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:
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.”
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.”
Others 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.