outriders

Monday, September 27, 2010

The wines of Cayuse are outriders in every respect. This Washington winery is located entirely in Oregon – vineyards and production facility. Its downtown Walla Walla tasting room has been shuttered for years. The proprietor, M. Christophe Baron, is a James Dean-style rebel – only with a cause. His cause is biodynamics, an extremely labor-intensive and demanding form of viticulture that has recently come under fire. Hoax?

When a Cayuse wine is placed in the midst of a blind tasting it will often show poorly. I have seen this happen in a group of extremely knowledgeable wine professionals. Plop any of the Cayuse syrahs into a syrah tasting and see what happens. Odds are, unless someone in the group spots them (either by bottle size or scent) as what they are, they will not be applauded.

Cayuse produces five different single vineyard syrahs, but they comprise only half the lineup. There is a coppery rosé, a grenache, a cab franc/merlot blend, a left bank Bordeaux blend, a pure cabernet, and a tempranillo. All are estate-grown, and M. Baron is adamant about the importance of growing his own grapes, on land located close to the actual winery.

“There is no recipe at Cayuse,” he insists. “You taste every tank every day. If 50 wines are fermenting, you taste them all every day. You taste and taste and taste; every year is a different vintage. Every vineyard is different. You don’t have to drive 250 miles and come back here. Authenticity and typicity is important; working different vineyards from the same area is pretty difficult to achieve. There are only a few places in the world that can do that. That tells you that this area here in Walla Walla is very special. It’s not because of me; it’s there in the land. Yes, it takes a human to unlock that terroir. But it’s not me – it’s been there for thousands of years. In our lifetime we’ll see hundreds more acres of vineyards planted in this area.”

I was the first writer – though certainly not the last – to investigate the work that Christophe Baron began doing when he planted the Cailloux vineyard almost 15 years ago. I have returned on many occasions to see the progress of this unique enterprise. In a tasting last week of the 2007 vintage, I was privileged to explore a lineup of extraordinary, hand-made, terroir-laden wines.

Complete reviews and scores will be published in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast. Do I have my favorites? You bet I do. I do not rate them all equally, nor do I agree right on down the line with other reviewers. But overall, I stand in profound admiration for what Baron has accomplished, is accomplishing, and will accomplish.

His mailing list is closed, but there are always ways to find these wines – in select wine shops, in online auctions, or simply by splitting a lucky friend’s allotment. They are among a handful of the most important wines made in America.

“The goal is to make some of the best American wine,” Baron explains. “Not the best Walla Walla wine – that is not big enough. I don’t give a shit about the scores, even though they are important and help to sell – I’m not going to spit in the soup. You bring me a beautiful soup, I’m going to enjoy it. But the goal is to be in the top in America.”

Typically outspoken, and easily misinterpreted as arrogance. But I see it as passion, commitment, and above all vision. Can any vigneron give us more?

Cayuse Vineyards

22 comments:

Wilson said...

I saw one of his vineyards just outside of Walla Walla during the wine bloggers conference. Kevin Pogue showed our group and described a bit about Chirstophe's viticultural practices. It was amazing. All those rocks!

Jeff V. said...

Paul,

I assume you mean that they don't show well in a blind tasting of other Washington (er...Oregon) syrah's. What other WA/OR wines really taste remotely close to Christoph's? (Excluding Reynvaan, of course) The answer is none.

I've blind tasted many people on Christoph's Syrah's and most think they are from the Rhone or the Languedoc. Rarely, will anyone guess Washington (er..Oregon).

I think the wildness and brightness in his wines is profound.

I have always contended that the wines Christoph is producing express Washington (er..Oregon) terroir better than anyone else. To me, they are the benchmark wines. I also contend that his wines will out live most of the 'cult' Washington (er..Oregon) wines in the same categories.

