Red Willow Vineyard: 40 Years and Just Beginning!

By John ~ August 14th, 2013.

Humble, dedicated, innovative, smart, hard working, ethical, family-oriented, forward thinking…these are some of the words that came to my mind to describe Mike Sauer and the Red Willow Vineyard family as I participated in their 40th anniversary celebration a few weeks ago. While 40 years is not a long time when you compare it to the history of many European vineyards, it is ancient history in Washington wine growing circles. Red Willow’s first Cabernet Sauvignon block was planted in 1973, and the first Syrah in Washington was planted at Red Willow in 1986.

While Mike Sauer is quick to give much of the credit for his success to Dr. Walter Clore and long-time Columbia Winery winemaker David Lake, it took a big leap of faith to plant test plots of numerous grape varieties on unproven vineyard land back in the 1970’s when there were only six wineries in Washington State. And, after 40 years, Mike was talking to me not about retiring, but about an obscure Russian grape, whose name I can neither spell nor pronounce, that he thinks has some good potential here in Washington. That’s just one example of why I believe the future looks so bright at Red Willow Vineyard.

Mike and Karen Sauer’s sons Jonathan and Daniel, and son-in-law Rick Willsey are all active in the business and provide the continuity so vital in a long-term oriented occupation such as grape growing. 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 1920. The Monsignor Chapel is the most famous visual symbol of Red Willow and stands atop some of their best producing hillside vineyard blocks.

When we made our first trip to Red Willow over five years ago, so that Kori could do research for the first in a series of posts on the vineyard, Columbia Winery had just released some blocks from contract with Red Willow. At that time, I sensed that Mike was a little apprehensive about where he would go with those grapes. I told Mike then that I thought that would prove to be the best thing that ever happened to Red Willow because it would put grapes in the hands of many more excellent winemakers who would have a wide variety of winemaking styles that would express the potential of his grapes in new and maybe even better ways. Since then, in addition to Columbia Winery, Red Willow grapes have been utilized in wines by Betz Family Winery, Mark Ryan, Fall Line, Avennia, Gramercy Cellars, Adams Bench, DeLille Cellars, Owen Roe, Efeste, Eight Bells, Barrage Cellars, Cavatappi, Newport, Andrew Rich, and others.

Later in the fall of 2009, Kori wrote an article for Washington Tasting Room magazine giving a more comprehensive history of the development of Red Willow as well as some thoughts on its future. If you didn’t see it then, I’d suggest reading it now. And keep looking for wines made with Red Willow grapes. They are, and will continue to be, some of the best wines in Washington state…or anywhere else, for that matter.

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

Reader's Comments

  1. Impulse Wine | August 25th, 2013 at 9:37 am

    Will be visiting Red Willow next month and I’m really excited about it! I haven’t been there for 3-4 years now

  2. John | August 25th, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Red Willow at harvest should be great. Say hello to the Sauers for us.

  3. Impulse Wine | August 25th, 2013 at 9:49 am

    I will certainly do that John 🙂

  4. Marcus | September 1st, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    I had the pleasure last Sunday of having the Herbfarm’s last bottle of their 1988 Columbia Syrah, given to Ron by David himself. Was absolutely beautiful after 25 years being cellared correctly. Was like drinking history in a glass!

  5. John | September 1st, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Marcus. That’s a great testimony to Red Willow and David Lake.