The drive to Red Willow Vineyard, in Washington’s Yakima Valley, takes you to what feels like the end of the Universe. You head out on West Wapato Road and drive until it feels like Mt. Adams is right in front of you. Really the mountain just gets bigger and bigger.
You are almost as far west as there are vineyards in the Yakima Valley. It felt like we had driven forever, and I was getting a bit concerned. It’s not easy to get a signal out here. I was staring hard at each passing sign to be sure we didn’t miss the road to turn on. At last, we found the road and made the turn.
Before we go any further, perhaps I should share a bit of context. You see, Red Willow Vineyard is legendary when it comes to Washington Vineyards. Let’s go back to the beginning and give you some background.
The Hudson’s Bay Company planted the first grapes at Fort Vancouver back in 1825. Wine grapes followed the early French, Italian and German settlers. Irrigation arrived in the Eastern part of the state in the early 1900s, meaning this dry desert region on the east side of the Cascades could begin to grow. Vineyards began to pop up in the Walla Walla and Yakima Valleys. Then of course came Prohibition.
It was 1934 when Dr. Walter J. Clore arrived in Washington. He studied horticulture at Washington State College and then was hired to teach at the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research Extension Center in Prosser, WA. With the ability to irrigate, Washington was learning to grow fruits and vegetables. He met W.B. Bridgman, who had a vineyard planted to Vitis Vinifera.
Dr. Walter Clore took cuttings to establish a block to study in Prosser. Eventually, he would start test blocks from these vines around the state, working with growers to test for issues with climate, soil, wind, etc. He shared this collected information with the growers, building a database of research, and determining that indeed, vinifera grapes could grow in this region.
One of these test sites was Red Willow Vineyard. Mike Sauer worked with Dr. Clore to plant an experimental block of 20 varieties in 1972-73, as well as mounting a weather station.
Associated Vintners, now known as Columbia Winery, was created in 1962 by a group of friends. These 10 visionaries, 6 of whom were University of Washington Professors, were determined to prove that Washington’s Columbia Valley was a great place to grow and make wine. I would dare say that worked. I am sure that most of you have tasted a wine from Columbia Winery. It is the 2nd most well known wine brand in the state of Washington and can be found most anywhere.
In 1979 they named David Lake, MW to be their winemaker a job he held until 2006. David Lake was Canadian but had worked in the wine trade in Britain before coming to America. He worked at Eyrie in the Willamette Valley before joining Associated Vintners, based in Seattle. It was this same year that he met Mike Sauer. Mike describes him as having “a European sensibility” when it came to wine. He released Washington’s first vineyard-designated wines back in 1981, all were Cabernets, coming from Sagemoor, Otis and… Red Willow Vineyards.
He was known to motivate growers and shared his knowledge. It was David Lake that encouraged Mike Sauer to plant Syrah, the variety that Red Willow is perhaps best known for these days.
Now you have a bit of background. This humble vineyard is one of the great vineyards in Washington State and some of the legendary names in Washington Wine helped to form it.
Jonathan Sauer drives us up the hill, and we stop below the Chapel Hill’s west slope. The Red Willow Chapel sits on a hill so there are aspects on all sides. The west slope fruit is intense, dark, and tannic. The east slope, with its soil windblown loess, has more perfume in the wine, giving it more elegance. This is a significant difference in fruit, when as Jonathan says, “You can throw a ball from one to the next”. The south slope is more of a mix of the two styles. Here, from just within the Chapel block you have the makings for a beautiful blend, with depth and complexity, just from one variety.
“It’s probably easier to make a wine that I’m gonna get stuff from Wahluke and Horse Heavens and Walla Walla and I’ll get all these different components and create a blend. But to do a vineyard designate, it can be a little more challenging. But yet, when you do it right it can just be a magical wine, just that sense of place you get from it.”
