Red Willow Vineyard, owned and farmed by Mike Sauer and the Stephenson family, is located in the western Yakima Valley of Washington State. Its famous "1973 Block" has some of the oldest vines in the state.
The Red Willow Vineyard is located at the far western edge of the Yakima Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) eight miles west of the town of Wapato. Mike Sauer planted the first vines in 1973 - today the vineyard is 110 acres of Cabernet Savuignon, Syrah, Caberent Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Lemberger, Gewurztraminer, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling.
The wines made from Red Willow fruit are highly valued by Avalon Wine's customers and regularly receive national attention with high scores from wine magazines and reviewers. Over twenty wineries make wine from Red Willow fruit including Owen Roe, Betz, Gramercy Cellars, Mark Ryan Winery, Fausse Piste, and Efeste. The original "1973" block still produces grapes in some years and is the source for Owen Roe's 1973 Block Cabernet Sauvignon.
at right, Red Willow owner Mike Sauer and Owen Roe's David O'Reilly
Red Willow Vineyards' Chapel Block
The most famous part of the Red Willow Vineyard is the Chapel Block, named for a small stone chapel strikingly silhouetted against the sky at the top of the vineyard. Although it looks like it has been there for a hundred years, the chapel was built in the 1990's as a memorial to Mike Sauer's friend Monsignor Mulcahy. Built with rocks quarried at the site, the Chapel is surrounded by rows of vines and is an iconic symbol of Red Willow and the subject of many photographs. The Owen Roe Red Willow Syrah has a striking image of it on its label (below).
Below, Red Willow Vineyard looking south
History of the Vineyard
In the 1920's, Clyde Stephenson bought land in the western Yakima Valley and became the first farmer of a four generation family that still owns the property today. Clyde grew potatoes, alfalfa hay, and raised cattle. By the 1950's the farm was run by Clyde's son Harold and had expanded to grow wheat, corn, hay and alfalfa seed. In the early 1970's, Vern Stephenson (third generation of Stephensons) and Mike Sauer (Vern's brother-in-law) began to farm the land and Mike started planting grapes.
The development of the Red Willow Vineyard was greatly effected by the involvement of Dr. Walter Clore, one of the pioneers of Washington grapegrowing and a pivotal figure in the history of Washington viticulture. With his collaboration, Mike installed a weather station and planted two dozen different grape types to determine what the site would best produce.
In 1973, Mike planted his famous first three acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. Before that, the 30 acre vineyard planted in 1971 was almost entirely Concord grapes.
Red Willow Vineyard was relatively unknown through the 70's 80's and 90's as all of their grapes were contracted to what would become Columbia Winery. Most of the grapes were blended into wines and the vineyard's name was not used.
In the early 2000's, Columbia stopped purchasing grapes from Red Willow, allowing other wineries to obtain their fruit. Owen Roe's David O'Reilly brought Red Willow to the attention of the wine community when he began making super premium wines from the vineyard in the 2000's. Owen Roe's 2008 Red Willow Chapel Block Syrah received an incredible 97 points from Wine Spectator, one of the highest scores given for a Washington wine,and catapulted Red Willow to the top of the list of superior vineyards.
Below, wild horses in the Yakima Valley near Red Willow Vineyard
By Jean Yates
Red Willow Vineyard map