Red Willow Vineyard: The Mother of Washington Syrah

By Kori ~ July 21st, 2008.

“In farming there is no substitute for the soil, water, and hard work. Inherently, the nature of farming brings a spiritual dimension to our efforts. There is a connection of past, present, and future generations.

For us wine brings the soil, the site, the season, and the efforts of many people together into a single vintage. Later that vintage becomes a cherished memory of that year.” –Mike Sauer

This is the first in a series of posts on Washington Syrah. We thought it only fitting to begin this series with a report on our recent visit to Red Willow Vineyard which is where it all started for Syrah in the state of Washington.

Mike Sauer, owner of Red Willow Vineyard, and his son Jonathan, were our fabulous hosts for the afternoon. Red Willow is located in the northwest corner of the Yakima Valley AVA, 13 miles west of Wapato, Washington, on the fourth-generation Stephenson family farm established by Mike’s grandfather-in-law in the 1920’s. Mike shared with us the history of Red Willow and showed us the rocky hillsides where their grapes are grown including their still-producing first vineyard block of Cabernet Sauvignon that was planted in 1973.

Next on our tour was the 1986 Syrah vineyard, the mother Syrah block in Washington. In fact, it is estimated that 80 percent of all Syrah plantings in Washington have come from cuttings from this vineyard. While Mike has grown over 20 different varietals at Red Willow over the past 35 years, he was quoted in Paul Gregutt’s Washington Wines & Wineries as saying that he believes Syrah is what Washington can grow best.

Jonathan later shared a great story with us about how after this first Syrah block was planted there was a celebration on the hillside with bottles of Hermitage and Cote-Rotie from the northern Rhone Valley in France which is where Syrah originated. After enjoying the wine, they dug holes and buried the empty bottles to let the ground know what was expected of it. It was a symbolic gesture and the vineyard has lived up to those expectations quite well.

Then we drove up to the top of the hill to the iconic Monsignor Chapel which was built between 1992 and 1995 with stones from the farm. The chapel is surrounded by more Syrah plantings on three sides of the hill along with a Viognier block that is co-fermented with Syrah in some of the Syrah offerings originating from Red Willow. It is quite a reverent spot where you can feel the spirituality of the Sauer clan.

We capped off our afternoon with a tasting of four Syrahs made with Red Willow grapes before heading back home to Seattle. In subsequent posts, we will be discussing the wines we tasted, the long-standing relationship between Red Willow Vineyard and Columbia Winery, the recent diversification of Red Willow grapes into a number of other wineries, and the future of Red Willow from our perspective.

One thing is for sure, the Sauers are one of the finest families in wine country.

Filed under: American Wine, Shiraz/Syrah, Vineyards, Washington State Wine

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