Washington Wine History Interviews: Mike Sauer, Red Willow Vineyard

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 8/10/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22534
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Mike Sauer (b. 1947) was a farm boy from Toppenish who became the founder and guiding force behind Red Willow Vineyard, near Wapato and White Swan in the Yakima Valley. He graduated from Washington State University with a degree in agricultural economics. He thought he would end up working for a bank or a big food corporation. It didn’t work out that way, because life had a few surprises in store for Sauer. He married fellow WSU student Karen Stephenson, and when he graduated, his father-in-law needed someone to help run his sprawling farm. The farm mostly grew hay, cattle, wheat, and alfalfa for seed. But a happy accident led Sauer to grapes in the early 1970s, before Washington had a true wine industry to speak of. Here, in a June 10, 2022, interview with HistoryLink's Jim Kershner at the Red Willow Vineyard, Sauer tells the story of how he came to be a grape grower, and how he was eventually led to fine wine grapes. 

New Kid on the Farm

Mike Sauer: Well, fairly early on, my father-in-law was kind of looking for a niche for the new kid on the farm. And he had a 40-acre field just south of where we're sitting now. He had put in a solid set irrigation system, PVC pipe, which is common as anything today, but in the mid to later '60s, that was a fairly, fairly new stuff, at least for this area.

It laid out in a whole big grid for 40 acres, 60-by-80-foot spacing. And it didn't work for the open crops. And so, anyway, he said, "Well, all the pipes are there and a lot of money invested, why don't we look at something, a permanent crop that would utilize this, something that you're not working up the ground all the time?" And I'd heard about Concord grapes. That's the ones you grow for Welch's for juice and jams and stuff. And so I had a little bit of knowledge of one of the farmers that had grown some. So we put in some Concords, but at the same time, I'd just heard about these French-sounding wine grapes, and mainly Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir. Of course, we pronounced it differently in those days.

Jim Kershner: Peanut?

MS: Yeah. Peanut. And stuff like that. And I tried a couple rows adjoining the Concords. This is on the low lands and rich farm ground. And of course, the Concords were very successful, but the wine grapes just froze out almost immediately.

JK: Oh, is that right? It was just an experiment essentially?

MS: It was more than ... Yeah, it was an experiment. Yeah. I had no idea where it was going. About that time, I met a county extension agent named Don Chaplain. And he said, "Well, you need to meet up with Dr. Walter Clore." And he was kind of well into his career by then, later part of his career. And so I met with him and he was invaluable in pursuing the wine grape part of the grape interest.

JK: Yeah. Explain his role. What did he [Clore] do?

MS: Well, for a lot of years at the experiment station, he had other crops also that he was responsible for, but he was always doing quite a bit of background research on: Could wine grapes be grown as a crop in Eastern Washington? And, I mean, he very deservedly has the title of the Father of the Washington wine industry. So he had done a lot of the research. They were especially looking at which varieties would survive the winters. And if you go back to the late '40s, the '50s, the '60s, the winters were pretty severe. And that was something. If you couldn't grow the thing, there's no sense in trying to make wine out of it.

So he was doing a lot on looking at different varieties. And at the experiment station, he had, I guess you call him a sidekick or an assistant. George Carter would make the wines. They would make it in five-gallon lots. And he'd put out all these little experimental plots throughout Eastern Washington. Although he had one at La Center, down at Bingen, Cold Creek. When he heard about me at White Swan, it's a whole different area, so he was interested. They had them, several places. And then they would plant about 20 different varieties of grapes, only four vines of each at these spots. And ours consistently turned out pretty much the top end.

Collaborations with David Lake

Dr. Clore encouraged Sauer to plant more of those wine varieties, especially red varieties, many of which did far better than expected. Sauer bought some Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings and became one of the first three Washington vineyards to grow that variety. Sauer developed a close relationship with David Lake, a pioneer winemaker with Associated Vintners, soon to be renamed Columbia Winery. Sauer sold his grapes to Lake, who began making award-winning red wines, with "Red Willow" prominently designated on the labels. It was the beginning of a decades-long collaboration between Sauer and Lake. Here, Sauer talks about how the vineyard began to grow in the early 1980s:

JK: Did you expand the vineyard then? How big was the vineyard at the beginning?

