Red Willow Vineyard: Hallowed ground in the Yakima Valley

By on September 11, 2014
This blog is re-posted with permission from Great Northwest Wine.
For the complete article and podcast visit Great Northwest Wine.

Red Willow Vineyard and its iconic chapel.

WAPATO, Wash. – In just about every conceivable way, the 140 acres of wine grapes here at Red Willow Vineyard are hallowed ground.

Here is where Washington’s first Syrah was planted. Here is where some of the Northwest’s earliest plantings of Tempranillo, Viognier, Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc went into the ground.

And atop a steep-facing vineyard is a humble stone chapel – perhaps the most recognizable building in the Washington wine industry.

For owner Mike Sauer, the spiritual roots grow even deeper. Here is where he developed one of the great partnerships and friendships in the history of Washington wine. Here is where four generations of a family have farmed on the Yakama Nation reservation and in the shadow of rugged Mount Adams.

Mike Sauer and David Lake

Red Willow Vineyard is owned by Mike Sauer.

Sauer has been growing wine grapes here for nearly 45 years. He started out with Chenin Blanc and Chasselas – which didn’t work out too well – and now his oldest grapes are a block of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 1973 that now go to David O’Reilly of Owen Roe.

This has long been a diversified farm, with Concord grapes in the lowlands and wine grapes on the hillsides. Nearby are wheat and alfalfa.

In 1979, Sauer met David Lake, a British expat who had recently started making wine for Associated Vintners (now Columbia Winery). They met at a grape growers meeting; Sauer needed a ride back to the vineyard, and Lake was happy to oblige. This was the beginning of a great friendship and collaboration that would change the direction of the Washington wine industry.

“We were both relatively young at the time,” Sauer told Great Northwest Wine. “We had similar personalities. We were both perfectionists in some ways. If (I was) willing to experiment with grapes, David was always willing to make wine with it.”

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Deep Roots in the Yakima Valley

Roots run deep in the Yakima Valley. This is true for both the vines and the multi generational farming families that are beginning the 2014 harvest.

This week’s blog is a “hats off” to those who have dedicated 30 plus years in the dirt growing Washington’s award winning wine. Some of the vines being farmed in the AVA date back to before prohibition…those are some deep roots.

In 1917, William Bridgman planted a vinifera vineyard on Snipes Mountain, near the center of the valley. Remarkably, his original vines are still bearing fruit! They now form part of Upland Vineyards, which have been farmed by three generations of the Newhouse family since 1972.


Newhouse Family | Upland Vineyards

Newhouse Family | Upland Vineyards

During those same four decades, the Sauer family has been tending the Red Willow Vineyard at the far western edge of the Yakima Valley, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Mike Sauer worked with Washington State University scientist Dr. Walter Clore to plant Cabernet Sauvignon vines here in 1973. And grape clusters are still harvested from those old vines, as well as from another 140 acres that Mike and his son Jonathan now farm for two dozen of Washington State’s finest wineries.

Sauer Family | Red Willow Vineyard

Sauer Family | Red Willow Vineyard

At the far eastern end of the valley, John Williams planted the first vineyard on Red Mountain in 1975. Those initial 10 or 12 acres were surrounded by nothing but sagebrush and cheatgrass. But they expanded to more than 300 acres now farmed by John, his son Scott, and grandson J.J. for their own winery (Kiona) and for many other leading labels across the region.

JJ., John, & Scott Williams | Kiona Vineyard

JJ., John, & Scott Williams | Kiona Vineyard

Of course, these are just a few of many families who have made the Yakima Valley not only the first—but also the largest and best—wine-growing appellation in Washington. Other famous names here include Olsen, Boushey, Shiels (DuBrul), Gelles (Klipsun), and Holmes (Ciel du Cheval). Each of them has helped to make this area the backbone of our state wine industry.

Our farming families have achieved much from hard work and a lot of pioneering trial and error. But they also have benefited from a mutually productive relationship with Washington State University’s agricultural research station in the local city of Prosser. The WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center (IAREC) began test-planting hundreds of grape varieties in the Yakima Valley back in 1937. Subsequent research during the 1950s extended to advancing pruning techniques.

