Yesterday fellow wine blogger Kori Voorhees at Wine Peeps wrote about a laboratory analysis of a bottle of Cayuse Vineyards 2004 Cailloux Vineyard Syrah. In the post and subsequent comments, she states emphatically and without equivocation that the wines of Cayuse Vineyards are technically flawed based on a laboratory analysis performed by ETS Laboratories in St. Helena.
This is, of course, a serious allegation – one with the potential to damage the reputation of the winery, the writer, or both. More broadly, it impugns indirectly if not directly the numerous professional and non-professional writers who have written favorably about the Cayuse wines – including every major wine publication. For these reasons, it is critical, in my opinion, that the argument and evidence is well presented and well supported. Unfortunately, in Voorhees’ article, neither is the case.
The article by Voorhees contains large gaps in both the information presented and in the logical flow. I will list below what I see as the most significant gaps. I will quote below directly from the post to support my assertions.
Voorhees starts her case against Cayuse by noting that theses wines do not taste like other wines coming from vineyards in The Rocks area of the Walla Walla AVA, stating:
“…it has always been curious to me that other wines produced from grapes in The Rocks, some literally within a stone’s throw, do not taste at all like Cayuse.”
Voorhees gives no information on what specific wines she is referencing, so it is impossible to say what her points of reference are. However, as noted by a commenter on the Wine Peeps blog, there are, in fact, wines with stylistic similarities to the wines of Cayuse. These come from other wineries who have vineyards in The Rocks region of the Walla Walla Valley AVA (Buty’s Rediviva of the Stones, several K Vintners wines, and Saviah Cellars’ Funk Vineyard Syrah come immediately to mind).
Additionally, making these types of direct comparisons between vineyards to assert that there is something wrong with the winemaking – as Voorhees does – is highly questionable, even for vineyards within close proximity. It’s not even comparing apples to oranges.
There are innumerable aspects that cumulatively make up the differences seen between wines. These may be differences in vineyard location, soil type, clone selection, trellising, vineyard management, and many, many more variables. This is long before winemaking even enters the equation. Making a direct comparison between vineyards without any supporting information, while perhaps anecdotally interesting, is nothing more than that.
While the article mentions other vineyards “literally within a stone’s throw,” it curiously makes no reference to wines from other wineries – most notably K Vintners – made from the exact same fruit from the exact same vineyards. This is an odd omission.
Voorhees goes on to write about the ETS analysis. She begins (emphasis hers):
“The evidence was clear. The Cayuse was a flawed wine.”
There actually is no evidence provided in the article to support Voorhees’s claim. At no point does Voorhees define what constitutes a flawed wine either in her opinion or in the opinion of ETS, the service that she had analyze the wine. In the absence of such a definition and supporting information, Voorhees’s argument quickly becomes specious.
Moreover, there is little discussion in the article (there is in the comments) of the fact that some wine flaws, such as TCA, are universally agreed upon as flaws. Other flaws, such as brettanomyces, are considered to be in the eye of the beholder. Rather Voorhees’ article seems to imply that all wine flaws are universally agreed upon as binary in nature – flawed or not flawed. This is erroneous.
The article goes on to imply, but not state, that the volatile acidity (VA) level found in the wine – which is not provided – constitutes a flaw.
“It had volatile acidity slightly above the normal sensory threshold but at a level a massive Syrah can support”
It is highly suspect to call a volatile acidity level slightly above the normal sensory threshold a flaw. Again, no supporting documentation is given regarding what ETS or others would consider a ‘flawed’ level of volatile acidity or what the VA level was in the wine. This would be forgivable if the article did not insinuate that the VA level found constitutes a flaw. It does, however, make this exact insinuation.
Worse, Voorhees makes the same argument regarding the pH level of the wine. Again, the exact pH level from the ETS test is not provided. Voorhees writes:
“the worst result from the chemistry panel was that it had a high pH level, which made it more susceptible to bacterial attack.”
As noted by a commenter, it is widely known that the Cayuse wines are high pH wines. However, high pH levels do not constitute a flaw. While the article suggests that this pH level makes the wine “more susceptible to bacterial attack”, no evidence is given of any bacterial contamination on this particular wine.
It is implied that the high pH level constitutes the second flaw found in the laboratory analysis of the wine. Voorhees calls a subsequent analysis, that of dimethyl sulfide, “The most damning result…” This implies that the previous information presented is in some way damning. It is far from it.