MS: It was quite small. We had the three acres, then a few years later, we planted a few more in it. And it pretty well just sat there at less than 20 acres in the early '80s, general agriculture was just really struggling. Prices were down. I know the farm was losing a lot of money, and I went to our farm corporation meeting and saying, "Well, I'd like to put in another five acres," and way up high, that was not being farmed.

And my father-in-law was a successful, but an aggressive farmer. And he said, "Let's put in 40 acres." And for us, it is going to the bank, interest rates were about 18 percent at the time. And to borrow a bunch of money from the bank to put in 40 acres of wine grapes. And we put in 20 acres of Gewürzt and 20 acres of Riesling in 1982. And you know, I don't think we ever made a nickel on that thing. In that time, when we planted that Gewürzt and Riesling, white grapes were worth about $600 a ton. And by the time they came in production, a few years later, they fell to $300 a ton. And it was kind of right at the transition point where whites were falling off a cliff, as far as prices, and reds were starting to be more interest and more in demand.

JK: So at that time, had you expanded beyond Cabernet and the reds, or were you still mostly Cabernet?

MS: We had a little bit of a Lemberger, a little bit of Chardonnay at the time, and we're still relatively small, but then in that whole expansion, we planted some Pinot Noir. And then the mid '80s is when it really changed for us. We planted the experimented with Nebbiolo, the following year, we planted Syrah and Cabernet Franc, and all of those were winners for us. Syrah in particular. Seemed like after we planted Syrah, we'd done quite well.

Here, Sauer tells the story of how David Lake and Peter Dow, owner and chef of Café Juanita, talked Sauer into experimenting with some Syrah vines and other vines that were at the time considered unsuitable for Washington’s climate:

JK: Tell me about the evolution of Syrah and how did you get onto that?

MS: Well, as I mentioned, for years, it was which varieties were recommended as surviving the winters. And a restaurateur from over the Seattle area, Peter Dow, approached me during grape harvest – [I was] as busy as anything. In fact, there's a picture on the wall over there. He shows up with a couple bottles of Barolo and Barbaresco.

And he said, "I would like to have you plant Nebbiolo for me. I'm from Cafe Juanita," a restaurant. I had never heard of the restaurant. I've never heard of Nebbiolo, Barolo, or Barbaresco, or anything. And I went, "I'll get back to you." And a few months later, I went to a local wine shop. Yakima had an excellent one at the time. And I went in there and I said, "Have you ever heard of Barolo or Barbarescos?" "Oh my gosh, they're arguably one of the great red wines of the world." And I said, "Some guy from Cafe Juanita wanted me to plant some." They said, "Oh my gosh, that's a month to get into the place [for a reservation]." And so I called him back and we agreed to plant Nebbiolo for him. When David Lake heard that I was going to experiment with Nebbiolo, he said, "Really, I think one of the great red wines for Washington, would be a Syrah." So I said, "Okay, let's try that too."

JK: And the conventional wisdom on that was that it was a warm-weather grape that wouldn't do as well?

MS: Yeah. Absolutely. But also around that time, we're still having some cold winters, but things were moderating a little bit. Anyway, we planted the Nebbiolo in 1985, the following year, David had gone to ... checked around California. And the only two sources of Syrah were Joseph Phelps and one other California, older winery. But luckily we didn't go with them. I think they had more, just older vines and more disease problems. So he lined up the plants from Joseph Phelps and we shipped them up here, grew them in a nursery for one year. In 1986, we set out three acres of Syrah. And they adapted extremely well. We put it on one of the steepest slopes that we had. We wanted it to be successful. At that time, I felt a lot of pressure. If you're experimenting with a new variety that has potential for the state, if you fall flat on your face, probably no one else is going to come look at it for quite a while. And so, we wanted it to work, and we put it on one of the better sites that we had. And the Syrah worked from day one.

Famous for Syrah

Here, Sauer tells the story of that historic first planting of Syrah – a grape which would later be Red Willow’s most famous variety and which would become a mainstay of Washington’s wine industry:

JK: Isn't there a story about when you planted that first block of Syrah with David Lake?

