The visionary behind Washington's esteemed Red Willow Vineyard is Mike Sauer (b. 1947), a farmboy from Toppenish who studied agricultural economics at Washington State University. After marrying fellow WSU student Karen Stephenson in 1969, Sauer was offered a job on the Yakima Valley farm founded in the 1920s by Karen's grandfather. In 1971 Sauer planted 30 acres of Concord vines at the farm with a goal of selling grapes to fruit-juice companies. In 1973 he planted three experimental acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, and although these were the early days in Washington's premium wine industry, Red Willow Vineyard soon attracted the attention of some of the state's leading wineries. First came the Associated Vintners (AV), who contracted to buy Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Sauer in 1978. Next, Cavatappi Winery contracted to buy the state's first Nebbiolo grapes in 1985. David Lake, AV's winemaker, contracted to buy Syrah in 1986. Along the way history was made: AV's 1981 Cabernet Sauvignon was the state's first wine to identify a specific vineyard source on its label. Later, the state's first Syrah was made from Red Willow grapes. Today  Red Willow is still tended to by Sauer and his offspring, with occasional help from his grandkids -- the fifth generation to tend to the farm's crops and fields.
From Toppenish to WSU
Mike Sauer was born to John Peter Sauer and Genevieve (nee Marcoux) Sauer on March 29, 1947 at Yakima Hospital. He was raised just outside of the dusty agricultural town of Toppenish (at Route 1, Box 53 on the Cemetery Road), and the family farm was located about six miles away. After attending Garfield Elementary, Toppenish Middle School, and Toppenish High School, Sauer began studying agricultural economics at Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman in 1965. While there, he met business student Karen Stephenson (1946-2019). They married on June 14, 1969, and he graduated from WSU in January 1970. There was no hint of the wine business in their future.
"I thought that I'd either work for a bank or some big farm company like Del Monte or something like that," Sauer recalled. "I was starting to do some investigation of some possibilities and then Karen's father [Harold Stephenson] offered me just a farm-worker job, and he had a pretty good-sized farm. A very successful farm. And so we chose to come to the farm. Of course, you naturally expect that that'll lead to something more than that. But anyway, I came back to the farm and just started off as a worker with all the rest of the workers" (Mike Sauer interview with author).
The farm had been founded by Karen's grandfather Clyde Stephenson, who moved to the Yakima Valley in the 1920s with the advent of irrigation, and in 1927 leased 30 acres located within the Yakama Nation, 12 miles west of Wapato (just off of today's N Stephenson Road), at the base of Ahtanum Ridge, and surrounded by the Yakama Indian Reservation. From there, the Stephensons worked at growing potatoes, alfalfa, corn, and wheat, along with raising a few cattle, and over time expanded their operation to 2,200 acres.
When Concords Ruled
In the early 1970s there wasn't much of wine industry in Washington, at least not one that produced wines made from vitis vinifera grapes, the types used in the "noble" wines of Europe. Instead, the American Wine Growers company, which was based in Granger and traced its origins to the 1930s, had long focused on making fruit wines and fortified Sherry and Port-styled sweet wines.
For decades the most widely planted grape in Washington was Concord, a dark purple, and very sweet, grape used since the 1890s by Welch's Foods Inc., the Concord, Massachusetts-based juice company. Their pasteurized Welch's Grape Juice was a non-alcoholic beverage with the classic grape-candy flavor. As it expanded, Welch's began buying grapes grown elsewhere, including tons from numerous Kennewick Valley and Yakima Valley growers.
It was a time-proven market for many a grape grower. In addition to Welch's, there was the Church Grape Juice Co., which was founded in 1906 in Kennewick, where it had its headquarters and bottling works. Church eventually ran what was likely the largest privately owned Concord vineyard in the nation, became the largest industry in Kennewick, and is credited as "the first juice factory in the West" (Kion, 27). By the 1940s, Washington was growing "the greatest number of Concord grapes in the world" (HR 4724). Welch's built a facility in Grandview. In 1953 Welch's bought out Church's and, in time, closed the Kennewick plant. But other industrial buyers of Concord grapes emerged, including the A. F. Murch Co. juice company of Paw Paw, Michigan, as well as its parent firm, the J.M. Smucker Company.