The article continues that there were high levels of dimethyl sulfide (DMS) found in the wine. The article states that the normal sensory threshold of DMS is 17-25 ug/L. It is insinuated, but not stated, that levels above 50 ug/L constitute a ‘flaw’ in the view of ETS. Voorhees writes (emphasis mine):
“ETS studies say that low levels of dimethyl sulfide can contribute roundness, fruitiness, or complexity; however, at levels greater than 50 ug/L, it may contribute vegetative, cooked cabbage, or sulfide smells to wines.”
Again, no evidence is provided that, in the eyes of ETS, this is a binary analysis – below 50 ug/L your wine is not considered flawed; above 50 ug/L your wine is definitively flawed. This may be the case for ETS but is not clear from the article. Additionally, to the extent this is true, no references are given from other laboratories regarding the level at which they consider a wine to be flawed with high levels of DMS to put the ETS analysis in context.
Voorhees also writes that levels greater than 50 ug/L may contribute to certain untoward varietal aromas which she describes. No evidence is given that the levels given in this wine do lead these aromas or did lead to these aromas in this particular wine. This is, again, a logical leap.
Voorhees goes on to state that the DMS levels on the Cayuse wine were extremely high. She writes (emphasis mine):
“According to the ETS representative, this wine had the highest dimethyl sulfide level he had ever seen (312 ug/L), more than 10 times the normal sensory threshold (17-25 ug/L).”
While this may be the case, no information is given about the experience level of this ETS representative or how many wines “he had ever seen.” This person may have worked there for ten years (more interesting) or ten days (less interesting). Some context is required if this individual’s words are to be taken as supporting information. Additionally, no information is provided about how these DMS levels compared to ETS’ findings in general or those from other laboratories. There is also no information provided that is specific to Cayuse regarding why these wines might have higher DMS levels.
No information is given about what the precision and accuracy of the measuring devices are, what the test/retest reliability is, and what the standard deviation is for the measurement. These are all critical pieces of information to support Voorhees’s claim, especially as she writes:
“I must mention that we have only lab tested this one bottle of Cayuse; however, it had the same unmistakable aromas and flavors as every other bottle of Cayuse wine that we’ve tasted through the years.”
For an accusation of this nature, to draw such wide sweeping conclusions from a single analysis of a single bottle with minimal supporting evidence for the claim is callous at best.
Perhaps most importantly, the laboratory analysis certainly does not demonstrate, as the article implies, that all Cayuse wines are flawed. The laboratory analysis is a single data point. To extrapolate such a broad conclusion – and especially a potentially libelous one – from a single bottle is simply unforgiveable. No scientific conclusion is based on the results of a single sample without any supporting evidence from relevant controls and without additional tests being conducted. None.
Relating “the same unmistakable aromas and flavors as every other bottle of Cayuse wine that we’ve tasted” directly to the DMS levels of one single bottle is speculative at best (emphasis mine).
In the article, Voorhees provides a sensory comparison to a wine from Chateau de Beaucastel. It seems odd Voorhees chose not to have ETS conduct analyses from the Beaucastel wine or from additional bottles of Cayuse. While the cost would be high, this cost seems miniscule in relation to the potential cost to the winery’s reputation or to Voorhees’.
Perhaps most regrettably, the article seems to cast aspersions at other wine critics and wine lovers. Voorhees writes:
“We’re not easily fooled by a wine whose proponents call it a product of unique terroir when, in our educated opinion, it is basically a flawed wine.”
The implication is that other critics and wine lovers who have enjoyed the Cayuse wines or rated them highly are simply “easily fooled.” For such a wide sweeping implications as Voorhees makes in this article, might at least analyses of a second bottle of wine have been money well spent?
There may be an argument to be made regarding technical flaws in Cayuse wines. This argument is nowhere to be found in this article. Rather, the article says that there were high levels of DMS in a single bottle of Cayuse Vineyards wine. Period. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn. Interesting? Yes. More than that? Nope.
To be clear, I am not writing this post because I personally feel impugned (I don’t). I have, of course, written favorably about the Cayuse wines but understand that these wines are controversial. Additionally, I know Voorhees and consider her a colleague who has worked hard to write about wine in general and, on innumerable occasions, Washington wine in particular.
I write this post because I agree, as Voorhees writes that, “the truth is more important than politics.” It is therefore important to try and find it. The article by Voorhees fails in this regard on numerous levels.
Cayuse Vineyards has been as heralded as any winery in Washington. This is not a reason not avoid criticizing the winery. It is, however, a reason why it is important that these criticisms, when they are coming from a respected source, are well supported. In the Wine Peeps article, they are not.
In my opinion, given the lack of supporting information and numerous logical leaps in the article, the article should be retracted and revised either to either support its broad claims or to make its claims more limited in scope and based on data. For a claim of this magnitude, wine consumers and readers deserve more.