Cayuse Vineyards – Horses, Rocks and a Crazy Frenchman

(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.


Horses Plowing in the Vineyards of Cayuse Winery in Walla Walla

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.


Christophe Baron Lecturing on a Pile of Rocks at Cayuse

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.


The Rocky Soil of Cayuse Winery

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).


Horses Plowing in Narrow Rows of Cayuse Vineyards

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.


Wine Tasting in the Cellars of Cayuse


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.


The 12 Wines We Tasted

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.


Aging Barrels in the Cellars of Cayuse


Champagne and Tacos – a Unique Lunch at Kiona Vineyards, Washington

(May 2, 2017) Kiona Vineyards, located in the Red Mountain AVA of Washington State, was the first stop of the day. One of the oldest wineries in the region, established in 1961, it is famous for its big luscious cabernet sauvignons, old vineyards, and a panoramic view of the valley.


Therefore it was only fitting that this was location of a master class tasting on Washington cabernet sauvignons. We spent several hours tasting 12 wines and listening to the fascinating tales of the winemakers who made them.  I must say that I have always enjoyed Washington cabernet sauvignons and red blends, because of the distinctive texture of the tannins on my palate.  They are more powdery, and remind me of the tannins found in the Bolgheri region of Italy.


Washington Cabernet Sauvignon Master Class

After the tasting, we were treated to lunch on the sunny terrace. Walking outside we were welcomed by our hosts with a large ice bucket filled with Champagne, local sparkling wine, and Mexican beer. This was an excellent palate refresher after evaluating the delicious and tannic cabernets.


Champagne and Tacos on the Terrace of Kiona Vineyards

Just beyond the drinks table was a food truck in the parking lot, specializing in tacos.  This was a great treat for most of the MWs who were looking forward to tasting Mexican food in the US.  Also, the trend of “gourmet food trucks” is sweeping the nation, and so it was enjoyable to have lunch provided by a taco truck.  The menu included the following delicacies:

Mexican Tacos – Shredded chicken, pork and vegetarian choices

Fresh salsa, cilantro and warm flour tortillas

 Elote on a Stick  – grilled corn on the cob with mayonnaise, powdered Mexican cheese, chili pepper and lime

 Mexican cold slaw salad

Refried beans with cheese

Tortilla chips


The Taco Truck at Kiona Vineyards, Washington

Everyone lined up to enjoy the meal, with many people returning for second and third helpings of tacos. We enjoyed our meal at outdoor tables, overlooking Kiona’s rare cabernet sauvignon vineyard, planted in 1975 and using a unique 6-foot vertical fan trellis system. During lunch, we were joined by the six winemakers who had showcased their beautiful Washington State cabernet sauvignons during the morning seminar. In this way, we were able to continue our educational discussion.


Delicious Meal of Champagne, Beer and Tacos

Guardian Cellars – A Unique Winery Started by a Retired Police Officer

Not only do they produce big, inky, chewy and high satisfying red wines from Washington State, this winery also boasts a very unique wine story. Started by retired police officer, Jerry Riener, the name “Guardian” is to honor the role of police across the country that protect and serve their country.

Cop Winemaker

Cop Turned Winemaker – Jerry Riener at Guardian Cellars, WA. Photo Credit: Guardian Cellars

When I met Jerry at the MW tasting in Woodinville, he told the story of when he served as an undercover agent for 3 years, living in a penthouse over-looking Seattle and driving a sports car. Though the assignment wrecked havoc on his personal life, in the end the taskforce was able to bring down one of the largest drug cartels in the US.

After this feat, Jerry decided it was time to pursue another dream – to start a winery.  Today Guardian Cellars, located in Woodinville, Washington, produces around 10,000 cases of delicious wines.  Jerry also was able to finally settle down with family and enjoy life.  However, he admits that he stills stay in touch with his buddies on the force, and that police officers around the country are one of his larger customer bases. Part of this may be because of the unique names for his wines.  We tasted:

The Informant 2014 Guardian Cellars ($30) – a dark inky syrah oozing with blueberries, black liquorish and spice with massive tannins and a very long finish.

The Wanted 2014 Guardian Cellars ($39) – a velvety Bordeaux Blend with 40% cab, 31% cabernet franc, and 29% merlot. Very rich red plum, cassis, and spice with smooth tannins. Delicious.

Guarden Wines

Guardian Wines. Photo Credit: H. Young, Seattle Mag

Overview of Washington Wine – Major Grape Varietals, Appellations and Terroir

During our 5-day tour of Washington State, we learned many interesting facts about Washington wine. To begin, Washington is the second largest wine-producing region in the USA after California.  As of 2016, Washington has 681 bonded wineries (Fisher, 2017), and over 900 brands.


Old Vines at Chateau St. Michelle in Washington State

The oldest winery in Washington is Columbia Winery, established in 1962. The second oldest is Chateau St. Michelle started in 1967. Today they are both the largest wine producers in the state, and are ironically located across the road from one another in the town of Woodinville, about one hour northeast of Seattle. Though their headquarters are here, the majority of Washington grapes are grown in the eastern part of the state, which is much warmer than the cool rainy region near Seattle.