This was the state of affairs in the Washington grape industry in 1971 as Harold Stephenson prepared acreage for growing more alfalfa, sugar beets, and wheat. He, Sauer recalled, "was quite an innovator. He had put in a solid-set irrigation system in a roughly 40-acre field. It was all buried PVC plastic pipe. And that was fairly new, at least in the Yakima Valley at the time, to do something like this. He had this whole grid of plastic pipes, 60 by 80 feet. And every 60 feet there was a pop-up head that you'd hook up to a sprinkler. It was kind of ahead of its time ... but the whole system for automatically pulsing one-to-the-next-to-the-next just didn't work" (author interview).
That's when his father-in-law asked Sauer to think about what other type of permanent cash crop might work on that rich lowland acreage. "We were trying to salvage a failed, but quite good, irrigation system," Sauer recalled. "I don't really remember why, but I decided to try Concords in there to utilize the basically abandoned irrigation system" (author interview). It was a fresh new idea in the Stephenson household, one that was wholly embraced. Sauer reworked the irrigation system and set about planting 30 acres to Concord vines. The vines immediately took to the rich lowland soil, producing beautiful fruit that they began selling to A. F. Murch.
In that same planting season of 1971, Sauer simultaneously conducted an experiment by planting a few rows of wine grapes. "I had just heard about wine grapes," he recalled. "It was just totally strange at the time, talking about wine grapes in the Yakima Valley. But I did try a couple of rows of it right alongside of the Concords. And, as I remember, it was Chasselas and Sémillon" (author interview). These initial vines suffered from exposure to cold winters and withered within a year or two, but Sauer continued to experiment by planting more wine grapes on the farm's steeper slopes, which were comprised of ancient and rocky soils. This was the beginnings of the Red Willow Vineyard, which was named after an old creek-bed that wound its way down from Ahtanum Ridge and through a canyon to the Stephenson's land. Dry and rocky, it was ideal for growing some of Washington's finest wine grapes.
Sauer and the Stephensons all became hooked. They were not alone as the state's wine industry began to accelerate. Wrote wine author Kevin Zraly in his book Washington -- The State of Wine: "Many of the early grape growers were from farming families that date back two, three, and four generations on the land. Farmers, agriculturists, people of the soil that know the land and would forever fall in love with this new crop, wine grapes" (Zraly, 109).
In 1972 Sauer met Dr. Walter Clore (1911-2003), the WSU viticulture pioneer who was later recognized as the "Father of Washington Wine," beginning a long collaboration between Red Willow and the WSU Irrigation Experiment Station in Prosser. Sauer explained the challenges he was facing to Clore, who proceeded to survey the Stephenson property, a service he'd been providing farmers for decades in an effort to best understand the lay of the land, the qualities of various soil types across Eastern Washington, and the best agriculture uses for the various plots of land he studied.
Together, they installed a weather station on the farm to help determine local weather patterns. In time that weather data would reveal some truths about the area, its average seasonal temperatures, rainfall levels, and more. The Red Willow site, situated 1,300 feet above sea level (which made it the highest vineyard in the Yakima Valley at the time), was warmer than most others, with the higher portions being much less prone to frost damage in winters.
Clore also located an experimental plot at Red Willow in 1972 with 20 different varieties that were planted with the help of Hinzerling Winery's Mike Wallace (1942-2016). Within that plot were three acres of the king of the noble grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon. All this was done without Sauer knowing what exactly, or even approximately, he was getting for his money. Was Cabernet a white grape, or a red grape? Years later he had a laugh at his own expense: "We were trying to figure out how to pronounce the varieties, let alone grow them" (Gregutt, 108). "Keep in mind this was the early '70s so it was young for us," Sauer recalled. "Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon: they just sounded romantic and exotic" (Eierdom). "People get a chuckle about that. But, you go back to the early '70s [laughter], that was probably the majority of people. You're dealing with names like 'Blue Nun' and 'Hearty Burgundy.' Things like that. You didn't talk about varieties as much back then" (Sauer interviw with author).
