Last week, we had the honor of visiting Red Willow Vineyard and spending an afternoon with the incredible Sauer family, Washington wine royalty.
We toured part of the vineyard with Mike, Karen and their son, Jon, and later were joined by Jon’s wonderful wife Kelly and their five lovely children. In this photo, (from left) Jon, Karen and Mike stand in front of old signs of grapes planted at Red Willow. Of note, the sign for the 1986 Syrah represents the first grape planted in Washington state.
During our visit, Mike told us about the harvest, which was almost but not quite over. He also discussed his clone project, and we tasted three wines made from some of those clones.
Although we spent time with Mike and Karen at a wine event in 2017, we hadn’t been to Red Willow in nine years. It was an amazing experience.
The vineyard is as expansive and meaningful now as it was then
Red Willow Vineyard is the furthest western vineyard within the Yakima Valley AVA. It is made up of four distinctive blocks, The Chapel, Les Vignes de Marcoux, Olney Springs, and Peninsula; Marcoux is the maiden name of Mike’s mother.
The vineyard supplies fruit to more than 30 wineries in Washington and Oregon, including Avennia, Betz, DeLille, Efeste, Eight Bells, Gramercy, Kerloo, Lady Hill, Mark Ryan and Owen Roe.
One of the most recognizable and photographed spots in Washington wine country is located on top of a steep hillside. This chapel is made of stones from the vineyard, and provides a place to rest and reflect. The chapel also gives a strong identity to Red Willow Vineyard.
The Sauers completed the chapel in 1997, 24 years after the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted. Those 1973 Cab vines still produce grapes, showcasing this meaningful location in Washington state history.
The history of Red Willow Vineyard features many milestones
Red Willow is part of a fourth-generation family farm established by Clyde Stephenson in the early 1920’s. Mike Sauer married Karen Stephenson and they began the vineyard in the early 1970’s.
That’s when Mike started experimenting with growing different grape varieties, working with Washington wine pioneers and legends Dr. Walter Clore (the acknowledged “Father” of Washington wine) and Master of Wine David Lake, who became a dear friend.
A decade after those 1973 Cabernet vines were in the ground, the Sauers planted Washington’s first Syrah and an acre of Nebbiolo in the mid-1980’s. Some of the region’s earliest vines of Tempranillo, Viognier, Barbera, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Sangiovese and Cab Franc were planted at the vineyard as well.
As the story goes, after the Syrah vines were first planted, the crew had a party to celebrate. David Lake opened bottles of French Syrah (Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie) from the northern Rhône Valley where Syrah originated. Then Mike and David dug a hole and buried the bottles to let the vines know about their predecessors. Those bottles are still there.
Today, Mike, his sons Jon (pictured above) and Danny, and son-in-law Rick all work 140 acres of wine grapes at Red Willow Vineyard.
In more recent years, small parcels of certified clone cuttings became a highlight
Mike and David started experimenting with clones in 2005, using different cuttings certified from the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology program.
Our next blog post look more closely at this more recent part of Red Willow history, including three wines made of vineyard clones for Eight Bells Winery and Lady Hill Winery.
Meanwhile, we extend our deepest thanks to Mike and Karen Sauer for their hospitality and kindness in hosting us at Red Willow Vineyard. Our experience was even more special than our first visit in 2009.
Margot and Dave