Image: Erik Skaar

THE POPLAR TREES lining the side of the property drooped in the sweltering sun as Jim Holmes stood up from the pile of wood where he’d been sitting for the past hour. He ambled over to a row of neatly crucified vines, stopped, and crouched on one knee. These were the celebrated Ciel du Cheval vines—“horse heaven” in French, an homage to the nearby Horse Heaven Hills, once the favored grazing spot of now-extinct wild stallions. He scooped up some dirt.

“Hold out your hand,” he said.

I opened my palm. The gray silt felt at once light and substantial, like talcum powder. Tiny sparkly specks stuck to my skin, glistening in the sunshine. “That’s mica,” Holmes explained, “from the Rockies. It came with the floods.”

How soil came here from hundreds of miles away—and created some of the most fecund land in the West—was a mystery that consumed geologists for centuries. The answer holds the key not just to the dirt here, but also to why Red Mountain produces wines of highly celebrated terroir, a French term that refers to the characteristics (climate, soil, farming techniques) that link a wine to the place where the grapes grew. Red Mountain’s renowned terroir has attracted distinguished winemakers and drinkers from around the world and grapes grown there are among the most prized and expensive in the state. And it all happened because of a flood.

Or rather, floods. Near the end of the last glacial period, around 15,000 years ago, a beast of an ice lake submerged much of western Montana: 500 cubic miles of water—about as much as Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined—reaching depths of 2,000 feet. Near the top of what’s now the Idaho Panhandle, a thick sheet of ice dammed the lake, preventing it from spilling westward…except when it didn’t. Over a period of about 3,000 years, the frozen dam ruptured under the pressure of the water more than a dozen times, and a thrust of liquid muscle advanced on Eastern Washington and parts of Oregon en route to the Pacific Ocean.

These were floods of unimaginable power, fierce enough to scoop up many-­ton boulders and send them crashing into one another with such violence that they disgorged debris in thick, dirty plumes. Giant woolly mammoths were swept away in a second. In their path of destruction, the waters of Glacial Lake Missoula ripped up the earth’s surface, sculpting massive potholes, buttes, and the gouged-out canyons known as coulees.

Along this crash course to the Pacific Ocean, the floods encountered Red Mountain, a cheatgrass-covered elevation just east of what is now Benton City, Washington, in the southeast corner of the state. At just 1,247 feet, it isn’t much of a mountain. It’s a ridge, really—an uplifted fold in the earth created by plate movement. But it was tall enough to form an eddy in the flood, a swirling effect that slowed the water down, causing it to release rock and debris picked up along the way. Over time, Red Mountain soil became a time capsule of displaced earth, an elemental hodgepodge that told the geological story of Lake Missoula’s violent journeys.

At Ciel du Cheval, I asked Holmes if the floods, and the soil they created, were the reason wines from Red Mountain taste better than other wines. He frowned. “Better or worse, don’t worry about that. The thing is we’re different. We’re fundamentally different.”

The night before, a stranger had requested, of me, the same information I sought from Holmes. I was loitering on the lawn during a wine-tasting party at Col Solare Winery, the deep-pocketed winemaking collaboration between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Marchesi Antinori, a famous Tuscan whose family has been in the business since the 14th century. Beyond the long stone wall that guards the winery like it’s some medieval castle, a couple of men were readying a striped hot air balloon for flight and I watched as the balloon part—the envelope, they call it—started to fill with air. A man approached to have a look, too, and we got to talking. So what made the grapes so great here? he’d asked, savoring the last sip of inky syrah in his glass. Standing there, taking in the rows of leafy vines and the dusty ground beneath them, the lingering peaches-and-clay sunset, and the stout Horse Heaven Hills beyond, I should have already known it was the wrong question.

A GEOLOGIST NAMED J Harlen Bretz uncovered the secret of Red Mountain soil. In the early days of the twentieth century, Bretz taught for a stint at the University of Washington before returning to the University of Chicago to make his career. By then he was already obsessed with the place that was the subject of his PhD dissertation: a geological anomaly that would consume his professional life, for better or worse, for the next half century.

Bretz was the first to refer to the area around the Grand Coulee, where massive erosion had bruised and battered the native basalt deposits, as “the channeled scablands.” Something of an erosion expert, Bretz could not accept the prevailing theory that these deep fissures and ripples had happened gradually—they just didn’t fit the mold. The idea nagged at him. Even after he’d settled back in to Illinois life, every summer for eight years starting in 1920, Bretz packed up his crew—wife, two kids, a collie, and a student or two—and drove west to explore the scablands.