During the 1980s, the center developed strategies to support vine hardiness during colder conditions, which some years can make the difference between a successful crop and no crop at all. The 1990s then delivered remarkable research into deficit irrigation methods, which both improved wine quality and reduced the industry’s water usage by as much as 30 percent. More recently, the center’s work has successfully tackled vine bacteria and viral problems, as well as dramatically decreased the need for insecticides—the usage of which dropped 80 percent during the decade to 2005. These are just a handful of many substantial accomplishments that have helped make the Yakima Valley grape-growing industry such a triumph; and progress continues in both the field and the lab.

So what do these venerable vineyards and local scientific research mean to the wines of the Yakima Valley? Well, it might be more appropriate to ask what they mean to the wines of Washington State as a whole. Look at back labels on bottles produced anywhere from Woodinville to Walla Walla, and you will discover that top Washington wineries have grown to greatness with Yakima Valley grapes. To put it another way, the largest concentration of the most famous vineyards in the Pacific Northwest are found right here.

This valley’s special confluence of topography, climate, farming families, and viticultural research are like almost nowhere else on Earth. They result in wines that look and smell and taste distinctly of their amazing origins. Most remarkably, these vineyard-specific characters are notable across multiple styles. For example, with a little practice, almost anyone can distinguish a bold red wine from Boushey versus one from Klipsun, or a rich white from Red Willow versus one from DuBrul. They all appeal in different ways, yet they all are expressions of Yakima Valley. See for yourself, and discover our landscape in your glass. Of course, the experience is even better in person.



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Chinook Wines: Quintessential Yakima Valley

Today’s post is an excerpt of an article posted on Washington Tasting Room website. Read the full article here.

“WE REALLY don’t have that in mind,” says Kay Simon, co-owner of Chinook Wines, dismissing the notion of retirement.  Her husband, Clay Mackey, the other co-owner of this winemaking venture, chimes in, “No, not in the cards.”  One might assume, with 31 years of successful winemaking under their belts, that the couple would be seriously contemplating the “R” word. But they have other ideas.

Husband and wife team Clay Mackey and Kay Simon of Chinook Wines (Richard Duval photo)

Husband and wife team Clay Mackey and Kay Simon of Chinook Wines (Richard Duval photo)

“We’re at 3,000 cases and have been for quite some time,” Clay says.  “There’s really just the two of us, and that is a comfortable level.  Any more, and we’d be looking to hire some people.”
Kay laughs, pointing out, “Whereas most wineries start out small and hope to grow, we started big and went small for quality reasons.”  She was referring to the fact that in California, where they began their winemaking careers, both worked for wineries that delivered varietals by the trainload.

Perfect Pairing
After each completed degrees at UC Davis’ renowned enology and viticulture program (which they attended at different times, and had yet to make each other’s acquaintance), they independently gravitated north to Washington and its burgeoning wine industry.  Their paths converged in the 1970’s when both began working for Chateau Ste. Michelle, and love ripened among the vines.

At Chateau Ste. Michelle, Clay exercised his degree in viticulture by tending to their grape growing needs, while Kay called upon her background in fermentation science to direct Chateau Ste. Michelle’s red wine production.  It was only natural that they combine their professional talents, so in 1983 they launched Chinook Wines.

Opulent Yakima Valley Wines 
This couple has a predilection for making single varietal wines, such as Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  For loyal fans of Chinook Wines, however, their Cabernet Franc is front and center, produced every year from a blend of many different vineyards in the Yakima Valley.  From the beginning, this winery has supported local growers, including such renowned vineyards as Dutchman Vineyard, Lonesome Spring Ranch, Boushey Vineyard, Oasis Farms and Upland Vineyards.


Chinook 2012 Yakima Valley Chardonnay, $19
Made from old vine Chardonnay grapes grown by multi-generational Yakima Valley vineyard families, this medium-bodied wine is deftly structured, showing balanced acidity. Nose: Aromas of tropical citrus, green fig, blanched almonds and crème fraîche. Taste: Refined and refreshing, layered with green apple, citrus and spice.

