(May 2017) Probably one of the most unique wineries we visited in Washington State was Cayuse, located in the Walla Walla AVA on the border of Oregon. We arrived in the late afternoon and were met in the parking lot by an exuberant Christophe Baron, the colorful French winemaker who founded the winery in 1997. He was literally bouncing on his heels as he welcomed us with wide arms, and ushered us into the shade of the receiving dock where we each received an icy cold bottle of water. This was much appreciated as the temperature was hovering in the low 90’s F.
After a few minutes of rest, he motioned for us to follow him deep into the vineyards, which were covered with small round rocks, similar to the galettes found in Chateauneuf du Pape. Indeed we stopped in front of a three-foot tall pile of rocks, and Christophe surprised everyone by climbing up to the top of the pile and calling out, “Welcome to Cayuse.” He then proceeded to tell us the tale of how he found the site and built the winery. But he didn’t just lecture in a normal voice. His tone was enthusiastic, triumphant and laced with a thick over-the-top French accent, which I thought he would have lost after living so many years in Washington. However, it supported his reputation of being a “crazy Frenchman,” and I couldn’t help but think of Napoleon Bonaparte as he stood proudly on top of the pile of rocks gesturing wildly.
The Discovery of the Cayuse Field of Stones
Raised in the Champagne region, Christophe explained that his original intention when leaving France in 1996 was to establish a winery in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, but when he arrived there things didn’t work out, so he took a road trip up the Columbia Gorge. Eventually he arrived in Walla Walla, and began hunting around for land to plant a vineyard. Someone told him about a field of stones outside of town, and so he drove out to look at the field, and fell in love at first site.
He was able to purchase the land in 1997 at a good price, because no one else was crazy enough to buy land with so many rocks. They are made of basalt, and are part of the unique geological features of this part of Washington. Christophe started slowly by planting syrah vines and using biodynamic practices, including horses to plow and chickens to help with weed control and fertilization.
Cayuse Vineyards Today
Today Cayuse has 41.5 acres of biodynamic vineyards (not certified), primarily syrah, but also some plantings of grenache, cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo. They produce around 4500 cases of the Cayuse brand, plus 1000 cases of the HorsePower brand and 1000 cases of the No Girls brand. Christophe has 30 full time employees, which increases to 50 people at harvest time.
He continues to use massive workhorses to plow the rocky soil, and hires specially trained “horsemen” to operate the ancient plows that are harnessed to the horses. We were able to witness the horses plowing in the fields, and it was very mesmerizing as they moved slowly between the tightly spaced vines of one meter by one meter. We learned that the vineyards produce, on average, 50 hectoliters per hectare (3 tons per acre).
Christophe told us that most of the vines are planted on their own roots, because phylloxera is rare here, but he planted some on rootstock as an insurance policy. He mentioned that some years they have to bury the vines to prevent them from being damaged by the cold, as it does snow sometimes in Walla Walla. The vines are pruned to such low yield, that it takes three syrah vines to produce one bottle of wine. It is most likely due to this that the wines are so expensive – most over $100 per bottle.
We were told that the current price to install a new vineyard is around $30,000 per acre on the valley floor, but it rises to around $55,000 per acre on the hillsides or where the soil is very rocky. L’ecole’s Ferguson Vineyard was estimated to be around $55,000 per acre to install.
After spending about one hour in the vineyard and making a big fuss over the magnificent workhorses, we slowly walked back to the winery. On the way, Christophe explained that he has one mission: “ to produce true vin de terroir.” After tasting his wines, I had to conclude that he has achieved this goal very well.
Winemaking at Cayuse
As we entered the cool winery, we were invited to sample some of the largest canelé I’ve ever seen – and they were incredibly tasty. The tables were spread out across the cellar in an impressive design, each place laid out with 12 glasses of wine. I marveled about the amount of planning and work that went into the set-up.
