Washington, wine

Entering the Cayuse Conundrum

Bionic FrogEasily the most contentious and controversial blog posting of the year in Washington wine, Wine Peeps take on Cayuse generated a volume of comments not normally seen unless Justin Bieber is involved. The burning question: Are the wines of Cayuse a unique expression of Washington terroir (a word so beaten to death and co-opted by marketers I would like to see it retired) or are they flawed? Wine Peeps side with the latter. I have zero intention of rehashing the debate (feel free to block off an afternoon to read all the comments) but I advise you to consider the spirited counterpoint to the arguments put forth by Wine Peeps in Sean Sullivan’s Washington Wine Report.

So what was my take on all this after plowing through the science, the tasting notes, the passion, the vitriol, the laughter, the tears? I really, really wanted to try Cayuse and decide for myself. It took about a month and a half post-Cayusegate, but I got the chance recently. Thanks to providence and generosity of our owner, the staff at Esquin got to sample the 2006 Cayuse Bionic Frog Syrah. Though I did not have a lab at my disposal to evaluate the soundness of the wine, I was in full possession of my taste buds and my highly subjective opinion.

First, what did the heavy-hitters of the professional wine world, The Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate, think of the 06 Frog? Suitably impressed: 96 and 99 points, respectively. While I’m not one to rate wines on the 100 point scale, or any scale, I trust these stalwarts to ably tally up their score cards. I do, however, have to vehemently disagree with possibly the most jaw-dropping sentence I have ever read in a wine review, courtesy of Jay Miller: “Imagine having to choose between your ideal fantasy sexual partner and this wine–and you choose The Frog!” Jay, you can have the bottle and I’ll take Scarlett Johansson.

My take on the Bionic Frog? Three word review: I liked it. But allow me to elaborate. It’s probably the meatiest wine I have ever tasted. If you like your Syrah on the earthy/gamy side, this is for you. My critique of the wine is that it’s missing something from the other end of the spectrum: fruit. I’m not sure how many people in the general wine-drinking public would like a wine that leans so heavily towards one end of the spectrum of flavors. Regardless, the Bionic Frog is one of the most interesting and unique Washington wines I’ve ever tasted. And I’m not being pejorative (or cowardly) here; “interesting” and “unique” are not euphemisms for negative remarks.

What would be really cool (and this is something that Sean covers) is to taste all the wines made from fruit in The Rocks area of the Walla Walla Valley AVA. I know each vineyard site is specific and has different soils, slopes, and blah blah blah. But I’d like to get a general handle on how much site influences the wines and how much winemaking has an impact on flavor.

I’m not going to paint Cayuse with a wide brushstroke after sampling one bottle, but (you knew this was coming) I didn’t think it was flawed. The Bionic Frog is not made to be crowd-pleasing and this style of wine is polarizing–even amongst experienced wine-tasters. But with critical accolades and a wait list longer than the one for Green Bay Packers season tickets, Winemaker Christophe Baron isn’t losing any sleep over his critics.

So what’s your take on Cayuse? You can also read the thoughts of my coworker Justin on this same bottle at Bottle Variations.

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3 thoughts on “Entering the Cayuse Conundrum

  1. In my comments to the Wine Peeps blog, I pointed out that if you were going to look for the contributions of terroir to wines made from grapes grown in “the rocks” then you’d have to think seriously about how the individual vineyards are managed (the cultural component of terroir). Since Cayuse started winning accolades, the acreage of “rocky” vineyards has grown significantly but many of these new vineyards are managed in a completely different style. It’s very difficult and expensive to farm like Christophe. The cobbles are continuously raked to the surface where they provide excellent drainage and infrared radiation, but they are hell on equipment. Many vineyards “in the rocks” have planted grass between the rows and there’s not a cobble to be seen. The grapes at Cayuse are trellised lower than at most vineyards, where they are low enough to actually receive the infrared radiation the rocks emit, but that makes tending and harvesting them more of a back-breaking effort. Christophe also practices biodynamic viticulture and leaves are hand-stripped from the east sides of rows to expose the fruit to more sunshine. Despite all of these practices that impart individuality to Cayuse’s rocky vineyards, I’ve still detected similarities in flavor profiles between his wines and those from other “rocky” vineyards. As I said in one of my posts to the peeps, the real test would be to compare Christophe’s wines to wines made by another winemaker from Cayuse vineyards fruit. That can be done with 2004 Copain syrah and I’ve done it in the company of friends who, when tasting it blind, spontaneously commented that it smelled and tasted like a Cayuse”. I agreed, the similarities were obvious. Case closed, IMHO.

  2. Ben Platt says:

    Entering an older debate a little late, but my two cents is that there are so many variables in viticulture and winemaking and the bottom line is ‘are you subjectively pleased or not?’ I look at reviews as odds and not hard facts due to such variability. I had an 07 Armada last year that was a little too green and funky for my palate but I wouldn’t say it was flawed. I had another bottle of the same last month and it was absolutely superb! And both times, the four people drinking it had similar opinions. Did it evolve, was it bottle to bottle variability, was there a flaw previously? I’ll never know but I liked the last bottle to the point that I’ll buy it and other Cayuse offerings again. If I’m ever consistently let down, I’ll buy something else.

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