Located on a small knoll in the western section of the Yakima Valley, Red Willow Vineyard is hallowed ground in Washington wine country. The vineyard’s chapel is as recognizable an image as any in the industry, the vineyard’s fruit as distinctive as any grown in the state.
Together, Columbia Winery winemaker David Lake and grower Mike Sauer used Red Willow to help shape the state’s industry, exploring a number of different varieties – perhaps most notably planting the state’s first Syrah vines in 1986. Though Lake passed away in 2009, other winemakers continue to walk in his footsteps both figuratively and literally.
One of them is winemaker Mike Macmorran. Like many, Macmorran describes his first visit to Red Willow in almost spiritual terms.
“It was almost kind of like going to Mecca,” Macmorran says. “There are so many stories surrounding that vineyard, just the history of the place. I remember when we turned off the highway, I started looking for the chapel immediately and we’re still 35 minutes from our destination. I’m like ‘Where is it? Where is it?’”
Upon arriving on his first visit, Macmorran was greeted by the Sauers whose family has farmed land in the area for three generations. For Macmorran, vineyard founder Mike Sauer made an immediate impression.
“You shake hands and you kind of look Mike in the eye and you’re just immediately drawn to him and understand just how much passion he has for this land,” Macmorran says.
‘These are the vines we want’
A former medical student, Macmorran joined Mark Ryan Winery as winemaker in 2008 after previously serving as assistant winemaker at DeLille Cellars. The day of his first visit to Red Willow, Macmorran and Mark Ryan founder Mark McNeilly were out looking at a block of Syrah at Sauer’s nearby Les Vignes de Marcoux Vineyard. Afterwards, they drove around Red Willow to look at some of the vineyard’s storied vines. One block in particular caught their attention.
“We drove up to the top – right at the upper ‘91 Cab Sauv block – and got out of the car and looked out west,” Macmorran recalls, adding jokingly, “You can see Mount Adams right there and Mark and I are just like, ‘This is where we’ve got to be. These are the vines we want.’”
Of course, with a long list of wineries interested in acquiring Red Willow fruit, that wish seemed a long way off. “At the time it was just a pipe dream,” Macmorran admits.
That changed two years later after the Sauers renegotiated their contract with Columbia Winery, which opened up additional blocks at the vineyard. Mike Sauer subsequently contacted McNeilly and Macmorran asking whether they were interested in picking up any of the fruit. When they came out to see the blocks that were available, their answer was always the same.
“Mike would point at a block and we say ‘Yup.’ He’d point at another and we’d say, ‘Yup,’” Macmorran recalls. “At the end of the day, I don’t even think we knew exactly what we were getting. We could have taken a block of Nebbiolo!” Included in what they agreed to, however, was fruit from the 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon block they had coveted on their first visit to the vineyard.
Something to be showcased
After harvest had passed and Macmorran tasted through all of the winery’s barrels from that vintage, he kept coming back to one lot in particular – the Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Willow’s 1991 block.
“It was so different than anything else that we had brought in in the past for Mark,” Macmorran says. “That unique quality that is Red Willow just really spoke to me in a way that I felt needed to be showcased.”
Up until this point, Macmorran and his wife Rachel had discussed the idea of starting a winery at some point in the future but not any time soon. In fact, when Mark McNeilly hired Macmorran, he told him he would do everything he could to help him start his own winery when the time came. Macmorran demurred.
“At the time, back in 2008, I was just like, ‘Oh man that’s so far off my radar,’” Macmorran recalls. “’That’s really generous but I don’t think you’ll ever have to worry about that!’” As he tasted through the 2010 Red Willow Cabernet, Macmorran began to reconsider.
It was also around this time that the Macmorrans first child, Jack, was born. The more the Macmorrans discussed what they wanted their legacy for their child to be and the more time they spent with the Sauers at Red Willow – barbequing and watching their children play together – the more a vision took shape: creating a small winery dedicated to Red Willow fruit.
Wine by my own hand
Macmorran says the goal of the new winery is to express Red Willow as best he can while trying to stay out of the way as much as possible as a winemaker.
“For us, it’s just taking the years and years of work that the Sauers have done and encapsulating it in the bottle and not letting my ego as a winemaker get in the way,” Macmorran says. “I think that ego has ruined more bottles of wine in the world than TCA and Brett combined. The idea of being a winemaker to me is that we’re custodians. We don’t want to get in the way of something when it’s right. And more often than not it is right.”
First though here had to be a name. The Macmorrans came up with a long list of possibilities, all of which were, of course, taken. Then, inspired by the names of wines like Sine Qua Non, they started to think about Latin names. One name in particular, stood out – Manu Propria.
