Fresh out of college and newly married, then-24-year-old Mike Sauer was looking to make his own claim in farming when he came upon some French-sounding grapes and thought they might be the perfect crop for a steep hillside where wheat and hay would not grow.

“Keep in mind this was the early ‘70s so it was young for us” in the Yakima Valley, Sauer says. “Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon: they just sounded romantic and exotic.”

His timing and location could not have been more perfect. Dr. Walter Clore, the man now considered the godfather of Washington wine, was well along in his career and, looking for a remote area that he had little growing data on, and a collaboration was born.

When Sauer talks about the early days, his anecdotes are peppered with Allen Shoup, Maury Balcom, Don Mercer, Mike Hogue and other Washington wine pioneers — mostly fellow farmers who tried this “new crop” and found more than just success.

“Very quickly you become caught up with the wine and it becomes a passion not just another crop,” Sauer says.

In 1972, Sauer installed one of the earlier drip systems in the area on the steep hillside known as Red Willow Vineyard. He followed that up in 1973 by planting one of the three oldest blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington State still being harvested and was the first to plant Syrah in 1986. Over nearly five decades, Sauer has been the driving force behind the distinguished reputation of Red Willow grapes.

“Mike [Sauer] is an innovator in this industry, no one was even considering Syrah as a varietal in Washington until Mike took the leap in the early ‘80s,” says Brandon Moss of Gramercy Cellars. “Now he is producing some of the most profound Syrah in the state of Washington.”

Other winemakers agree. “Given his history and the accolades that wine made from his fruit have received, it would be easy for him to sit back and rest on his laurels,” says Mike Macmorran, winemaker at Mark Ryan Winery and his own label, Manu Propria. “But that is simply not the type of person he is. He is not complacent and is constantly researching new farming techniques and grape clones.”

Today Red Willow is a multi-generational vineyard. Both of Sauer’s sons, Jon and Danny, and his son-in-law, Rick, also work the 140 acres of wine grapes. It is a unique aspect that many of their winery partners cherish.

“Red Willow is a special site farmed by exceptional people,” Bob Betz of Betz Family Winery says. It “has a sturdier structure and a deeper fruit profile than most other Yakima Valley vineyards… Decades of experience with this specific vineyard land, attention to detail and an uncompromising dedication to quality by Mike and the team yield stunning results.”

This article originally ran in the fall 2017 issue of Sip Northwest. For the full story and more like it, click here