On April 1, 1991, the Columbia Winery releases Washington's first Syrah, inaugurating a new era in the state's red wine industry. Columbia winemaker David Lake (1943-2009) uses Syrah grapes that he and vineyard owner Mike Sauer planted in 1986 in Sauer's Red Willow vineyard in the Yakima Valley. At the time, most growers believed that Rhone varietals such as Syrah were warm-weather vines and would not thrive in Washington's cold winters. Yet Lake and Sauer nurture the vines and in 1988, Lake produces the 1988 Columbia Syrah. Lake releases it in the spring of 1991 to excellent reviews and considerable acclaim. Yet it is not until the vines survive a severe winter in 1996 that the rest of Washington's wine industry embraces Syrah. Within a few years, Syrah is widely planted in Washington and it becomes a popular and sought-after Washington red. By 1999, Syrah had become the third-most-planted red wine varietal in Washington, behind only Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Today, most Washington wineries include a Syrah in their lineup, and many specialize in it.
Partial to Syrah
The story began in 1985 when a Seattle restaurateur persuaded Sauer to plant an Italian varietal, Nebbiolo, in his Red Willow vineyard. Lake told Sauer he had an even better idea. Syrah, he said, "one of the great red wines of the world ... would be better suited to this area" (Sullivan).
Lake had always been partial to Syrah, the grape responsible for many of the fine wines from France's Rhone River valley. Yet in the U.S. up to that point, only a few California winemakers -- dubbed the Rhone Rangers -- had successfully produced Syrah. It was considered a warm-weather varietal, suited to the south of France, California, and Australia (where it is called Shiraz). Washington's successful reds were Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, more northern Bordeaux varietals.
"Until that time, the conventional wisdom was that Syrah would be destroyed by a really severe Washington winter," said Lake (Skeen). Yet Lake and Sauer decided to test that conventional wisdom. In 1986, they obtained some Syrah cuttings from the Joseph Phelps vineyards in California and planted them on Sauer's Red Willow vineyard, between Yakima and White Swan. They knew they were attempting something significant, and Lake made a ceremony out of it.
"We all took turns planting different rows together," recalled Sauer. "We had a small barbecue where we enjoyed several bottles of northern Rhone Syrah. After lunch, we took several bottles and buried them in the vineyard, so the vines would know what they're supposed to be thinking about" (Comiskey, p. 185).
The vines survived and thrived. In 1988, Lake bottled his 1988 Columbia Syrah. It was not only the first Syrah produced in Washington, but also the "only American Syrah to be grown north of the 45th parallel" (Stockley). Lake aged it a few years and released it in April 1991.
Leslie Kelly, the food and wine writer for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, was one of the first to recognize its significance. Days after its release, she said the wine was a "bold move," inviting inevitable comparisons to the exalted French and California Syrahs (Kelly). It also asked consumers to take a chance on something unfamiliar. Yet the risk paid off. She said it was "deliciously different" with a "dark, inky color and an inviting aroma that reminded me of dried cherries and blackberries" (Kelly). Kelly recommended holding onto a bottle as a collector's item, which turned out to be excellent advice. Only 300 cases were made, and it became a legendary Washington wine.
Six weeks later, Seattle Times wine writer Tom Stockley sampled the 1988 Columbia Syrah alongside Rhone wines and said it "showed very well and earned high praise for its rich, fruity character" (Stockley). He said one Rhone Valley winemaker had already likened it to a "good young Hermitage" from the northern Rhone (Stockley).
Surviving a Brutal Winter
However, nobody was yet hailing it as the beginning of a Syrah era in Washington, for one fundamental reason: Sauer's Red Willow vines had not yet survived a truly severe Washington winter. Other growers and winemakers were unwilling to take a chance on it. The turning point came in 1996, a notoriously brutal winter. "We probably got down to 13 to 15 below zero where the Syrah was planted," said Sauer. "And the vines came through fine" (Gregutt, "Will Syrah").
That was the watershed moment for Washington Syrah, said Lake. After that, growers and winemakers enthusiastically embraced Syrah, partly because they were looking for the next big thing after Cabernet and Merlot, but also because, in Lake's words, "it seemed like a winemaker's wine" (Gregutt, "Will Syrah").
In 1993, a federal survey showed no Syrah in Washington -- Sauer's plot being too small to count -- but by 1999, there were 1,500 acres of Syrah, surpassed only by Cabernet and Merlot among red wine grapes. By 2002, there were 2,100 acres -- and not only in the Yakima Valley. Walla Walla now had 100 acres of Syrah grapes.
Syrah was taking off with consumers as well. In 2004, winemaker Holly Turner of Three Rivers winery said, "I think people expect to see Syrah in your tasting room. They prefer Syrah over Cabernet or other Bordeaux varietals" (Gregutt, "Syrah Captures"). This may have been an exaggeration -- Cabernet and Merlot were each roughly three times more popular than Syrah. Yet the quality of Washington's Syrahs was excellent, prompting wine writers to wonder whether Syrah might become "the defining grape on which Washington can hang its fortunes" (Gregutt, "Will Syrah").
From Nothing to Something Big
Sauer certainly believed so. By 2006, he had 17 acres of Red Willow planted in Syrah, and he believed it was, far and away, the best quality grape in his vineyard. Lake, too, continued to be a powerful advocate for Syrah and was acknowledged as its pioneer. When Lake died in 2009, his obituary in The New York Times noted that his 1988 Columbia Syrah "led to a Syrah boom in the state" (Grimes).
Over the ensuing years, the popularity of Washington Syrah fluctuated, but the trajectory continued generally upward. As of the 2017 vineyard survey, Syrah acreage had mushroomed to 4,572 acres, still third behind Cabernet and Merlot, but far ahead of any other red varietal in Washington vineyards.
That year, the Seattle Met magazine did a roundup of high-end Washington Syrahs, with the headline, "The Wine World is Losing Its Mind Over Washington Syrah" (Sullivan, Seattle Met). Perhaps that was a stretch, but that year, Wine Spectator magazine named the 2014 K Vintners Powerline Estate Syrah from the Walla Walla Valley as its No. 2 wine of 2017 -- of any variety. Many Washington wineries were now specializing in Rhone-style wines. Some of the most notable wineries included Rotie Cellars, Gramercy Cellars, K Vintners, Cayuse Vineyards, and Reynvaan Family Vineyards.
As of 2020, the vineyard that started it all, Mike Sauer's Red Willow, continued to supply Syrah grapes to many Washington wineries, including Betz Family Winery, Owen Roe, Gramercy Cellars, Efeste, and Eight Bells Winery. Some of those grapes still come from the original vines, planted with such solemn ceremony in 1986. Those old Rhone bottles are still in the ground -- telling the vines exactly what to do.