Latin for ‘(signed) by my own hand,’ Manu Propria is term that has been used since the Middle Ages to indicate “something too important to be entrusted to another.” It was often used as a stamp at the end of documents next to a person’s signature to guarantee authenticity. For Macmorran – who also makes wine for Force Majeure – the name seemed like a perfect way to distinguish wines he makes for Mark Ryan and Force Majeure from the wines he makes for his family.
The winery’s label is based on a 15th century woodcarving used to imprint Manu Propria, which is often abbreviated as MP. The Macmorrans worked with artist Ora Mae of 9 Opals Studio to stylize the design and include the letters VNM – a Roman abbreviation for wine. Taken together, the label design says ‘MP VNM’ – ‘wine by my own hand.’
“At first glance it looks chaotic, almost spontaneous,” Macmorran says of the label. “But as you look closer you can see a very intricate lattice of stylized MPs. To me this represents much of what happens in the production of wine. At first the wine appears to exist in a very chaotic, unstructured form. As the wine progresses from grape to bottle you can see the intricate details of the wine begin to take on a more cohesive shape. When the wine is finally opened what appeared to be many disjointed and chaotic elements have transformed into a beautiful lattice of flavors, aromas, and textures.”
Manu Propria’s inaugural release is a Cabernet Sauvignon called ‘Ex Animo’ – Latin for ‘from the heart.’ The wine is 83% Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1991 block, 14% Merlot from 1985 plantings, and a dash of Malbec. Macmorran made 170 cases of the wine in 2010 and says that the winery will eventually grow to 500 cases. With the age of the vines, the strength of the vineyard, and the talent of the winemaker, the 2010 Ex Animo does not disappoint. It is among the more exciting wines I’ve had this year – a fascinating combination of Old World and New, intensity and restraint. With many bottles from this esteemed vineyard costing as much as twice the price, is a steal at $35.
A thirty-five year commitment
While Macmorran walks in the footsteps of winemakers who have come before him at Red Willow, he will soon have the opportunity to create his own path. The Sauers recently replanted a section of Red Willow. Though they had frequently discussed with Macmorran what grape and what clones to plant on the block (Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 191 and 337 were eventually planted), Macmorran had no idea that the fruit would eventually be destined for his winery.
“We were standing down at the bottom of the ‘93 Merlot block, kind of like you do just talking about fruit and grapes and weather and kicking dirt and that kind of stuff. And Mike just says, ‘What do you think about that Cabernet Sauvignon block up on the hill?’ I said, ‘I think it’s going to be incredible Mike. I’m sure you’ve got a laundry list of guys who are trying to throw their name on that.’ And he said, ‘Well we do but we’d really like it if you took it for Manu Propria.’”
Stunned, Macmorran almost felt as if he were involved in a prank on Candid Camera. “I kind of got that kind of queasy feeling, like, what just happened?” Macmorran says. “I’m kind of looking around waiting for someone to jump out with a camera or something. And Mark (McNeilly) just says ‘Wohoo!’ and gave me a huge high five.” Macmorran says that McNeilly’s enthusiastic support has been vital to getting the winery started. “None of this could have happened without Mark. He’s really been such a huge piece of this.”
While the new vines mature, Macmorran intends to declassify the fruit into a lower priced wine. Eventually, he hopes to create a reserve Cabernet from the block to serve as a companion to the Ex Animo. Though the vines are young, for Macmorran, his plans for the new Cabernet plantings are long term.
“For me, it’s a 35 year commitment,” he says. “I want to be making wine off that block when I’m 70 years old.” Of course, Macmorran hopes that his son Jack will follow in his footsteps and be there alongside him then, but he knows it might not work out that way.
“I’m sure by the time he’s 18 he’s going to want to move to Capitol Hill and be a bartender, which…we’ve all been there,” Macmorran says with a laugh. “That will be fine too. At least it will be there for him when he comes back from the city and wants to be a farmer.” Indeed, the Macmorrans and Manu Propria, the Sauers and Red Willow will be there waiting as another generation passes through this hallowed ground.
Pictures by Caylee Betts courtesy of Manu Propria.
Manu Propria Ex Animo Cabernet Sauvignon Red Willow Vineyard Yakima Valley 2010 $35
Rating: (Excellent/Exceptional) An aromatically subdued but intriguing wine with pink peppercorn, leather, mocha powder, and a fascinating medley of high toned herbal notes – including mint and tarragon – along with dried cherries. The palate is medium bodied, subtle, showing both intensity and restraint with pure flavors of bittersweet chocolate, leather, tobacco leaf and spice with fine-grained tannins and a citrus twist at the finish. Quite a unique wine for Washington – I can’t think of another like it – that leans more toward the Old World than the New but is still also distinctly Washington. A steal at $35. 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, and 3% Malbec. Aged in French oak (73% new). 14.7% alcohol. Sample provided by winery.