There have been few moments in my life when I have felt as if I'm standing on hallowed, sacred ground. Visiting Mike Sauer's Red Willow Vineyard in western Yakima Valley was one of those very moments. When I stepped off the charter bus a sparse quiet surrounded me. Sunlight was beating down & just a faint breeze was evident. I looked up the steep vine covered hill rising up before me & thought "are we in Hermitage?"
David Lake, the father of the Washington Wine industry, passed away not two days prior to us arriving at this vineyard. This was the vineyard that produced the grapes that he fashioned into world class wine which got the attention of the whole world. At some moments it was difficult to keep the emotions from overwhelming me... but then again whats the point of holding back?
As the story goes, David was explaining to Mike Sauer that Red Willow reminded him of Hermitage. So Mike, being religious, decided to build a Chapel or a "La Chapel" so to speak. The syrah grown here rivals the Northern Rhone yet it doesn't necessarily seek to emulate it so much as build on that foundation & become something different, something distinctive, something varietaly correct of course, & definitively Red Willow.
I couldn't help myself so I hiked up a vine row all the way up to the top where the La Chapel was. It was one of the most difficult hikes I've taken. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to harvest this particular parcel of the vineyard site. But the hike brought me closer to the site itself & made me feel a part of it, an appendage I guess.
Once I made it to the top the quietness was interrupted only by my heaving breath & stronger wind than what I felt on the valley floor. It was overwhelming to experience. I looked down through the rows & tried to imagine how many people have been effected by the wines these vines have produced over their lifetime. How many people had a taste altering experience with a Red Willow Syrah from the very spot I was gazing down upon? The beauty was staggering.
Once I was back down on the valley floor I was greeted with a very special wine indeed.
Columbia Winery Syrah 1988 Red Willow Vineyard La Chapel Block. I was stunned by its elegant beauty; leathery, meaty texture; smoky spice & fine grained tannin. What I didn't realize is that I had an ear to ear toothy grin on my face that just wouldn't go away. Its that smile that had been plastered to my face the entire trip & wouldn't leave until long after returning home.
After sipping some wine a group of us climbed aboard a trailer that was hitched to a farm tractor which was about to carry us up the hill back to the Chapel.
Slowly chugging up the hill we passed by the block of nebbiolo that Peter Dow (winemaker/owner of Cavatappi & former owner of Cafe Juanita) talked Mike Sauer into planting many many years ago. The 2003 Cavatappi Cuvee Madellena Nebbiolo from Red Willow was an absolutely incredible bottle of wine. Very Piedmontese if not for the riper fruit but the texture was what was so beguiling. As we passed by the vine rows I leaped off the tractor & grabbed a handful of nebbiolo grapes then ran back to the tractor. I couldn't NOT taste fresh nebbiolo grapes, are you kidding me??
Being in Red Willow & feeling the same feeling for this site that David Lake felt will be something I shall never forget.
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