Chinook 2010 Yakima Valley Cabernet Franc, $23
For over 15 years, Chinook has produced a Cab Franc sourced from their Prosser vineyard and other Yakima Valley sites. Nose: Compelling and earthy aromas of Rainier cherries, marionberries, tea leaf and herbal spice. Taste: Richly satisfying and pure fruit flavors of blueberry liqueur, black tea, with top notes of pie cherries and complex savory herbs on a lengthy finish.

Chinook 2012 Yakima Valley Sauvignon blanc, $18
The juice was fermented at a cool temperature to retain its floral and fruity aromas. A versatile food wine, try with Camembert or herbed chevre on rosemary bread. Nose: Intricate aromas of green melon, citrus and savory herb. Taste:Crisp and vibrant, there’s a cut of slate minerality to the lemon-lime citrus and grapefruit, and a hint of lychee.

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Yakima Valley’s Five Vines in various stages of veraison

This week’s blog post offers a look at the five Cabernet Sauvignon vines we are monitoring throughout the growing season. Each of these vines is located in a different meso climate or sub AVA within the Yakima Valley appellation. The images reflect what the plants currently look like.

The vines are all going through veraison, the grapes still taste sour and are immature.

For more information on the vineyard site of each of these vineyards click here.

Tapteil trio

Tapteil Vineyard, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley:
Nearing 100 percent veraison which began July 29th. Photos show views from the east and west and over the vineyard north to Red Mountain.

Red Willow trio

Red Willow Vineyard, Yakima Valley: The cab is about 20% verasion. There is a good balance of fruit. We will likely do a slight color thinning towards the end of verasion.


Upland Vineyard, Snipes Mtn, Yakima Valley: Vine is 95% through verasion.  Once the heat subsides we will take a few more leaves off to give the clusters some “autumn exposure.”  Other than that, the vine is dialed in and we’re just waiting for harvest!

Dubrul trio

DuBrul Vineyard, Yakima Valley:  Veraison is well underway at DuBrul Vineyard.   The seed coats have hardened and berry size is set at this point. The colors are changing, the grapes are accumulating sugar and the acids are dropping. During this time grape physiology changes drastically. Our vines are netted to protect the grapes from birds.

Portteus trio

Portteus Vineyard, Rattlesnake Hills, Yakima Valley: Our Cabernet Sauvignon is well into veraison. By the same time next month we should be in the beginnings of harvest.


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Cabernet Sauvignon in Veraison

We’ve read from our Five Vine grower participants this summer that Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the later  varieties to ripen. Kerry Shiels of DuBrul Vineyard announced this morning that the Cabernet vine at DuBrul Vineyard is in veraison.
cab sauv veraison

During the month of August the grapes begin to change color known as veraison. During this time the vineyard workers prune the canopy and excess grape clusters. At this stage, the grapes still taste sour and are immature.

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Next steps for the Five-Vines of the Yakima Valley

This week’s blog post offers a look at the five Cabernet Sauvignon vines we are monitoring throughout the growing season. Each of these vines is located in a different meso climate or sub AVA within the Yakima Valley appellation. The images reflect what the plants currently look like.

The next step in the development of these vines is known as veraison, a critical time in the vineyard’s life cycle. During veraison, the vineyard workers prune the canopy and excess grape clusters. At this stage, the grapes still taste sour and are immature.

For more information on the vineyard site of each of these vineyards click here.

Upland final final

A Tempranillo cluster taken on Snipes Mtn. 7-14-2014

A Tempranillo cluster taken on Snipes Mtn. 7-14-2014

Upland Vineyard, Snipes Mtn, Yakima Valley: Cell division has ceased and the vines are through lag phase. (Lag phase is a two week period that occurs in the roughly eight week period between fruit set and veraison, where the clusters do not gain weight or size).  Starting to see some verason in Chardonnay, Tempranillo, Tinta Madeira, Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec.

Probably a week or two away from seeing it in Cabernet Sauvignon as it is one of the later varieties. We look to be at least a week ahead of last year and up to three weeks ahead of “normal.”


