WINE: David Lake, legendary Washington winemaker, passes away

David Lake, one of the most influential people in the history of the Washington wine industry, passed away Monday after a lengthy illness.

Lake, 66, collapsed Monday at his home in Issaquah, Wash., and could not be revived.

Though the exact cause of death is unknown, Lake had several health issues in recent years. As the wine grape harvest began in 2000, Lake had heart troubles, which led to two separate bypass surgeries. He also battled cancer.

Lake worked in the British wine trade for several years before moving to the West Coast, where he worked at The Eyrie Vineyard in Dundee, Ore., before being hired as winemaker for Associated Vintners in Seattle (now Columbia Winery in Woodinville).

His first vintage was 1979, the year he met Mike Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley. The two would collaborate on many pioneering projects over the years, the most significant of which was planting the first Syrah grapes in Washington.

"David was a true gentleman," Sauer said. "He was a grower's winemaker and a master motivator. He was probably one of the most grower-oriented winemakers I've ever worked with."

Sauer noted that this month marks the 25th anniversary of their first discussion about planting Syrah at Red Willow, an iconic vineyard first planted in 1971. Sauer recalled that as the 1984 harvest wound down, Lake approached him with the idea of planting Syrah, a red wine grape most famous in the Rhone Valley of France. At the time, just a few of vineyards in California were growing the grape, Sauer said, so Lake made arrangements to bring cuttings from Syrah vines to Washington. In 1985, Sauer added them in his nursery until the vines were ready to plant in 1986.

Lake came from the Seattle area to help with the planting, and the two ceremoniously buried bottles of Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and other famous Rhône wines in the vineyard as a way to inspire Washington's first Syrah, Lake said later. Sauer said he can no longer recall where those bottles are buried.

"They're up there somewhere. They're aging well," he added with a laugh.

Lake's first vintage of Syrah was from the 1988 vintage. Today, Syrah is the No. 3 red wine grape in Washington, after Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with more than 3,000 acres planted.

Lake also pioneered and promoted such grape varieties as Pinot Gris, Viognier, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

"David brought more of a worldwide knowledge of wine to Washington," Sauer said. "He was always very European in his approach to wine."

Lake earned the rare and prestigious Master of Wine and was the first U.S. winemaker with that degree. Sauer recalled that Lake was fond of bringing fellow Masters of Wine to Red Willow for events.

Lake's health forced him to retire from Columbia in 2005.

Sauer said he last talked to Lake about a month ago, just as harvest was beginning. He described him as upbeat. He and Connie, his wife of 30 years, were hoping to do a bit of regional travel.

Funeral plans have not been announced.