Christophe introduced us to his Assistant Vigneron, Elizabeth Bourcier, who was his stellar opposite with her soft voice and focus on the technical aspects of winemaking. She explained how they use concrete tanks for fermentation, native yeast/ML, gentle pump overs and a basket press. They generally use 20 to 30% whole cluster. The wines are aged in larger oak barrels. They try to keep SO2 at a minimum, and add 50 ppm at harvest, and then top up to 30 ppm free.
A Tasting of Twelve Cayuse Wines
It was a fascinating tasting with Christophe and Elizabeth taking turns presenting the wines and answering questions. Following are the twelve wines presented in the order tasted. I have included my personal shorthand notes along with my 100 point score. Pricing is, for the most part, the average price on Winesearcher. I have highlighted my favorites with a star (*) and in purple.
2012 God Only Knows Grenache, Armanda Vineyard (90%) – rich ripe nose of mixed berry; very concentrated with earthy notes. Juicy acidity. High level of complexity. Neutral oak – large puncheons. Finishes a bit bitter. $95/89
2013 Syrah, Cailloux Vineyard – original vineyard; co –fermented with 5 to 6% viognier every year. Black fruit, burnt earth character, juicy acidity, fine-grained elegant tannins, fresh, long, 15% new French oak. Memory of the basalt stones are in the wine – perhaps that is the burnt earth character I taste? $85/93
*2010 Cayuse, Bionic Frog, Coccinelle Vineyard Syrah – called bionic frog because this was Christophe’s nickname in Australia. Dark purple color. Cooler vintage, filled with extreme pepper, allspice, black olive. Richly concentrated, with large tannins and good texture. Same slightly burnt earth note, but more fruit – red and black berries. Extremely complex and compelling. $368/98
2006 Cayuse Armada Vineyard Syrah – red fruit, leather, tobacco, spice. Large but fine-grained tannins. Truffle and black chocolate on finish. 22 months of aging. $124/92
1999 Cayuse Cailloux Vineyard Syrah – cassis, bitter rhubarb, 50% new oak, more fruit, less earth, no burnt note. Elegant, more like a merlot or Australian shiraz. Bitter plum with milk chocolate finish. Quite different. Average = $126/89
2003 Cayuse The Widowmaker, En Chamberlin Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon – notes of beet and burnt earth, chocolate covered berries, fine-grained tannins, good texture, juicy acidity, 50% new oak. $144/92
*2008 Cayuse Impulsivo En Chamberlin Vineyard Tempranillo – cherry cola nose, textured tannins, 50% new oak, spicy, 14.7 – tastes hot, but very seductive. 19 months aging. $179/93
2009 Cayuse No Girls La Paciencia Vineyards Syrah – “No Girls” brand signifies the end of the bordello in the historic building in downtown Walla Walla where Christophe set up his tasting room. There is a sign there that says “no girls.” Same burnt earth note, plus rich red/black fruit, black tea, black olive, spice, higher alcohol, $75/91
*2013 Horsepower Sur Echalas Vineyard Grenache – spicy red cherry, sarsaparilla, sweet fruit, textured, salty, lavender – really fun. New finds in each taste. Very high density planting. $120/94
2012 Horsepower Sur Echalas Vineyard Syrah – floral, black fruit, earthy, dirt, pencil lead, huge, complex, brooding, long, intense; 90% whole cluster. Not sure I like it but it makes a statement – $212/93
2011 Horsepower The Tribe Vineyard Syrah – deep, dark, complex, spicy, bigger, 100% whole cluster, fresh, more tannic, black anise – complex and interesting. $229/92
*2012 Horse Categorie Syrah – vineyard on north Fork of Walla Walla – not near winery. On very steep hillside, similar to Cote Rotie 3.5 x 3.5 feet. 60% slope. Extremely aromatic, floral, No oak, huge tannins, black cherry, burnt wood, ash. Meat, savory, juicy, long – truly quite amazing! $250/97 – but not for sell yet.