Washington’s First Syrah

Washington State’s wine industry began in the Yakima Valley. So it’s no surprise that Yakima Valley vineyards pioneered the first plantings of several key grape varieties in the Pacific Northwest. Take, for example, the regional roots of Syrah:RedWillowFirst_Syrah_(2)

Mike Sauer and his family established Red Willow Vineyard in 1973. They applied enormous effort to cultivating the steep slopes here, and soon captured special recognition. Columbia Winery produced one of America’s first vineyard-designated wines when it proudly displayed the Red Willow name on its flagship Cabernet Sauvignon in 1981. Ever since, the Sauers have represented a standard of excellence for the Yakima Valley and the wider Washington State wine industry.

Yet the reason for Red Willow’s touchstone status dates to 1986. Sauer and his family responded to a request from David Lake, who then was chief winemaker at Columbia and one of the world’s few Masters of Wine. “David trained in London,” said Sauer, “so he was very familiar with the great wine regions of Europe. And from the very start of his work in Washington, he said that the Yakima Valley was well suited to producing wines in the style of the northern Rhône region of France.” He added, “David wanted to emulate or pay tribute to those great reds of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie. So he said we needed to grow Syrah.”DSC_0227_2

Three acres were planted that year: the first Syrah in Washington State. Sauer recalls the actual day with clarity and a little humor. “David brought his cellar crew over to do some token planting. He wanted them to participate in some way because he realized this was an historic event for our regional industry. Enough so that he brought some very good bottles of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie to share at lunchtime.” He continued with a smile, “Well, after the meal, we went up to the vineyard again and hand-dug a few holes in the rows that we had just planted. We then buried the French bottles so those first vines knew what they were aiming for.”

Sauer said that first planting was a success from day one. He followed with a second round in 1991, and today he cultivates about 30 acres of Syrah in 9 different blocks. The harvested grapes are sold to a dozen wineries, and they transform the fruit into some of the most critically acclaimed wines in America. Sauer believes this success is a reflection of the suitability of Syrah to the Yakima Valley. “The variety really excels here. And by that, I mean more than simple flavor appeal; it clearly transmits its origin or terroir. Even our few blocks at Red Willow display characters that are really distinct from each other, depending on slope and soil mixture.”

DSC_0126Others must agree, since those first few vines on the Sauer property have expanded to more than 3,000 acres of Syrah across Washington State. It is now the fifth-most planted wine grape in the region—fueled by growth of 35 percent in just the past four years. Sauer attributes the surge to Syrah’s versatility. “It can really shine here: it consistently captures some of the highest scores that national and international media give to Washington State wines,” he said. “But it’s also a great blending variety. Syrah can offer generous support without dominating. So it presents a very broad spectrum of potential. It can be humble or regal: the farmer’s workhorse as well as the king’s thoroughbred.”

Through that very apt metaphor, Syrah also displays what is so impressive about the pioneering vineyards of the Yakima Valley.


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Thanksgiving in Wine Country

Taste to Fight Hunger
Tour wine country and help the less fortunate

The scenic Yakima Valley’s crisp, clear days, peppered with yellow, orange and crimson leaves turn to the celebration of thanks during this time of year. Thanksgiving in Wine Country, November 28 – 30, offers an opportunity to taste wine, purchase the perfect bottle for your holiday table and help fight hunger.

WYV_Thanksgiving_Ticket 2014 Nov13-2Wine Yakima Valley has partnered with Northwest Harvest to help feed the hungry this holiday season. Visit any participating winery during the holiday weekend and look for the Thanksgiving in Wine Country Taste to Fight Hunger donation box and give. All proceeds made to Taste to Fight Hunger will be donated to Northwest Harvest.

After the feast, leave your leftovers at home and hit the Yakima Valley to taste new releases paired with excellent homemade foods. Stock up on holiday wine with select wineries offering case discounts and enjoy food and wine pairings to help you find the perfect wine for any meal or dinner party.

Thanksgiving in Wine Country showcases wines from more than 40 Yakima Valley Wineries and for many, it’s the last chance to taste before tasting rooms close for the season. Gather friends and family and make this your new holiday tradition!

Click here for a detailed list of what wineries are offering during weekend.

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Stomp, Run, Taste

Enjoy a full spectrum of activities during Catch the Crush weekend

Harvest in Yakima Valley’s wine country is a time of excitement. It is the culmination of hard work and a glimpse into the promise of the new vintage.

Grape stomp at Tapteil Vineyard Winery

Grape stomp at Tapteil Vineyard Winery

Catch the Crush weekend, October 11-12, celebrates the new vintage with more than 40 Yakima Valley wineries inviting wine lovers to their tasting rooms, vineyards and wineries for tours, special tastings, live music, winemaker dinners and more. Wine enthusiasts are invited to plan their perfect wine country weekend getaway in Yakima Valley’s wine country.

Wineries get creative during this annual celebration, bringing new and different activities, educational opportunities and hands-on fun for Catch the Crush weekend.

Wine Yakima Valley offers the most economical way to experience Catch the Premier PaSS & FALL COLORSCrush with the Premier Pass for just $30. Passes can be purchased on-line at wineyakimavalley.org.

Reflection  Vineyard Purple Foot Club

Reflection Vineyard Purple Foot Club

Reflection Vineyards, a stomping good time! Visit Reflection Vineyards during Catch the Crush and try your hand/feet at stomping grapes. Make your own t-shirt to show your membership in the purple foot club.

5K fun run with Airfield Estate Winery

5K fun run with Airfield Estate Winery

Airfield Estates  5K vineyard run, an event for the whole family. Runners, walkers, children, & well-behaved dogs are welcome to the beautiful estate vineyard for a 5K run/walk. The course is great for serious runners & the grape tasting along the way makes it entertaining for the wine enthusiast.

Tapteil Vineyard Winery stomp grapes and enjoy the panoramic views. This is a photo op straight out of I Love Lucy complete with a grapevine crown. Bring a camera and a picnic. Taste estate grown wines and imported olive oil and vinegars in the tasting room. Winemaker and grape grower, Larry Pearson and label artist, Jane Pearson will be on hand to chat during your visit.

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This week’s blog post offers a final look at the Cabernet Sauvignon vines we are monitoring throughout the growing season. These grapes have been or will soon be harvested and transported to the winery.

We will continue to follow the grapes through the processing stage in this blog.

DuBrul Vineyard,

DuBrul Vineyard,

DuBrul Vineyard, Yakima Valley: The weather is perfect for ripening. Cabernet in DuBrul Vineyard with 80s during the day, cooling down to the 50s at night. This allows for flavor development, acidity retention, and moderate sugar accumulation.  We have already finished picking Chardonnay, and are picking Merlot, Syrah, and Riesling. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are the last varieties to be harvested in DuBrul. We usually pick these in mid-late October, although this year is a week or two earlier than normal.

Tapteil Vineyard

Tapteil Vineyard

Tapteil Vineyard, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley: Harvest planned September 18th. Last year we harvested this block on September 21st.

Upland Vineyard

Upland Vineyard

Upland Vineyard, Snipes Mtn, Yakima Valley: Numbers and flavors are there. Brix 25.5+. First pick is scheduled for Friday 9/19. 

Red Willow Vineyard

Red Willow Vineyard

Red Willow Vineyard, Yakima Valley: Soaking up the sun. Not scheduled to pick yet but it should be within the next couple of weeks. It’s getting close.

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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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