The students must have been robust: Bretz was brash and intellectually demanding. He was also a prankster. An amateur winemaker, he kept a wine cellar, hidden Scooby Doo–style behind a bookcase. He’d bring his acolytes into his home and invite them to try to find the secret cellar. When they did he’d lock them inside, leaving them there to figure out how to escape. Despite his antics they came along, scouring the desert for answers with their pipe-smoking professor, who wore a metal construction worker’s hat to protect his bald head from the sun.

In 1927 Bretz traveled east to formally present his scablands theory to colleagues at the all-important annual meeting of the Geological Society of Washington, DC. Bretz had arrived at the conclusion that a giant catastrophic flood, not gradual erosion, had scarred the area around Grand Coulee. The question was: Where had the water come from? Bretz didn’t know. And without that information, his theory, well, it held no water.

It wasn’t just that. Uniformitarianism, the prevailing idea behind geological study, dictated that things happened gradually over millions and millions of years. The theory that a massive flood had devastated the land in a single swoop (or even, as it turned out to be in this case, over three millennia­—a mere blip in geological time) struck Bretz’s colleagues as catastrophist. And being a catastrophist in the 1920s geological world was a bit like being a climate-change-denier today. They thought he was a kook.

Some of his colleagues and students supported him, and Bretz kept up with his work despite the general rejection of his peers. Then, in 1940 another geologist published evidence of ripple marks in western Montana, inadvertently lending credence to the flood theory. But not until the 1970s, when aerial photos showed convincing evidence of a flood path, did Bretz’s ideas earn general acceptance among geologists. Official redemption arrived in ’79, two years before his death, when Bretz received the field’s most respected medal, the Penrose. He was almost 100 years old and most of his critics were long dead, but it didn’t really matter. Bretz had secured his place among the heroes of geology, heralded for sticking to his guns in the face of mockery and shortsighted scorn from his contemporaries.

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NEARLY 20 YEARS EARLIER, in 1961, another young scientist set out to make his career. Jim Holmes had just graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Classmates snapped up jobs in San Jose and Los Angeles—cities with girls and dance clubs—but Holmes was leaning another way. Out in the desert of Eastern Washington, General Electric was throwing big money at science-minded men like him, people who were willing to come live among the tumbleweeds and study how objects behaved inside of nuclear reactors at the infamous Hanford site. Intrigued, Holmes accepted, and soon met his officemate, a Missourian called John Williams. They became fast friends in the way two people who share career passions become fast friends. They argued, of course, but the arguments never got too emotional, thanks to a shared love of hard data. If they disagreed on a conclusion, they kept gathering more data until the answer became clear.

The work was rewarding, but the surroundings were bleak for young men. Growing up near Napa Valley, Holmes had taken good wine for granted. The way most people assume they can purchase a pint of potable milk in any town in America, that’s how Holmes assumed wine worked. But only five wineries existed in Washington State at the time, and the only wine around was shruggingly stocked at the state liquor store. It was horrible stuff, soupy and pulpy and without any discernible taste. Nostalgic for the varietally correct cabs of his homeland, Holmes began to study wine. He’d pick up bottles when he went home to California or traveled and turned into something of a collector—an eccentric hobby in small-town Eastern Washington, to be sure. Williams, who’d never really tried wine before he met Holmes, proved a quick convert, and the two friends spent many an evening sipping vino in the desert, watching the tumbleweeds roll by.

They never dreamed they could grow wine grapes in the dry fields on Red Mountain, put to use only by the occasional sheepherder. Not even the Native Americans who first inhabited this land ventured up to the mountain, preferring to settle where there was water and shelter from the sun.

But here’s how it happened: In the early 1970s, Holmes and Williams tried to outsmart the stock market, investing nearly all their money. They lost their shirts, as Holmes likes to say, and needed to recover some capital. Williams’s father had land on Red Mountain—a south-facing slope covered in cheatgrass and sagebrush. He offered to unload 80 acres for $200 an acre—twice what he’d paid. (Today unimproved Red Mountain land fetches about $40,000 to $50,000 an acre.) They bought the property.

About this time, Dr. Walter Clore published his work studying the viability of viticulture in Washington State. Clore’s conclusion: The volcanic soil and warm day–cold night climate of the region was perfect for growing wine grapes. Holmes and Williams geeked out on Clore’s scientific rigor—the doctor had tested over 250 grape varieties—and they used their last available cash to dig a well. When they planted the first vines in 1975 they didn’t even have a buyer, but they weren’t the only Eastern Washingtonians intrigued by Clore’s findings. Soon enough they were selling fruit to Sagecliffe Winery along the Columbia River Gorge, to a tractor dealer in Pasco who had caught the wine bug, and to Rob Griffin, today the winemaker at Barnard Griffin. When Griffin contacted Holmes to order more grapes, he delivered to the growers the first real sign that things would work out: The grapes were good, he told them. Really good.