MS: Yeah, it's kind of a historic picture. David knew what was happening. I was just planting grapes. Had his cellar crew, maybe of ... Well, there's a picture of that up there [points to wall] on the right hand corner. About six or so people. They helped plant the grapes that day. He brought over some bottles from the Rhône, and we had a barbecue at lunchtime. And then after the bottles were empty, of course, we took a few of the bottles up on top of the Syrah planting and dug some holes and planted the bottles. My son [Jonathan Sauer] says, "That way, the vineyard would know what it's supposed to do."

The Red Willow Vineyard does not make its own wine. Because of its reputation, it sells blocks of the vineyard to many of the top-end wineries in the state. Here, Sauer explains how it works:

JK: Who do you sell to today?

MS: Oh, I think we're dealing with probably 35 different wineries. I'm sure I'm going to omit some of them. DeLille, Owen Roe, Mark Ryan, Efeste, Gramercy, Betz. Interesting side story, Jim. When we started breaking off some of the blocks, we went to Bob Betz. I had known him and always admired him. And Bob taught me quite a bit about growing grapes also, as far as identifying rows to the wineries. I'm really working with the winery specifically to try to make wine for that winery.

But I remember one of the first blocks that we broke off was to Bob, and I called him up after he made the wines, I think in February. And I said, "Well, Bob, how's that going? Are we going to try to do this again for another year?" And he said, "Well, Mike, I hate to say it right now. This wine smells like mouse fur." Oh my gosh, I was crushed. And just thinking, all these years, maybe it was David Lake that was the magic and that's why Red Willow was so good. Maybe our grapes are no good. And couple months later, he calls me. Bob calls me back and says, "You still got the grapes, Mike?" "Yeah. Still waiting for you, Bob." And he said, "I'll take it. It came around." And it went through a funky stage and ... boy, that was about three months of totally losing confidence, that maybe it was just David Lake that was making that good of wine out of Red Willow. 

Chapel on the Hill

Red Willow has one of the most-photographed vineyards in the state, partly because its hilltop is adorned by a beautiful stone chapel, reminiscent of chapels in France’s vineyards. Here, Sauer explains how the chapel came about:

MS: Well, once again, it goes back to David Lake, when we started planting more blocks of Syrah, and we had a real distinctive knoll that we were planting. He said, "Now you need a chapel on the hill." And he was just kind of making a passing comment. We're a fairly spiritual family. I liked the idea.

MS: I had visited some of Europe, and there's a lot of, just stone structures and things. So it's the European kind of a concept that you'll see throughout Europe. I had a guy working for me, his name was Esequiel Tzintzun, and he was a stonemason in Mexico. So he had already done some stone walls and things for me. So I said, "I liked the idea." And so we started hauling rocks for Esequiel. We had a real rough image of one of the chapels in Northern Rhône region of France. And so we said, "Well, we'll make the opening about this high," and ended up being much more similar to La Chappelle than we intended, but it's fairly similar to La Chappelle, a famous vineyard and chapel on top of the hill. We had an old priest friend of ours that died about that time. So for some years, we call it the Chapel of the Monsignor. It does give an identity to the vineyards.

Here, Sauer talks about the four elements of a great bottle of wine – one of which is symbolized by the chapel:

JK: Do you go up there ever?

MS: Oh, often. Yeah. All the time. Yeah. Just a pop in to say a few prayers. It reminds you of the connection of the weather and whether you call it Mother Nature or Brother Divine or whatever. And then some years later, I read a book by George Rainbird, I think, and he talks about the four elements of a great bottle of wine. He talks about the terroir, is something that's permanent, the variety is very important, discovering ... Europe has taken centuries to say, well, Cabernet Franc is planted there and Merlot is over there and Cabernet. And basically in Washington, we're growing everything everywhere, but it's gradually becoming refined to where the better Chardonnays are coming out of that part and maybe Red Mountain is just excelling in Cabernets.

So anyway, the variety is very important. The site. The work of human hands is the grape grower, the winemaker, and how they influence that wine. And then the fourth leg of the stool is the vintage, the season, the divine, the thing that none of us quite control. And to me, the chapel kind of symbolizes the place, the work of human hands, the variety, and that vintage. I just finished a thing at Owen Roe the other day, and it was fun to do a vertical tasting of six different vintages of Syrah from Red Willow, the same winemaker and everything. And just completely different.

Further reading: HistoryLink's biography of Mike Sauer by Peter Blecha.

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