It was already late in the day when I arrived at Columbia Winery on one of my early visits to Washington. It was 1989, and Columbia’s wines were already highly regarded for their refinement and grace. I was looking forward to meeting the winemaker, David Lake.
The winery was quiet. He was the only one there in the cavernous warehouse-style building, and I had to wander around to several doors before I finally located him. Lake and I had just finished tasting through his Chardonnays, Chenin Blancs, Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons. “Want to try something different?” he asked with a mischievous look.
He walked across the cellar to an upright cask and tapped off a taste of Syrah. It was the first one made in Washington. Only a few producers in California were making Syrah at that time, but Lake had an inkling that a vineyard he was buying Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay from might be just the place to grow it. He convinced the grower, Mike Sauer, to plant Syrah on a steep hillside at his Red Willow Vineyard. It reminded Lake of Hermitage in France.
That taste of Syrah impressed me more than the Cabs and Merlots had. Over the years, the Red Willow Syrah consistently rated among the best wines from Columbia, and it inspired a burgeoning number of other growers and winemakers to pursue Syrah. Today, as well as Washington does with Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and Riesling, Syrah is what the state does best.
Lake’s death earlier this week (he was 66) brought back the memory of that first meeting with him and that first taste of Syrah. He also made Washington’s first Cabernet Franc and Pinot Gris, two grapes that have caught on with a limited number of producers but show wider promise. And those Red Willow bottlings represented the first single-vineyard wines in Washington.
A fourth-generation Canadian, he was born in London and left a comfortable life in the British wholesale wine trade there to study winemaking at the University of California at Davis. He had been making wine at Columbia for eight years when I met him. He retired in 2005, after two heart surgeries and a bout with cancer slowed him.
He always struck me as a quiet, unassuming guy, driven by a passion for winemaking, not ego. He stuck to making light, graceful wines even while others around him earned bigger scores and other plaudits for riper, fuller-bodied styles. On later visits, he set up vertical tastings for me of his various reds. They aged well, retaining their freshness. I always wished they had more depth, more flavor, but they were impeccably made. And Lake always met me with a smile, even though others often gave his wines higher scores than I did.
That’s one more thing to admire about this graceful man. He was genuinely liked and admired, and his long-term thinking made a big difference for Washington’s wine.
Pacific Rim Winemakers — Portland, OR — October 8, 2009 7:42pm ET
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