I just blind tasted a '02 Camespelo last week with a bunch of Oregon Pinot Noir winemakers. To a person, they were stunned. '02 was pre-BioD certification and young vines. This wine was uncategorizable, it was a shape-shifter. Granted '02 was an exceptional vintage, but this wine made WINEMAKERS think. That says something.

But isn't that the beauty of his wines? They make you think, they challenge you, they take you to a new understanding of what wine can be.

Most professional tasters/critics tend to miss this point. If you're tasting 30 Washington Syrahs (most of which probably sourced from the same 4 vineyards which are all farmed in the same manner by the same person)the Cayuse Syrahs will never show well. There is a sameness problem in WA wines.

Again, for me, his Syrah's (and wines in general) are the benchmarks, everyone else is far, far, far behind.

Anonymous said...

I've participated in several blind tastings where Cayuse wines have been poured. More than once I've heard a taster exclaim "this one's weird, wines aren't supposed to taste like this!" after sipping the Cayuse. I think this gets to the heart of why Christophe's wines sometimes don't fare well when tasted in a lineup. I, for one, am THRILLED that they don't taste the way wine is "supposed" to taste. These wines taste of terroir - not of the winemaker's desire to tweak them into some sort of standard model of syrah, or cab, or whatever.

PaulG said...

I totally agree with these comments; that was the point I was trying to make. At least one of the blind tastings I reference where the Cayuse syrah was criticized included wines from both California and the Rhone – and not cheap wines by any means. I am not about to get into a debate about the value of blind tasting (been there, done that) but for some wineries – and Cayuse is certainly one – whose style is remarkably distinctive, blind tasting lineups can make their wines seem somehow "wrong."

john said...

Paul, If I understand your second paragraph, what you are saying is: If you don't know it's Cayuse, you probably won't like it. But if you do know it's Cayuse, you know you are supposed to like it.

Anonymous said...

The best Washington wine I have ever had (No noticeable flaws) was the 2001 Camaspello. Of the few Syrahs I have had from him, though there were too many flaws for me to recognize any terroir.

PaulG said...

John, that is not at all what I am trying to say. The question is context, and how a blind tasting creates a certain context around more or less standard wines, so that the outrider looks odd, and sometimes, flawed. Anon seems to find too many flaws to recognize terroir; I see terroir rather than flaws. I supposed a lab analysis would be the most scientific way to resolve that debate.

MagnumGourmet said...

I must say that I am not surprised by Cayuse wines showing poorly at blind tastings. (caveat...I have only had 10-12 Cayuse wines total). I struggle with my Cayuse experiences. I find the wines so out of the norm, but extremely intriguing both on the nose and palate. However, I find that all of the Cayuse I have tried taste like Cayuse. I don't believe that I could call out the varietal in a blind tasting. They don't seem to have varietal typicity so much as they have a Christophe'ness. Does that reduce my enjoyment of them...No. But it does put my wine geek a little out of whack.

Stephanie LaMonica said...

paul, i'm confused about this blind tasting and context thing, especially as it pertains to standard wines. what makes a wine standard, btw? and standard or not, i thought the whole point of blind tasting was that there is no context (or expectation), and you're well, tasting this wine as if you know nothing of it, including its maker? otherwise, how can you call it blind? curious indeed.

PaulG said...

Stephanie, see MagnumG comment - that is exactly what I'm getting at. What makes a wine standard? There are specific varietal parameters that are the generally accepted norms, within which vintage character, winemaking and (rarely) terroir are expressed. Cayuse steps waaay outside those norms more often than not.

Anonymous said...

If I've learned nothing else through years of tasting wines, it's that one person's "flaw" is another's "complexity".

PaulG said...

As Paul Simon sang it, one man's ceiling is another man's flaw...

Anonymous said...

So would you have classified Blackwood Canyon wines in a similar fashion? Not flawed just different?

PaulG said...

