On a clear day at Red Willow Vineyard, the top Mount Adams makes a majestic impression to the west. Looking out beyond the grapevines in all other directions and there’s a whole lot of nothing, which is what makes this place so special.
Mike Sauer first planted on this remote spot in 1971, shortly after graduating from Washington State University with a degree in Ag-Econ. “It was part of my father-in-law’s place; he was looking to plant some permanent crops like apples or cherries or grapes. At the time, I was intrigued by grapes with French-sounding grape names and an extension agent got me hooked up with Dr. Walter Clore,” Sauer said.
He heeded the advice of the man who has been called the godfather of the Washington wine industry. “Dr. Clore was a big believer in getting to know your site, making sure the areas you were going to plant in were frost-free, so every evening, I would jump on my motorcycle and ride around, checking the high and low temperatures in various spots.”
That first planting in what would become Red Willow Vineyard did not survive, but a subsequent experiment in 1973 with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes lives on. “A guy I was in the National Guard with managed vineyards for what used to be Associated Vintners and he sold me some vines,” he said.
And with that, the seed was sown for what would become a fruitful relationship with what became Columbia Winery. But first, Red Willow was part of a test plot planted by Dr. Clore and Dr. Charles Nagel to determine which regions in the state were best suited for certain varietals. “There were 22 different varieties of vinefera grapes planted here, and those were made into wine and evaluated by a panel at WSU,” Sauer said.
In 1978, Lloyd Woodburne signed Red Willow to a contract to provide fruit to Columbia and the following year, David Lake was hired. “It wasn’t long before David came out to the vineyard,” said Sauer of his longtime friend and colleague – known as the dean of Washington wine -- who passed away in 2009. “He was a huge influence, a real grower’s winemaker.”
Lake saw something special in Red Willow’s distinctive terroir, defined in part by its dramatically beautiful and isolated location in the foothills of the Cascades on Yakima Indian Reservation. In 1981, Lake made the first Red Willow Cabernet Sauvignon. “That was really more of a European concept at that time,” Sauer said. “You didn’t even find wineries in California doing much in the way of vineyard designated wines at the time.”
The subsequent awards for Red Willow designated wines proved Lake was on the right track and the vineyard expanded. “Peter Dow wanted me to plant Nebbiolo in the 1980s, and upon hearing about this, David Lake suggested that Syrah would be an ideal variety to try for this state. Then he facilitated the whole project by contacting and securing plants from Joseph Phelps Winery in California.”
While the vines flourished on the steep hillside, Lake joked that all the property needed to look more like the fabled vineyards of France was a chapel on top of the hill. “We built it from scratch, using stones from around the property,” Sauer said of the now iconic structure.
The operation hit a bump in the road when Constellation acquired Columbia in 2001, and eventually cut back on purchasing grapes from Sauer. Fortunately, there was a growing market of premium wineries looking for quality fruit. Today, Red Willow sells to a dozen or so vintners including DeLille Cellars, Betz Family Winery, Mark Ryan, Owen Roe and many more.
In recent years, Sauer’s two sons and a son-in-law have joined the business, and while he still is out in the vineyard everyday, he said he does less of the physical labor. His attention has shifted to experimenting with various clones. “That wasn’t something we even thought about in the beginning.”
It’s a huge commitment from receiving the vines, to growing them in a nursery and then planting in the vineyards. “You don’t know if you’re going to run into problems until five years down the road. Everybody’s always wanting to try the newest, but we’ve had some of the newer clones not work out very well.”
During his down time, Sauer spends a fair amount of time playing with his grandkids and documenting his work behind the lens of a camera. Many of his beautiful images are posted on the Red Willow Vineyard Web site.
David Lake, Mike Sauer and friends bury Syrah in 1986
Paul and Judy Champoux
John and Jerry Bookwalter
John and Scott Williams
Bob Betz, MW
Kay Simon & Clay Mackey