Tapteil Vineyard, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley: Pea-sized berries, approaching bunch closure. Cluster count on vine: 28. Cluster size: Small. Harvest prediction: Late September.


Red Willow Vineyard, Yakima Valley: Dog days of summer.

Portteus Vineyard, Rattlesnake Hills, Yakima Valley: Fruit is still in the berry growth stage.

DuBrul final

DuBrul Vineyard, Yakima Valley:  Catch wires are up on the morning side of the vine. Leaf stripping is in process in the fruiting zone to allow the sunlight on the clusters which ensures proper ripening.

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A spotlight on Yakima Valley’s Sub AVA – Rattlesnake Hills

The Yakima Valley AVA grows more than 40 different varietals of wine grapes. The success of this diversity can be attributed to the many different growing aspects within the AVA. The micro climates, heat variations, and different soils types within the three sub AVAs play a major role in successfully growing so many grape varieties.

Today’s blog focuses on the Rattlesnake Hills AVA.  The appellation is located in south-central Washington around the town of Zillah with the hills named after the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake, which inhabits the area.

Elephant Mtn.1As a growing region, Rattlesnake Hills is almost evenly split between red and white wine grapes with reds having a slight edge. Riesling is a dominant white grape in this region producing wines with aromas and flavors of lime, lemon, and green apple.  Other sites in the appellation offer flavors with a little more stone fruit, particularly peach.

Merlots are notable for red fruit aromas and flavors, such as sweet cherries, red currants, and raspberries, along with chocolate and mint. For Cabernets, black cherry, cassis, and light, high-toned herbal notes are often the hallmarks.

The east-west trending Rattlesnake Hills are an anticline of the Yakima fold belt, a series of geologic folds that define a number of viticultural regions in the area.

The appellation itself lies on the south slope of the Rattlesnake Hills and includes the highest point in the Yakima Valley AVA. The Rattlesnake Hills’ distinguishing feature is its elevation relative to the surrounding area. Elevations range from 850 feet to 3,085 feet, although vineyard plantings are limited to the lower-lying areas.

The appellation’s heightened elevation lessens the risk of spring and fall frosts. Additionally, winter temperatures are warmer than the surrounding area, limiting the danger of hard freezes. The predominant soil types are silt-loam and loam.

The Rattlesnake Hills has an arid, continental climate and receives an average of 6 to 12 inches of rainfall annually. Irrigation is therefore required to grow vinifera grapes. The earliest vines at Rattlesnake Hills were planted in 1968.

The following wines represent the true characteristics of the fruit from the Rattlesnake Hills AVA.

Saviah Cellars’ 2011 G.S.M. Elephant Mountain Vineyard, Rattlesnake Hills, $38
Beautiful ruby red color in the glass. Refined aromas of spiced red plums, black cherries, and cranberry, with hints of red peppercorns and wild roses. The flavors are concentrated and harmonious, delivering red and black fruits, which are complemented by refreshing acidity, along with notes of tea, white pepper, and allspice. An elegant, yet intensely flavored wine that is a perfect match for Mediterranean cuisine.

This wine is an exceptional representation of Rattlesnake Hills AVA showcasing some of the best attributes of the region. It won Best in show at the 2014 Great Northwest Wine Competition. Read about grower Joe Hattrup and his Elephant Mountain Vineyards.

AniChe Cellars 2011 Moth Love, Rattlesnake Hills, $34
Moth Love is a blend of 38% Syrah, 25% Mourvedre and 37% Grenache from Rattlesnake Hills AVA. Rich velvet black fruit, chocolate, black pepper and subtle hints of red meat. A full bodied, medium tannin wine. This wine pairs well with grilled steak, stews, and rich savory dishes.

Kennedy Shah 2008 Reserve Malbec, Rattlesnake Hills, $42
This rich & ripe Malbec displays dark espresso & mocha aromas leading into lush plum sauce, braised ripe fig & dark blueberry flavors. The long, creamy finish brings it all together very nicely.

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