I have always admired, and often loved, the wines of Washington state. But it is hard to delve deeply into every swell wine region in the world and to my everlasting discredit, I had not done so with the Evergreen State.
After spending a fabulous weekend covering the Northwest Wine Encounter, I’m a bigger fan than ever. I tossed some hosannas Washington’s way in my newspaper gig, but this week I’m delving more deeply here with a look at some of the people and places that make it special.
Starting with a guy who typifies this underappreciated region: Mike Sauer, owner/caretaker of Red Willow Vineyard.
Even plugged-in wine folks likely don’t know the name of this once and future pioneer, who might be the most respected grower in all of the Great Northwest.
“We’re almost certainly never gonna have a designation like Grand Cru in this country,” said vintner Chris Upchurch (left) of DeLille Cellars, “but if we did, there would not be a single argument that this would not be a Grand Cru vineyard. It’s got the soil, sun, exposure, but you can’t forget the people who work it. This is a real craftsmen elevating Washington state.”
It might have helped that Sauer learned literally from scratch. In Washington’s early days, he said, “the emphasis was finding wines that would survive the winter. In the 1950s and ’60s we had a lot of rough winters.”
In 1973, Sauer planted some cabernet sauvignon in the westernmost and highest-elevation vineyard in the Yakima Valley. Some of those vines are still producing exemplary juice.
But the real exploring came when he hooked up with Associated Vintners’ David Lake, the only Master of Wine making wine in the U.S. at the time. “He had a European mentality,” Sauer said, “and wanted to emulate the great French wines. Instead of just doing cab or merlot, he wanted to find grapes that showed a sense of place.”
So they planted some nebbiolo and some syrah. They held picnics and pseudo-ceremoniously buried some bottles of Barolo and Rhone syrahs in those respective vineyards. “My son tells the story that we buried the bottles so the grapes would know what they were supposed to be thinking about,” he said with a chuckle.
The syrah worked beautifully, the nebbiolo not so much. But Lake made good to spectacular wines along the way, and the pair developed a seriously special bond. “He always made me feel that those wines were mine,” Sauer said, “and I always made him feel that those vineyards were his.”
Along the way Sauer decided to focus strongly on two red grapes, neither of them nebbiolo. “I think we’re emulating some of the best places in the world with cab and syrah,” he said, “but I don’t think we’re gonna put Piedmont out of business.”
He also has been having a blast experimenting. “The new and exciting thing now is looking at different clones of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. It’s amazing the nuances these bring.”
Regardless, the grapes thrive at Red Willow because of soil (“above the Missoula flood line, we have gravel and pumice”), sun (“at our latitude, degree days make a huge difference in the character of these wines”) and the climate (“as we get near the fall equinox, the days get shorter [and cooler] much more rapidly than Napa”).
Perhaps they also are “blessed” by a fabulous chapel Sauer had built atop one of the blocks (left).
But none of it works without the right person overseeing everything. That’s where Sauer’s experience and exactitude come to the fore. “I like to make the analogy between a vineyard site and a tennis racquet,” Sauer said “There’s a sweet spot where you get power, consistency and accuracy. And if you have a broken string, forget about it.
“As a grower I’m trying to constantly bring the vines back to the sweet spot.”
And he’s succeeding with all manner of grapes. To wit:
• Westport Red Willow Vineyard “Captain Gray” Gewurztraminer ’16: gorgeous semi-subtle nose, juicy, vibrant, super-tasty tropical fruit.
• DeLille Cellars Red Willow Vineyard Malbec ’14: blue/purple fruit, great acidity, loaded with stuffing for aging.
• Manu Propria Ex Animo Red Willow Vineyard Cabermet Sauvignon ’13: fab expression, sturdy but approachable, great purity of fruit, loooong.
Basically, it says here, if you see “Red Willow Vineyard” on a label, pounce. And you can thank Mike Sauer while you’re savoring the wine.