Leave it to maverick Washington state vigneron Christophe Baron of Cayuse to take his biodynamic vineyard beyond most others. He bought a 12-acre piece of flat, rocky land next door to his winery and one of his vineyards in 2006. But he only only planted 2 acres of vines on it, saving some of the cherry and apple trees to feed the pigs, cows and horses he wants to raise there, using the rest for a 5-acre pasture and a 1 1/2-acre compost pile. (See the video of him, below, from the new vineyard.)
One tenet of biodynamic farming, all the rage in high-end vineyard circles these days, holds that a farm should have animals, vines and other crops living in a closed ecosystem. As I understand it, each element should nourish and feed off the other. Many vineyards that are claimed to be biodynamically farmed are a monoculture, however. They grow grapes, maybe a cover crop between the rows, and compost using animal waste, but they don't actually grow the animals.
"The Frog is turning into a real farmer," grins Baron, who cheekily named his most expensive Syrah 'Bionic Frog' after the nickname he got for climbing all over the barrels in the winery.
Baron (pronounced Ba-RHON) burst onto the scene with the 1998 vintage, making stunning Syrahs from vineyards he planted over old cherry and apple orchard land in Walla Walla. He now has 65 acres under vine on several very stony sites, colorfully named Cailloux (French for stones), Coccinelle (ladybird), En Cerise (cherry), En Chamberlin and Armada. Another site, on a steep hillside near the Walla Walla River, is staked out but not yet planted. The winery, which he calls his "studio," is adjacent to Armada.
There are some small sections of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Viognier and Grenache in his vineyards, but they are mostly Syrah. One surprise in the new vineyard is that it's all Grenache.
When I called to make an appointment to see Christophe, I got him on his cell phone in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. "What are you doing there?" I asked, and he responded, "Learning how to make better Grenache."
Back in Walla Walla, he shows me the vineyard and says, "Grenache is a totally different thing from Syrah. Syrah makes itself if you don't get in the way. These Grenache vines, I call them my bitches. Pardon my French, but they demand attention."
So far the best wine he has made from Grenache is a rosé, and like everything else about Cayuse, it's not ordinary. It's dry, cropped to the same low yields as his reds (2 tons or less), treated like Champagne, barrel-fermented (in neutral oak) and released two years after the vintage to his mailing list only.
"I want to show rosé is serious," he says. The 2005 vintage smells like wild strawberries, with a touch of orange peel on the nose and black olive on the finish. It's dry, but it has a sweetness to the fruit and texture.
The 2006 red Grenache, tasted from barrel, shows lots of spice, minerality and menthol overtones. It's very long, but there's a touch of bitterness on the finish that detracts from the fruit. Maybe future vintages will be better. He'll use what he learned on the trip to Châteauneuf, which relies mostly on Grenache for its red blends, and the new vines, which he is planting at close spacing (3 feet by 3 feet). First crop should be next year.
He also opened three bottles of 2001 Cayuse wines to show me how they are developing: Bionic Frog, which blew me away when it was young; Flying Pig, which blends Cabernet Franc and Merlot into a red that I loved from the start; and Camaspelo, a Cabernet Sauvignon that I have always admired more than liked.
Today, the Frog is still hopping happily, dense and deep, with all kinds of tar and black olive character swirling around a rich ball of blackberry fruit. It's complex and very long. 93 points, non-blind. The Pig still has a beam of gorgeous blueberry fruit, remains supple and refined, with a distinct minerality that has become the hallmark of Cayuse's wines. 94 points, non-blind. Camaspelo has a rich texture but its high level of brettanomyces puts me off. 83 points, non-blind, if you like gamy wines.
The winery "studio" is actually a big metal-clad shed that, from the outside, is indistinguishable from other orchard sheds in the area. Inside, it has some interesting winemaking equipment, including eight unlined concrete tanks he had specially built as vertical 1,300-gallon cylinders and 1,000-gallon ovals instead of the wax-lined rectangles usually found in the Rhône. He believes that the shape promotes more even fermentation temperatures, and that the concrete adds a subtle character of its own to the wine.
See? I told you he was a maverick.