SOME OF Washington’s greatest grapes are nurtured in one of its most obscure corners.
Red Willow Vineyard is on the far western edge of the Yakima Valley, barely beyond the shadow of Mount Adams. Here, Mike Sauer has quietly toiled for more than 40 years.
When Sauer began putting cabernet sauvignon in the ground in 1973, there was barely a Washington wine industry. Since then, a lot of history has happened here at one of the state’s most beautiful and distinctive vineyards.
One might even call it hallowed ground.
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In 1978, Sauer met David Lake, a British-trained master of wine who had just started as winemaker for Associated Vintners, now Columbia Winery in Woodinville. Their friendship became one of the most important collaborations in the young industry’s history. Lake was enamored with the grapes he was getting from Red Willow and began to work closely with Sauer.
In 1984, Lake became interested in making syrah, a red grape from France’s Rhône Valley that was thought too tender to survive Washington’s occasionally harsh winters. In 1986, Sauer planted the first three acres in Washington, and Lake crafted the first vintage in 1988.
Today, syrah is Washington’s third-most-planted red-grape variety, and some of its best comes from Red Willow. Somewhere in that original block is buried a bottle of Côte du Rhône, left there by Lake as an homage to the grapes’ origins. Lake died in 2009, and Columbia Winery no longer buys grapes from Red Willow. Instead, Sauer’s fruit goes to nearly 20 wineries, including Betz Family Winery and Efeste, both in Woodinville.
Sauer is a man of deep spiritual faith, and in 1992, he began to build a chapel atop a steep-faced hill. Using stones from the farm, he finished it in 1995. It is modeled after La Chapelle, a chapel that overlooks the Rhône River in Hermitage, where some of the world’s greatest wines are made.
Even though Red Willow is not open to the public and is well off the beaten path, that chapel has become one of the most photographed buildings in Washington wine country.
Not satisfied with leading the way on syrah, Sauer and Lake also were among the first in Washington to plant such grape varieties as viognier, tempranillo, sangiovese, nebbiolo and cabernet franc.
In fact, Sauer has planted such an array of grape varieties throughout his 140 acres, he isn’t sure he can name them all.
“Let’s see,” he says, thinking . . . “Well, we don’t have chenin blanc.”
Andy Perdue is a wine author, journalist and international judge. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.