Ah, the old Blackwood Canyon gambit! They are certainly different. Since they are released many, many years after being fermented, and are aged to the point of extreme oxidation (and worse), I would have to call them flawed, but with this caveat - it's intentional. It is a deliberate winemaker choice. And there are those who find such wines admirable. I am not one such, but I recognize Mike Moore's right to make wines in his way. That's a stronger position than a winemaker who simply doesn't know how to correct bacterial and other problems, and puts the wines out anyway.

gj-captures said...

Paul,
On several occasions I have put a Cayuse into a blind tasting of Washington syrahs, it seems to divide the crowd into a love/hate split.
It is so different and unique from anything else, This is why I love Cayuse. I have never tasted a wine in the world like Cayuse. If I had to choose to drink only 1 producer for the rest of my life, it would be Cayuse. bar none

Sean P. Sullivan said...

I have frequently heard people say that the Cayuse wines are flawed in some fashion. Brett is the flaw most commonly mentioned. I'm always surprised by this. First, do people *really* think that Christophe doesn't send out his wines for analysis? Two, do people *really* think that OTHER people don't send out Christophe's wines for analysis feeling that they are flawed and hoping to throw some mud? Come on folks.

I agree with others here that the Cayuse wines are so unique many don't know what to make of them initially, especially if they are in blind varietal flights. Doesn't make them bad - or flawed. It just makes them challenging wines for people which is, of course, part of why so many delight in them.

PaulG said...

Sean, I think that the accusations of brett are entirely false. It's a misreading of the funk and terroir that is there.To me it's not brett at all. One indicator of brett is that it mutes the fruit. Cayuse wines explode with fruit, but it's wrapped in funk, earth, soy, seaweed, umami, etc. etc. But it is not brett. Just, as you say, unique.

terroirist said...

I've had two experiences that confirmed for me that with Cayuse, it is all about the terroir. At the Walla2 holiday barrel tasting event a few years back I sampled a barrel of syrah at Beresan winery. It tasted amazingly like a Cayuse. I asked someone at the winery if it came from a vineyard in "the rocks" and they confirmed that it was single vineyard syrah from their Yellowjacket vineyard which is maybe a quarter mile from Cayuse.
In 2004, Christophe sold grapes to Copain in Caifornia. I bought several bottles of Copain's '04 Cailloux and Coccinelle vineyard syrah. I brought one of the bottles to a blind tasting and several of the tasters guessed immediately that the wine was a Cayuse. All they knew beforehand was that it was a syrah.
Although I believe Christophe's wines are truly unique, several times I've caught myself saying "this tastes", or more often, "this smells" like a Cayuse. I've only had this reaction to wines from southern France, and most frequently to wines from Cornas.

Sean P. Sullivan said...

Paul, I agree that the accusations of brett on the Cayuse wines are false. I've had a lot of brett on a lot of wines and have also had a lot of Cayuse wines. I can't say that I've ever had a Cayuse wine with brett on it or one that was otherwise flawed. As you say, these wines are the inverse of the type of flavor stripping you see with brett. I think the wines are just so unusual that some people feel there must be something wrong with them. That much more for the rest of us!

Doug R. said...

I have a great deal of respect for Christophe and his passion, but I'm afraid I still don't understand why, when a group of "extremely knowledgeable wine professionals" has blind scored a wine poorly, it suddenly is a 90+ pointer because of who made it.

PaulG said...

Doug, you are drawing a straight line where none exists. The fact that a tasting group didn't like the wine in a blind tasting, and the fact that all the Cayuse wines score extremely well by almost every critic in the land, are both facts. But they have nothing to do with each other. Rather, they cast some doubt, it seems to me, on the value of the theoretically "objective" and "fair" blind tasting formula.

Plymale said...

To follow up on the comment of "terroirist", a recent study found measurable differences in different vineyards in terms of the chemical composition of wine. Google: 10.1021/ac902678t.

Post a Comment

Your comment is awaiting moderation and will be posted ASAP. Thanks!