Few wines in Washington are as compelling – or as controversial – as those from Cayuse Vineyards. The wines of Cayuse are quite simply unlike any other wines produced in the state. Many things contribute to this but they can all be summed up as follows – Christophe Baron.
Baron is a native of France who grew up studying enology in Champagne and Burgundy. Baron traveled in the Walla Walla Valley in the mid-1990s and noticed an orchard covered with large cobblestones that reminded him of those in Chateauneuf de Pape. In the ensuing years, Baron planted a number of vineyards in this unforgiving area, using crowbars to plant the vines.
Many things distinguish Cayuse from other wineries in the state. One of them is these vineyards. The vineyards are unique in a variety of respects in addition to the cobblestones (although Baron guards the stones carefully saying anyone who takes one is sentenced to seven years of bad sex). Unlike many in the state, Baron uses vines grafted to Phyloxera-resistant rootstock. He made this decision after talking with a French winemaker who told him he was an “idiot” if he did not (Note: An exception to this is Cailloux Vineyard which was planted in 1997). Baron also keeps yields extremely low, about two tons per acre to concentrate the fruit.
In farming the vineyards, Baron uses biodynamic principles. These principles were first laid out by Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century. Biodynamic viticulture involves looking at the vineyard as a holistic system. While it shares some commonalities with organic farming, it also embraces a more spiritual and philosophical bent. Among other things, biodynamic farming involves creating a series of preparations that are applied to the vineyard, such as cow manure buried in a cow horn in the soil. While many debate the scientific effect of biodynamic principles on the resulting wine, one thing is clear. Embracing this philosophy requires a meticulous attention to detail and intense care for the vineyards.
As Cayuse Vineyards has grown in size to its current fifty-five acres, Baron says he has been forced to follow the biodynamic principles a bit differently than he did when he first started given that timing is essential. Though there are thirty people working at the vineyard full-time, plowing the vineyards all at the same time according to the lunar calendar is nearly impossible. Baron says he has had to become more pragmatic and flexible.
In terms of production, Baron ferments his wine in concrete tanks adorned with rocks from the vineyards before moving them to barrel. Baron jokes that these concrete tanks is where the minerality of his wines comes from. Still, he says it would be impossible to get the same effect he is looking for from other containers.
For his fermentation, Baron uses only native yeast – those that come from the grapes. This is in contrast to most winemakers who use designer yeast that is added to the juice. For this reason, fermentation at Cayuse is sluggish compared to many in the state, often taking more than three weeks (compared to 7-10 days for those that add yeast). This can create a number of challenges in the winemaking process. For example, for the 2009 vintage of one of the tanks had not started fermentation after seven days of waiting. Baron solved the issue by adding juice from a tank that was fermenting. Baron says that when the health of the vineyard is good, the yeast will be good saying “We don’t use forces of death. All we use are forces of life.”
Baron says he wants what is in the glass to provide “emotion”. In this, he surely succeeds. People love, hate, or are just plain baffled by Cayuse wines because they are so distinct. The wines are marked by aromas and flavors of earth, mineral, blood, iodine, and meat. They are, quite simply, unlike any other wines being produced in Washington.
Cayuse distributes its wine exclusively via mailing list with a years-long waiting list. The wines are sold in three packs and come in boxes bearing the winery’s logo. Since the initial releases, all of Cayuse’s wines have been highly rated and sought after. And with good reason. These are not only among the most interesting wines being made in the state; Baron has also kept his prices reasonable despite the steady high scores and the stream of accolades.
Cayuse makes a series of vineyard-designated Syrah from what is referred to as “The Rocks” area of the Walla Walla Valley AVA. These vineyards are named Cailloux, En Cerise (French for cherry), En Chamberlin, and Armada. Bionic Frog is the name of the winery’s top of the line Syrah. Cayuse also makes a Cabernet Franc-dominant Bordeaux blend (Flying Pig), a Cabernet-dominant Bordeaux blend (Camaspelo); a Cabernet (The Widowmaker); a Tempranillo (Impulsivo); a Grenache (God Only Knows); a Rose; and a Viognier.