It’s like you’re looking at that place and asking, “Who are you?” And the wine—the way it tastes and smells, the images it evokes: That’s the place answering you.

Word of the special soil on Red Mountain spread. In the early 1980s ­Patricia Gelles planted the now acclaimed Klipsun Vineyards with her husband David. Tapteil Vineyards planted in 1985. In 1990 a young couple named Tom and Anne-Marie Hedges laid down 40 acres of varietals common to the Bordeaux region of France. Former geologist Keith Pilgrim bought Terra Blanca winery property in 1992. Red Mountain’s red wine grapes are renowned for their fierce tannins, which must be tamed in the winemaking process—a challenge that has attracted some of Washington’s most ambitious vintners: Chris Upchurch at Delille Cellars, Brennon Leighton at Efeste, Paul Golitzin of Quilceda Creek. Quilceda planted the Galitzine Vineyard in 2001—a collaboration with Jim Holmes—and the resultant wines have received 96 or 97 points from Robert Parker’s influential Wine Advocate every year, a rare feat for a brand-new vineyard.And the more the two men worked the land, the more they realized just how perfectly suited their little patch of grass was to growing wine grapes. There was the silty soil, which held water but didn’t saturate, releasing the excess into a layer of river rock below. There was the calcium carbonate—chalk, really—a compound that floats around the world as dust and gets washed away by rain. On Red Mountain, however, it almost never rains, so the calcium carbonate stays, imparting alkalinity to the soil to create grapes with superior acidity. It’s hot in the day on Red Mountain, but cooler at night, which ripens the fruit but preserves its acid.

As good as the wines are, the scores themselves are scoffed at by Christophe Hedges, who today helps run his parents’ winery. Among the barns and tract houses on Red Mountain, the Hedges have built an imposing chateau with a formal fountain out front and a set of steps that leads down to a well-pruned lawn overlooking the vines. When I arrived to meet Christophe, he was doing some construction work on the front patio. Handsome in the strong-jawed and swaggering manner of an old movie star, he wore painter pants and a wide-brimmed hat. Hedges led me down to a swatch of lawn, where he flopped down and lit a cigarette, his bare feet pointing at the fields. Watching him, I thought of the Van Gogh painting Noon: Rest from Work.

Hedges’s turning point came a few years back, when he paid a sales call to a New York restaurant. He presented, to the chef, a scorecard—evidence of the quality of the wines he was hawking—laying it down on a counter. The chef glanced at it, then told Hedges to beat it. That confused him at first, but gradually it dawned on Hedges how silly it was to ask someone to buy your wine based on a score. When a winemaker sets out to make a high-scoring wine, Hedges came to believe, it degrades the endeavor. Making wine is about expressing the place where the grapes grew, and in evaluating it, a critic should consider how successfully it conjures up the land, the soil, the essence of where it came from. Hedges recounted all this calmly, his eyes trained on the horizon, obviously unconcerned as to whether or not he’d convinced me of anything. Before we parted ways, I let him know a fact-­checker would contact him to make sure I hadn’t misrepresented his ideas. “I don’t care if you do,” he said. Then he smiled (in my memory of the moment he tipped his hat to me, but that may not have happened) and strolled up the stone steps.

A few days earlier, I had come here wondering what made the grapes on Red Mountain superior to grapes of other regions, and that, I had learned, was the wrong question. The right one, as Holmes told me, was: What made the place different? Dry climate, temperature variation, loamy soil—sure. But when you’re dealing with a region of such stunning terroir, something else, something less tangible, comes into play. It’s like you’re looking at that place and asking, “Who are you?” And the wine—the way it tastes and smells, the images it evokes: That’s the place answering you.

To me, Red Mountain wines taste of my drive to Col Solare Winery on a summer evening, tumbleweeds bopping down the road and a woman singing of amor perdido on the radio and a truck dealership where every vehicle in the lot is painted the color of mint toothpaste. When I sip a Red Mountain wine from Cadence, Delille, or Mark Ryan I can taste that hot air balloon at the party, the moment the air density shifted and the basket righted itself and the whole thing lifted impossibly into the sky. I’m looking out again, past it, to the Horse Heaven Hills, imagining the shy packs of wild equines that once grazed in the stout crevasses, their tails twitching in the ebbing sunlight. Another sip and I’m back at Ciel du Cheval, powdery dirt running through my fingers, as an old man teaches me a lesson about soil. I drink the wine, and I’m back on Red Mountain.

This article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.

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