remembering david lake

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Thirty years ago, with the 1979 harvest in full swing, David Lake moved to Washington state to take over the winemaking duties at Associated Vintners. It was a difficult assignment: there had been a deep freeze the previous winter, and many vineyards were frozen out completely and had to be replanted.

“I was married that summer,” Lake later recalled, “and came to the winery in early September. Lloyd Woodburn [founding winemaker] had just finished negotiating for the Otis vineyard grapes, one of the few vineyards that had any grapes in it. We crushed a small block of French hybrid Cascade grapes from Otis, and after that one day Lloyd retired and I took over the vintage. I hadn’t visited the vineyard at that point and was entirely new to all this.”

Somehow, in the midst of all that activity, while crushing grapes from unfamiliar vineyards, in unfamiliar surroundings, Lake found time to conceive and initiate his Millennium Cabernet Sauvignon. I met him for the first time at an open house at the newly-christened Columbia winery – I believe it was in the late autumn of 1983 or 1984 – where he presented the wine to the press. It was an unusually bold statement from an extremely modest, even humble man, as the name and the concept promised that the wine would last more than two decades – all the way to the year 2000.

I last tasted that 1979 Millennium with David Lake in the spring of 2005, and as I wrote at the time, “it remains a remarkable wine, showing brick-colored edges but still a dark, black cherry color in the center. Almost Barolo-like in both look and flavor, it’s scented with tar and leather, rose petals and cut tobacco. There is not a trace of exhaustion; it’s a mature, confident, truly lovely wine.”

Lake had been kind enough to meet with me at the Otis vineyard a few weeks earlier, on a crisp, cloud-studded spring day in the Yakima valley. He and I strolled through the vines and chatted away as we had on so many occasions, and after a pleasant lunch with owner Otis Harlan (shown in the photo above), we hit upon the idea of doing a retrospective tasting of Otis cabernets. With typical generosity, Lake invited me a few days later to meet with him in the Columbia conference room, where he had opened 19 vintages of Otis. Once again we sat and tasted and talked about the vineyard, the wines, and the industry he was such an essential part of.

There is no possible way to capture a lifetime of achievement in a short essay, but that spring, with its vineyard visit and vertical tasting, stands out as one of the highlights of the many, many times I was privileged to meet and taste with David over the years. Sadly, his health took a turn for the worse not long after, and he retired suddenly from winemaking.

In January of 2006 he came to my home where a retrospective of Associated Vintners/Columbia wines was staged. We tasted his 1980 and 1979 cabernets, and a rare 1979 Otis vineyard pinot noir, along with several still older wines that preceded Lake’s tenure at the winery. Sadly, it was the last time we met in person, though we continued an e-mail correspondence. Even in the midst of mounting health issues, he generously answered my request for his comments on the present and future prospects for Washington wines – comments which are included in the final chapter of my book.

So much has changed in just a few short years. Columbia has new ownership, a new winemaking team, and the last of the David Lake-era wines have been released. I know those wines well – they speak volumes about the man who made them. They are not flamboyant in any way, but they are classics – graceful, elegant, somewhat intellectual, always thoughtful and quietly challenging. I will forever be grateful to have known David Lake, and to have witnessed first-hand his many contributions to the industry which will forever be in his debt.

Rest in peace, my friend.


Mark Kendziorek said...

David was indeed a true gentleman and very humble. I worked for him during the crush of 1982, when it was still Associated Vintners and many of the original founders were still involved.

He was a mentor to me as I began my career in the wine business and always was willing and open to give sound advice and guidance. He also had a great palate. I often told people he forgot more about wine than I would ever know.

the first time I drank a 1st growh was with David- 1964 Chateau Margaux. We were celebratimg the end of crush and befitting the importance and solemnity of the situation, we all drank it in a hot tub.

He willb be sorely missed by the entire wine world, but his impact lives on.

Mark Kendziorek

Lisa Anderson said...

Those are kinds words Paul. And you got it right--such a humble man with so much talent and ingenuity. I remember having the privilege of tasting with you and David back in 2000 or 2001 at the winery--and how much he always enjoyed his visits with his wine writer friends. I had another one of those long afternoons before that visit with you, with Tom Stockley and David. That was about a month before Tom passed away. It's quite a bittersweet memory thinking of that afternoon now--two incredible men I was lucky enough to call friends. The two years I got to work with David were some of the best experiences I've had, and I know others feel that way about their time with him too. I had several trips with David over to Eastern Washington, and there was never a dull moment in the conversation. He became my good friend in those years and we stayed in touch. When I left Corus to work at home with my new baby, David called me into his office and gave me a magnum of Millenium he had written a note on. Has to be my favorite gift ever. I can't bring myself to open it though. Cheers to David. He will certainly not be forgotten.

Tim Smith said...

I too will miss David.....I worked in the Seattle Market, and had moved from K & L Distributors, over to what was then known, as Canadauiga Wine Company, which is now Constellation.
When the company purchase Columbia Winery, it was my honor to work with David, along with the rest of our sales and marketing group....Humble, focus, and just cared about people first, wine second.
I will always think of him as our "Robert Mondavi", of the Pacific Northwest, but he was more than a winemaker, be brought new ideas into the market.
He thought process was always "What if" was wonderful to know and work with him. As many had said, and will say...."He will be remembered but also missed, very much".
I still have a couple of "David Lake" series of wines, that my Wife and I, along with several close associates, will open tonight, and salute his memory.

David Adair said...

I first met David at an east-side tasting group when worked at Paul Thomas. When that job went away, David came and recommended me to then Associated Vineyards and i was privileged to work with him for four and a half years. It was a remarkable introduction to a global view of wines and David gave freely of his exhaustive knowledge repeatedly. One day in the mid-1980's, a furry rascal cat trotted out of the blackberries across the street from the winery and David immediately named him Muscat, realizing that every winery needs a cat! A label we were going to create for a sweet Muscat Canelli was to have featured Janus-like silhouettes of David and Muscat, our own feline 'opus'. It never came about, but when Columbia moved, David took Muscat home where he and Connie made sure his life was valued and pampered into a ripe old age. I hope David's enjoying a bottle of very dry, nearly 'stinky' Pouilly Fume or Sancerre, the wines that originally inspired his devotion to elegance, balance and style.
David Adair

Philippe said...

We will all miss you a lot, David.
You always had time to talk to me as a vendor, which was very special.
It was a real joy to listen to you telling me why a barrel was better than another one.
Thank you mon ami


Charlie Hossom said...

Learning of David's passing, although not totally unexpected, still gives one pause. It seems, as always, that such a good person should live forever. It is hard to find words that descibe the man and his influence; but the words that come to my mind are visionary, mentor, ambassador, but above all a man of true grace. His contributions are deeply appreciated by the industry and his person will be deeply missed. I am now motivated to finally pull the cork on my 1982 Associated Vintners Semillion (which is still a light straw color) and hoist a toast to a great man.

Otis Harlan said...

David was a "partner" with us at Otis Vineyards. He helped select the varieties, suggested when to leaf strip etc. Near harvest time David used to be with us daily. What a huge benefit to have the winemaker so intimately involved in the growing side. He was a most kind, thoughtful, generous soul and I miss his wonderful being.

Otis Harlan
Otis Vineyards

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