Vineyards & Vintners
Red Willow's next planting of Cabernet Sauvignon came in 1973 via Sauer's old National Guard buddy Roger Grossman, who was then employed as the vineyard manager for the Harrison Hill Vineyard outside of Sunnyside. Harrison Hill was owned by the pioneering Seattle-based winery the Associated Vintners (AV), the state's first winery to produce premium wines based on vinifera grapes. AV had a sudden abundance of Cabernet cuttings (small sections trimmed from the vineyard's mother vines) available because the intended buyer had backed out. Sauer bought the cuttings, and Red Willow thus became one of the first three Washington vineyards to grow Cabernet Sauvignon.
In 1978, Sauer was contacted by Lloyd Woodburne (1906-1992), a University of Washington professor and co-founder of AV. They cut a quick deal, signing a contract that committed AV to buy Cabernet grapes annually from Red Willow. The arrangement continued, and even strengthened, after AV moved to a new facility in Bellevue and hired talented winemaker David Lake (1943-2009). Lake was a veteran of the British wine industry who earned the prestigious title of Master of Wine from England's Master of Wine Institute before studying enology at the University of California, Davis, and then working for a series of wineries in Oregon.
Hitting it off instantly, Lake and Sauer forged a collaborative relationship that would span nearly three decades. In 1981 Lake detected that the Cabernet grapes from Red Willow seemed to produce juice that was more tannic than those from most other Eastern Washington vineyards. He was intrigued by the possibility that Red Willow fruit might help him produce wines in a tighter style more closely akin to French wines than, say, California's "fruit bombs." In 1983, he and Sauer signed an exclusive contract for Cabernet grapes that would span decades.
When AV's 1981 Red Willow Cabernet was bottled in early 1984, the winery sent some bottles to Sauer and family, but within weeks, AV reincorporated under a new name, Columbia Winery, and the wine was given newly designed "Columbia Red Willow" labels applied just prior to its official release in July 1984. As simple as that, Columbia Winery made history as the first winery in Washington, and among the first in the U.S., to issue a wine featuring a vineyard designation on the label. Thus began Lake's reign as one of the state's leading winemakers. One early indicator that magic was afoot came in 1985, when Lake's Columbia Red Willow Cabernet Sauvignon won the Governor's Trophy, awarded annually to Washington's finest red wine.
The Other Grapes
Sauer was quite open to seeing what other grape varieties might excel at Red Willow. In 1982 he added 20 acres planted to Gewürztraminer vines, and 20 more to Riesling. In 1983, while he was busily harvesting that year's crop of Cabernet, a stranger approached. It was Peter Dow, owner and chef of Kirkland's Café Juanita restaurant, who had founded the Cavatappi Winery in his café's basement. Dow had a keen fondness for Italian grapes and wine, and he proposed that if Sauer would plant some Nebbiolo, a classic Piemonte grape that is the basis of that region's deep red Barolo, Barbaresco, and Gattinara wines, he would commit to buying them. In 1985 Sauer planted an acre for Dow's usage. The following year Lake emphasized that the vineyards should emulate Northern Rhone's, and suggested that Sauer try planting Syrah, a classic Rhône Valley grape used to help make coveted French wines such as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie.
Sauer liked the idea, especially after Lake informed him that he had a great source for Syrah cuttings: the Joseph Phelps Vineyards in St Helena, California. After Sauer babied those in his nursery, he and Lake and a few employees planted them on a sunny hillside in 1986. Tied to that undertaking was an incident that has, over time, become Washington wine country lore. After the crew completed planting that first block of vines, they celebrated by popping open bottles of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage. Toasting the vineyard and their own hard work, they then "dug holes and buried the empty bottles to let the ground know what was expected of it. It was a symbolic gesture, and the vineyard has lived up to those expectations quite well" (Voorhees).