In order to take advantage of the many tourists who visit Seattle, a large number of wineries have established tasting-rooms in the town of Woodinville. Today there are more than 140 places here where visitors can sample delicious Washington wines.

We stayed for one night in Woodinville, and enjoyed the luxurious surroundings of the Willows Lodge Resort. It was located within walking distance to Columbia Winery, Chateau St. Michelle, and Januik/Novelty Hill Winery, which we visited during our stay.

Columbia Winery, Woodinville, Washington

Columbia Winery in Woodinville. Photo Credit:

Major Grape Varietals in Washington

According to Washington, currently there are over 50,000 acres of vineyards planted with nearly 70 varieties, with 58% red and 42% white.  The five most planted grapes, according to Washington Wine are:

Wine Grape Varietal Acres
Cabernet Sauvignon 10,297
Merlot 8,235
Chardonnay 7,654
Riesling 6,320
Syrah 3,103

From a public perspective, Washington’s signature white grape is Riesling and signature red is a Red Blend, usually including cabernet sauvignon and merlot – sometimes syrah. However, its most distinctive red is Syrah, which is produced in a Northern Rhone style with earthy, black fruit, massive tannins and high level of complexity.

Appellations, Climate and Soil

Washington has 14 appellations (AVA’s), with 13 of them in the warmer Eastern part of Washington, and only one – Puguet Sound AVA – in the cooler Western region near Seattle (see map).  The terroir reflects these extremes with a maritime climate in the west with 35 inches of annual rainfall, and a continental climate in the east with an average of only 8 inches per year rainfall.  Eastern Washington has a hot, dry climate in the summer with an average of one more hour of sunlight, around 16 hours per day, compared to other wine growing regions.


Wine Regions and AVAs of Washington State. Photo Credit:

A unique feature is the large swings in temperature between day and night (diurnal shift) of up to 40 degrees F, allowing grapes to ripen longer and retain freshness.  Of the 14 AVA’s Yakima Valley is the oldest, established in 1983 and Lewis-Clark the newest in 2016.  Some of most well-known AVAs include Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, and Walla Walla Valley.

The soil of Washington state is a mixture of volcanic basalt, sandy loam, silt, and some caliche (limestone).  Its ancient geological past of multiple volcanic activity, megaflood, and winds created this unique composition, which for the most part has allowed the state to remain phylloxera free.  Because of this many of the vineyards are planted on their own roots, instead of grafted to rootstocks. Below is a photo at Ferguson Vineyard near Walla Walla showing unique basalt cliff.


Our MW Group photo with unique vineyard geology (basalt cliff) near Walla Walla

Five Day Master of Wine Tour of Washington Wine Regions

One of the greatest advantages to being a member of the Institute of Masters of Wine is the opportunity to visit the great wine regions of the world with fellow MW’s. This May I was honored to be invited to participate in a 5-day wine tour of Washington State. Altogether 42 MWs from around the world flew to Seattle to learn about and sample the great wines of Washington.

Aerial view over Benches Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills AVA, Washington

Washington State Vineyards Along the Columbia River. Photo Credit:

Our trip was hosted by Washington State Wines, and I would have to say that this was one of the most well organized wine tours in which I have ever participated. Every last detail was coordinated by President, Steve Warner and VP, Chris Stone of Washington State Wines, along with their amazing team and advice from Bob Betz, MW. The hotels, meals, and transportation were all excellent, and we felt very welcomed and cossetted.

Upon check-in we were given a book that listed each of the 340 wines we would taste during the 5-day trip. The fact that this book was prepared in advance with the participation of more than 100 wineries is testament to the extraordinary amount of preparation and planning that went into this wine tour.


42 MW’s Visiting Red Willow Vineyard & Chapel on Washington Wine Tour

By the time we finished the tour, every MW – including wine buyers, journalists, educators, and winemakers – was very impressed with not only the wines of Washington, but also the incredible hospitality of every Washingtonian we met.

Following is the schedule for our 5-day wine tour of Washington:

Day One – Seattle

  • Arrive in Seattle
  • Check into Willows Lodge Resort and relax
  • Walk to Columbia Winery to attend walk around tasting of Washington wines and Heavy Appetizer Dinner
  • Overnight at Willows Lodge Resort

Riesling Master Class at Chateau St. Michelle

Day Two – Seattle to Horse Heaven Hills AVA

  • Walk to Chateau St. Michelle for lecture on history of Washington wine and master class on Washington Rieslings
  • Lunch at Januik/Novelty Hill Winery with walk-around tasting of Woodinville wineries
  • Drive to Suncadia Resort to check into hotel for short rest
  • Afternoon lecture on geology of Washington vineyards and Washington AVA tasting
  • Dinner at Swiftwater Cellars with walk-around tasting of Horse Heaven Hills AVA
  • Overnight at Suncadia Resort