Here we sample three vineyard-designated Syrah from the new 2007 vintage: the Cailloux, En Chamberlain, and En Cerise.
Note: All wines decanted two hours prior to tasting and sampled at 66 degrees.
Cayuse Vineyards Cailloux Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2007 $50 Rating: **
A downright stinky nose with manure, burnt embers, and purple fruit. A well fleshed out, meaty palate dominated by olive flavors in its rich, expansive middle. Drinks like a well-cooked steak. 14.2% alcohol.
Cayuse Vineyards En Chamberlain Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2007 $50 Rating: **
A funky, aromatic nose with mushroom, earth, mineral, streaky red fruit, floral notes, and healthy dose of black pepper. Thick and intense on a palate that has a perfect polish to it and is almost impenetrable. The palate shows lots of sliced black olives and pepper. The finish is seemingly endless. 14.6% alcohol.
Cayuse Vineyards En Cerise Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2007 $50 Rating: *
Blood, smoked meat, mineral, and earth on a nose that is restrained initially yet powerful. The palate is rich with fruit and flavors of bloody roast beef. The finish lingers. A compelling wine that is missing a few layers on the palate compared to its littermates. 14.6% alcohol.
This is a great story piece. I feel like I have had an intimate experience with the story here! Fantastic work, Sean. I've never had the pleasure of enjoying a Cayuse wine and I have to say that with descriptors of manure, mushroom, and blood, I'm a little hesitant. Your high rating marks certainly put me at ease.
Josh @nectarwine (twitter friend)
Josh, thanks for the kind words and comment.
Wow…great post Sean! I meant to ask you if Christophe used native yeast or commercially available yeast, but my question was answered in the article…very informative as usual. Thanks for letting me participate…my only difference in your ratings is that I would have given the En Cerise two stars. In fact, I secured a couple more after the tasting. Consider that an invitation to try in a year or so.
Darren, thanks for the comment – and for contributing to the tasting. I will take you up on that invitation.
Fascinating article! What little I knew about Cayuse, now has grown to conversational starter material. It's interesting to see that if Mr. Baron's wines weren't so well received by the wine community, he might well be regarded as an eccentric and just plain weird. Just goes to show you that taking different paths can lead to success.
Great report and notes. We seem to be simpatico when it comes to Cayuse. Someone who had never heard of Cayuse or maybe just in passing (Are there still people around who haven't heard of Cayuse?!) would certainly be pumped to try the wines after your article. We need to get together sometime and maybe taste a vertical of one of the single vineyards or even the Frog or Impulsivo. I was assembling a top ten list for 2009 and Cayuse dominated it so much that I actually ended up posting two lists. One Cayuse Top Ten and the other wines that weren't Cayuse! Keep up the good work and drink well on New Year's Eve!!
This is a great article. I live in Walla Walla and have yet to try Cayuse wine. It seems to be exclusive. I have heard good and bad about it. How important do you think it is to enjoy at 66 degrees?
Cityroute, interestingly, biodynamics – while I wouldn't say it's mainstream – is becoming more and more common for many Washington and Oregon wineries. It's very uncommon to see it on the label at this point but perhaps at some point it will show up.
Jared, thanks for the comment and kind words. Would love to check out a vineyard vertical some time. Very fun idea. Have a good start to the New Year.
Janet, temperature is important to me as I believe it greatly effects on the perception of the wine (as do many things I might add). At warmer temperatures (70+ degrees or room temperature in most cases), wines often become flabby, tart, and generally out of balance. This is especially true for higher alcohol wines (15%+). Below 60 degrees, aromas and flavors become muted and barrel notes can often dominate. For this reason, I try to drink wines between 62-66 degrees which is where I find most do well. That said, I don't believe the Cayuse wines would be particularly negatively affected going up to say 70 degrees. Like many wines, the Cayuse wines are distinct and not necessarily everyone's style. Thanks for the comment!
Sean, great article on a great winery.
Jared, had to make 2 lists myself…when is the next offline???
another Darren, thanks for the comment. Happy New Year!