Two years later Columbia produced Washington's first Syrah from Red Willow grapes. The wine was splendid, and that inspired others to plant Syrah, a craze that boomed after Sauer began providing cuttings to other Washington wineries in 2001. "In fact, it is estimated that 80 percent of all Syrah plantings in Washington can be traced back to cuttings from this vineyard" (Voorhees). Syrah would become the third-most-planted red grape in the state, with 4,565 acres as of 2021. Red Willow's fruit, in particular, is treasured by winemakers. Bob Betz, founder of Betz Family Winery, believes "it has a sturdier structure and a deeper fruit profile than most other Yakima Valley vineyards" (Eierdom).
With many other vineyards devoted to the staple wine grapes of Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling, it made good business sense for Sauer to experiment with more obscure grapes. He planted Aglianico, Barbera, Carmenere, Dolcetto, Gewürztraminer, Malbec, Mourvedre, Petite Syrah, Riesling, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Viognier, and Cabernet Franc. In 1991, David Lake and Columbia produced Washington's first Cabernet Franc, and once again it was Red Willow fruit, as handled by Lake, that impressed critics and consumers. Today there are 1,157 acres planted to Cabernet Franc in Washington.
A Growing Business
As the years flowed by, Sauer's enterprises excelled, and as more new wineries popped up each year, so too did the demand for grapes. A few notable wines made primarily with Red Willow Vineyard grapes are Columbia's Milestone Merlot, Cavatappi's Molly's Cuvee Sangiovese, Betz Family Winery's La Côte Patriarche Syrah, and Thurston Wolfe's Lemberger. At least a dozen different wineries – including Adams Bench, Andrew Rich, Avennia, DeLille, Efeste, 8 Bells, Gramercy, Kana, Kerloo, Owen Roe, Mark Ryan, Martevi, Patterson, Savage Grace, Structure, and Westport – have made wines bearing the Red Willow Vineyard designation.
The final portions of the Red Willow property suitable for vineyards were planted to Cabernet Franc and clones of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2016. The original 30 acres of Concord have grown to 75, with 140 additional acres devoted to the various wine grapes. Several individual parcels have been identified inside Red Willow Vineyard, including Olney Springs, Peninsula, and Chaple Block. Two others were given special names: Marcoux, to honor Mike's mother's family, and Stephenson for Karen's family.
Family has always been important to Mike Sauer and his wife Karen, who died in 2019. What her grandfather Clyde Stephenson founded nearly a century ago remains a treasured enterprise now being worked by the fifth generation of the Stephenson/Sauer clan. Two of their children, sons Jonathon (b. 1975) and Daniel (b. 1976), and son-in-law Rick Willsey (b. 1982), have leadership roles at Red Willow, and a few of their grandkids pitch in during the summers.
For nearly four decades Red Willow Vineyard has been acknowledged as a prime source of superior fruit in Washington, and Sauer is regarded as one of the state's most dedicated and diligent vineyard operators in an industry that has matured rapidly. His commitment to seeking continual improvement on the farm has successfully been passed down within the family. "Nowadays you have very smart, talented people involved with the wine industry," Sauer said. "And there's very technically oriented people. But then there's people who just fell in love with growing wine grapes" (author interview). Sauer is one of the latter, as evidenced by the note he wrote on the label of Red Willow-designated wine from Peninsula Winery: "In farming there is no substitute for the soil, water, and hard work. Inherently, the nature of farming brings a spiritual dimension to our efforts. There is a connection of past, present, and future generations. For us wine brings the soil, the site, the season, and the efforts of many people into a single vintage. Later that vintage becomes a cherished memory of that year."