Suncadia Resort in Washington State

Day 3 – Suncadia to Yakima/Red Mountain AVA

  • Drive to Red Willow Vineyard to visit the oldest syrah vineyard in the state – planted with Guigal cuttings; Syrah tasting in the vineyard
  • Drive to Precept Canyon River Ranch for lunch and tasting of Yakima wines
  • Drive to Walter Clore Wine Center for master class on Washington Syrah, followed by tasting of unusual varietals
  • Check into Richland Courtyard Marriott for quick rest
  • Drive to Quilceda Creek Winery for vertical tasting of Quilceda Creek at Ciel du Cheval Vineyard
  • Dinner at Col Solare Winery for walk-around tasting of Red Mountain AVA wines and dinner with famous Washington Chef, Tom Douglas
  • Overnight at Richard Courtyard Marriott

Visiting Col Solare Winery for Washington Wine Tour

Day 4 – Yakima to Walla Walla

  • Drive to Kiona Winery for master class on Washington Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Lunch at Kiona Winery – a unique lunch on the sunny terrace featuring a taco truck and champagne.
  • Drive to Washington State University for lecture on viticulture research and walk-around tasting of Rhone varietals
  • Check into Marcus Whitman Hotel for short rest
  • Dinner at Whitehouse Crawford Restaurants at Seven Hills Winery, including walk around tasting of Walla Walla wines
  • Overnight at Marcus Whitman Hotel

Old Syrah Vine in Red Willows Vineyard, Washington

Day 5 – Walla Walla

  • Visit Walla Walla Community College for a lecture/tasting on impact of tannins on wine phenolics
  • Drive to Leonetti Cellars for master class on Washington Merlot and lunch with winemakers
  • Drive to Ferguson Vineyards to view unique geology and taste L’Ecole wines.
  • Visit Cayuse Winery for vineyard tour and retrospective tasting of Cayuse wines with French winemaker Christophe Baron
  • Dinner at Dusted Valley Vintners with walk-around tasting of Walla Walla wines
  • Return to Marcus Whitman Hotel for overnight stay

Vineyards and Gardens at Leonetti Cellars in Washington

Video on Washington Wines

So based on the above schedule, it was a jam-packed trip with non-stop tastings, vineyard/winery visits, lunches, and dinners. Despite this, we still had time to get together in the late evenings for a nightcap. A very exciting, educational, and memorable trip that allowed everyone to recognize the magnificence of Washington wines.  Here is a great video to provide an insight into Washington Wines (click here).


Sunset in the Vineyards of Walla Walla, Washington

The next day, we boarded a bus to Oregon to spend three whirlwind days tasting the wines of Oregon. This trip included driving from Walla Walla, down the Columbia Gorge to Portland, and then onto the Willamette Valley. See later posts for highlights of this trip.


Vertical Tasting of Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon – YES!


Which Top US Wine was Preferred by Chinese Master Class?

(May 2017) Recently I was asked to teach a Master class in Shanghai, China entitled “Top Wines of America.” It was scheduled from 7 to 9pm at the Hyatt Regency, and all 34 seats in the class were filled with young Chinese wine professionals. Most were working in the industry as wine retailers, marketers, or educators. There were also a few importers and winemakers in the class.

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Participants in Top US Wine Master Class in Shanghai, China

The hosts of the Wine100 Competition organized the master class and arranged for the wines to be available for the event. They requested that I select 8 highly rated wine brands that were available in the Chinese market, and that could represent the major wine-producing states of California, Washington, Oregon and New York.

My translator was Melody, who had graduated from the WSET Diploma program, so she knew wine quite well. We began with a 30-minute overview of the history and statistics of American wine, and then spent some time describing the climate and soil of the four major wine regions we would be tasting (See Powerpoint below, which includes Chinese translation).

Wine100 Masterclass on American Wines by DRLizThachMW


Line Up of Top US Wines for Master Class

Line-Up of Top 8 American Wines

We tasted through the following eight wines, and then I asked everyone to vote by a show of hand for their two favorites. Following are the results:

  1. Forge Dry Riesling 2015 New York Finger Lakes = 3
  2. Kistler Vine Hill Vineyard Chardonnay 2013, Russian River = 11
  3. Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 = 13
  4. Kosta Browne Pinot Noir 2014 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Vineyard = 11
  5. Turley Old Vine Zinfandel 2015 = 6
  6. Opus One 2012 = 10
  7. Harlan The Maiden 2000 = 8
  8. Cayuse Syrah 2010, Cailloux Vineyard = 6

The Winning Wine from Oregon

So Domaine Serene Pinot Noir from Oregon ended up edging out the others by a couple of points. Though this wasn’t a scientific poll in anyway, and cannot be generalized, it was interesting to see the results.  They reflect an observation that was shared with me before arriving in China: that younger Chinese are beginning to show a penchant for pinot noir, over the more tannic cabernet blends that their parents usually drink. So perhaps we are starting to see a shift in palate preferences….


My Two Brilliant Translators – Anita and Melody