, Oregon), Leonetti Cellar (Walla Walla), Preston Wine Cellars, Yakima River Winery (Prosser), Woodward Canyon (Lowden), and Quilceda Creek Vintners (Snohomish), which in 1983 won the Grand Prize in the Enological Society competition with its debut 1979 Cabernet. Washington winery Chateau Ste. Michelle (Woodinville) bought Lemberger vine cuttings from Kiona to plant in its vineyards. By 1983 Kiona was welcoming wine-country tourists to the tasting room in the basement of the new home the Williams family had constructed adjacent to the vineyards.

Although Kiona's Lemberger was its most popular wine, selling out each year, the winery became known for its estate-bottled Chardonnay, its late-harvest Riesling, and its Merlot Rosé, which won awards as early as 1983. In the years when Kiona makes ice-wines, using Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, and Riesling grapes that are naturally frozen on the vine, they are treasured.

Kiona's record of excellence brought it plenty of attention -- from wine critics, fine-wine aficionados, and ambitious business people eager to open their own wineries. "Their pioneering success brought other grape growers and wineries to the area, and Red Mountain emerged as an important sub-region of the Yakima Valley" (Meredith, 161). By 2020 Kiona Vineyards had more than 61 acres planted, and in recent years it has supplied grapes to more than 60 wineries.

Ciel du Cheval

Near Kiona's land on Red Mountain was an 80-acre parcel acquired by some friends, who solicited the expert help of Holmes and Williams in planning and planting a vineyard, Ciel du Cheval, in 1975. In 1991 Kiona bought that vineyard, and three years later the partners amicably parted ways, with Holmes taking over Ciel du Cheval and the Williams family retaining Kiona Estate Vineyard. The Williams's son Scott, who had operated his own vineyard-management consulting firm, joined the Kiona crew. His son, J. J. Williams, studied business and marketing at college, and then worked for Kelnan Wine Management before returning home to Kiona, which is (2020) managed by his brother Richard.

In 2007 Jim and Pat Holmes, and John and Ann Williams, were inducted into the Legends of Washington Wine Hall of Fame at the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser. That same year longtime Seattle Times wine writer Paul Gregutt noted that "[I]n a little more than a decade [Holmes] has turned it into what may well be the most prolific (in terms of variety) and distinctive site in the state" (Gregutt, 92). Indeed, under Holmes, Ciel du Cheval expanded to 120 acres planted to varietals, including Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Counoise, Grenache, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Nebbiolo, Petit Verdot, Rousanne, Sangiovese, Syrah, and Viognier. Among the firms that covet the fruit grown by Holmes are Andrew Will Winery (Vashon) and Cadence Winery (Seattle).

Other Adventures

Asked in 2020 what his proudest career achievement might be, Holmes's response was humble: "Being in the right place at the right time. It's just really hard to answer that question because, you can imagine, it's been a lifetime. And you take one step, you know, not really knowing what you're doing. But, you take it and look around and: 'Well, that worked.' And you take another one and well, that wasn't too bad. And that's a matter of growth. Not a matter of graduating from some school or taking some course, or meeting some great winemaker. It's basically just kind of growing over time" (Holmes interview).

Always adventurous, Holmes purchased an adjacent 80-acre parcel and formed two new partnerships, with vineyards planted in 2001. The Grand Ciel Vineyard is co-owned by Woodinville's DeLille Cellars, and the Galitzine Vineyard with the Golitzen family, of Quilceda Creek Vintners in Snohomish. Other parcels of potential vineyard land on Red Mountain sold for as much as $50,000 an acre, and more than 15 wineries have been established there. So far, there is no shopping mall in sight


Peter Blecha telephone interview with Jim Holmes, Seattle, May 2, 2020, audio recording in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle; Leslie Kelly, "John & Scott Williams -- Kiona Vineyards," Washington State Wine website accessed April 7, 2020 (https://www.washingtonwine.org/wine/history/groundbreakers/john-and-scott-williams); Ronald Holden and Glenda Holden, Touring the Wine Country of Washington (Seattle: Holden Pacific, Inc., 1983) 174-177; Ronald Holden and Glenda Holden, Northwest Wine Country (Seattle: Holden Pacific, Inc., 1986) 87-89; Chuck Hill, The Northwest Winery Guide (Seattle: Speed Graphics, 1988) 128-129; Ted Jordan Meredith, The Wines & Wineries of America's Northwest (Kirkland: Nexus Press, 1986) 160-162; Ted Jordan Meredith, Northwest Wine (Kirkland: Nexus Press, 1990) 177-178; Ronald Irvine with Walter J. Clore, The Wine Project (Vashon: Sketch Publications, 1997) 397-398; Paul Gregutt, Washington Wines & Wineries -- The Essential Guide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) 92, 95, 100, 138, 200; Andy Perdue, "Canadian Outbids All for Valuable Red Mountain Vineyard Land," Great Northwest Wine website accessed April 2, 2020, (https://greatnorthwestwine.com/2013/11/23/canadian-outbids-valuable-red-mountain-vineyard-land/); "Legends of Washington Wine Hall of Fame," Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center website accessed April 10, 2020 (https://www.theclorecenter.org/legends-hall-of-fame.html).

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