June 3, 2008
It was our first wet, rainy morning in Seattle. It actually began to lightly sprinkle the evening before. Today we drove eastward to meet with Mike Sauer, grower of Red Willow Vineyards in the Yakima Valley. Before we got to our destination we stopped in the small town of Cle Elum “Heart of the Cascades” for some breakfast burritos and orange juice at Gunnar’s Coffee Cabin.
As we drove into Yakima there was a greeting sign that stated “Welcome to Yakima, The Palm Springs of Washington.” I unfortunately did not get a picture of it, but we thought it was funny.
When we arrived at Red Willow Vineyards we saw a tiny chapel in the distant vineyards. As we drove in we were greeted by Clean-up & Babe, Mike Sauer’s vineyard dogs. As we began our interview, Mike Sauer explained to us that he farms some of the oldest vineyards in Washington State (planted in the early 70’s). Mike gave us quite a bit of great information about Washington State’s vineyard growing regions and growing cycles, etc. As we filmed, we looked outward to the sea of green vineyards which still hadn’t flowered yet. There were multi-colored irises and other flowers surrounding us. The 2 old dogs lay sleepy on a small patch of glowing green grass. There was an chorus of birds chirping orchestrated in flying motions all around us. Also, on Mike’s property Concord grapes were growing for eventual jam, jelly, & juice making.
It was very interesting to hear Mike explain the “Rainshadow Effect” that East Washington has, making it a true desert which has less than 7 inches of rain annually. Unbelievably less rainfall than Phoenix, AZ. Mike also explained that most growing days in the summer average a high of 90 degrees Farenheit and fall to 50 degrees Farenheit in the evening. With the dramatically cooler evenings combined with low humidity the grapes retain their natural acidity instead of respiration. Mike told us that this is key to why Washington State is a great wine growing region. It amazing enough, also happens to be on the same lattitude as Bordeaux. Mike absolutely feels that Merlot is a serious wine in Washington State, in many cases with more tannin structure than Cabernet Sauvignon. More feminine style wines typically come from east slopes and more masculine from west slopes. Mike believes in something he refers to as “The Sweet Spot,” this is the thought that there is a correct place to grow every type of grape. This can even further go into the notion of pairing the right type of foods with the right type of wines. He gave us the analogy of a tennis racket and finding just the right spot on the grid for the best hitting outcome.
When asked about the movie Sideways, Mike commented that he thought it was vulgar. He also thought that only in America could such a film have an effect as it did. Mike feels that Merlot is one of the easiest wines to like. Mike also told us that he thought wine critics should be used as reference points, but each person who enjoys or wants to learn more about wine should keep trying new wines. He also mentioned that wine publications try to bring the wines of the world together, but they can never completely be inclusive.
Mike was a soft spoken farmer, one of the kindest and warm-hearted man you’ll ever meet. He gave a sweet grandfatherly feel as we filmed him. He even told us the true story of a bear climbing over the mountain to eat all his Merlot grapes it could eat.
We were originally going to film Gordy Hill & Butch Milbrandt of Milbrandt Vineyards, but they could not unfortunately meet with us because of an event. Before checking into the Desert Wind Winery/Hotel for the evening in Prosser we decided to stop by Willow Crest Winery for tasting. What do you know they were actually located on Merlot Drive. I bought a bottle of their Rhone blend 13.