Jonathan Sauer, July 2019
“…well it’s grown on the steepest kinda warmest sites over in France so let’s do that here! So, you’re kind of guessing. It really isn’t until 10 years later or even longer that you say, well that was a good guess, or maybe I shouldn’t have done that.We’re a young industry and even though our vineyard is approaching 50 years, I think we’re 47 this year. We’ve still got a lot to learn and each year we’re trying to get a little better and learn a little more. We haven’t been here for centuries like the Old World.”
Jonathan Sauer, July 2019
The Chapel block itself is 100% Syrah, which is how it got its Chapel, reminiscent of the famous Chapel in Hermitage in France, where some of the most famous Syrah on the planet grows. The entire Chapel hill is broken into Syrah, Sangiovese, and Viognier. Mike Sauer planted the Viognier to go with the Syrah. In the Northern Rhone, the two grapes are often blended or co-fermented, so it seemed appropriate to have a little of that to mix in. When they were planting the Viognier, they looked to France for inspiration.
We continue to drive into the vineyard, and I notice that each row has a tag on the end with a winery name. They sell fruit by the acre not the ton, so the winemakers can drop fruit as they want. It might make the fruit more expensive, but the winemaker has the choice. The blocks have tall signs over them telling you what variety the grape is and the year it was planted.
Eastern Washington only gets about 6-7 inches of precipitation a year and the majority of that comes in the winter. 2019 was an anomaly and they had snow in February. This caused the vines to take off early.
“We had a lot of moisture so the vines kind of took off early…and then you don’t want to stress them, right when they are at bloom and set really, so you’ve got to keep watering them. We’re well past that now, so when you are past that you hit the brakes and just dry it out. So, there’s so much influence that a grower has in this state over that water, it’s huge. It’s probably one of the biggest factors of consistency and the benefits that it leads to in quality. It’s tremendous, influencing the berry size, the vine, the exposure it gets, and the canopy. It’s tremendous. It’s one of the great factors Washington has. There’s a lot of them, the cool nights, the latitude…and right at harvest time, it’s always so magical, your days are shortening enough and just that northerly latitude … the cool nights keeping the acidity within the wines that you find a lot in Washington. It’s a great place to be a grower.”
Jonathan Sauer, July 2019
We leave the Chapel Hill behind us and drive through what they call the Saddle and then into the Peninsula block, to a point where there is a cutout. Here you can see the layers of soil.
Red Willow is a high elevation vineyard. The building at the bottom of the vineyard that we came from sits at 1100 feet. The top of the Marcoux block which is the furthest north block is at around 1300 feet. The Missoula Floods, washed into about one-third of the way up this hill.
You can see the ancient soils that remain above where the floodwaters came through. The strata layers are different. You also find pumice here from the volcanos of the Ancient Cascade Mountains.
This is like the lightweight stone that you often see for removing callouses, which is a direct projectile out of the volcanos. You also find compressed ash. Each of these soils tie back to a major geological event. We are looking at millions of years of geologic history in front of us.
The whole region is an uplift, that gives this region all these east/west ridges. Most of the world has north/south Ridges. The Peninsula Hill was a unique fold that came out of the Ahtanum Ridge that sits north of the Vineyard. I ponder for a moment, visualizing this hill as an island in the Missoula floods.
Jonathan tells us they are really farming to showcase the soil, looking for an active biological soil and trying to do things minimally.
Red Willow Vineyard is planted to about 150 acres of wine grapes. They also farm concords for jelly and juice. Jonathan points out the darker green areas in the lower sections of the property with overhead sprinkler systems, unlike the drip irrigation used for the wine grapes. They also do a bit hay, about 30 acres.
As to the wine grapes, they grow about 17 varieties and Jonathan says the beauty of that is that they all ripen at different times, with harvest lasting about a month and a half.
“Start with the Sav Blanc and Gewurz and go through Merlot, Syrah and then the mid-season, I usually say Cab Franc, Lemberger. Then we go into Cab, Sangiovese. We’ve got one row of Aglianico, it’s usually about at the end. And then the Nebbiolo we have on this hill, kinda right at the end.”
Jonathan Sauer, July 2019
We continue North toward the Marcoux Block pausing at the 91 Sangiovese, which was some of the earliest Sangiovese planting in the state. This is getting close to the northern edge of the vineyard. Past this you can see the sage brush leading toward the ridge.
The first block planted was in the Peninsula block the 73 Cabernet. Jonathan says his father planted some Semillon and Chenin Blanc in 1971. He planted them low on the property with the concords and they froze out. “I guess that was our first lesson. Put them on the hills out of the good fertile soil. After that, it worked pretty good.”
Mike Sauer also planted an experimental block, here at Red Willow Vineyard, back in the early 70s with Dr. Walter Clore. Jonathan says it had about a dozen varieties including rkatsiteli, a hardy grape from Ukraine. Out of that experimental block, his dad really liked the cab franc. He planted his first block of that variety in 1985.
With the cab franc, merlot, and cab sav growing here, DeLille was about to release a Red Willow Right Bank Blend. All of these are old blocks. I looked the wine up after getting home. The 2017 vintage was recently released only to the DeLille Wine club, so if you manage to get your hands on a bottle, treasure it
The different winemakers I had spoken with seemed to really revere Red Willow Vineyard. I mention this to Jonathan.
“Well we really like everybody we are dealing with. Especially if somebody is going to do a designate. We really try to do our best. … Dad’s really an endearing personality in the industry. A lot of people have got a lot of love for Mike and what he’s done, and we’re just trying to continue that, and not mess it up. Maybe add a little bit as we go.”
Jonathan Sauer, July 2019
We look through the Marcoux block to the Ahtanum Ridge. Jonathan was hoping that the wild horses would be out for us. Sadly, they must further down the valley. What a visual, picturing these tan rolling hills with wild horses galloping through.
We turn around and head back toward the Chapel then stop where the original 73 Cabernet had been planted. There were 3 acres that they finally took out and replaced with Syrah. The wineries loved it, but the vines had leaf roll virus and the yield was down to just 2 tons to the acre. They couldn’t allow the leaf roll to spread, so they had to pull it out.
We continue to the ’85 Nebbiolo block. “Dad tells a story where right about harvest time, they’re picking grapes and people are going everywhere and he had this guy show up and he had a bottle of Barolo in, I don’t know, both hands or something, coming up talking a million miles an hour and said “I want you to plant Nebbiolo! I’ve got a restaurant over in the Seattle area called Café Juanita and blah, blah, blah, and Dad’s like ‘okay, that’s nice. I’m kinda busy right now’.”
Later speaking with someone at the wine shop in Yakima he found out that the restaurant is well known with month-long waiting lists for reservations. Intrigued with Nebbiolo he spoke to David Lake about planting it. David Lake thought this was interesting, but he said “…you know, really if you want to plant a classic variety, that I think would be really well suited for your site in Washington, you ought to look at Syrah.”
So, David Lake called and found French Clone cuttings from Joseph Phelps in California, and they planted Syrah, which is now so iconic for this vineyard.
This started their pioneering wave, they tried Malbec, Sangiovese, and Viognier and Mataro. The winter of 96 was really cold, when the Syrah survived that, they knew this variety could do well in the state and it started to take off.
We turn to the 3 acres of old Syrah. Bob Betz calls this Le Côte Patriarche, Jonathan tells me. This wine is one of the Betz family wines top releases and it is typically sold in pre-sales. Barrel ratings for this wine are 94-96. Mark Fiore at Efeste and Andrew Rich also make Red Willow vineyard-designate Syrahs.
We head up the final stretch to the Chapel and pass the 93 Mataro block. This small block is planted on low trellis mimicking the method in Madrid to gain the solar heat from the ground for ripening. Jonathan was glad that was all he did. Tending these low vines is backbreaking work and they have enough heat here to not struggle with ripening.
At this point we reach the Chapel, where Jonathan’s father Mike is waiting for us in the shade. We will continue in our next post with our conversation with him.